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The Power and Failure of Coercion

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by plthomasEdDFollow on Dailykos

When my daughter Jessica entered the same school system where I had spent my career as a teacher--my hometown school system as well--I was faced with the challenge of how to balance my role as her father with being a colleague of the teachers she encountered over twelve years. One incident from her years in high school has remained with me and speaks directly to the accountability era that has overlapped with my teaching career begun in the early 1980s.

Jessica's first high school English teacher had been a member of the high school English department when I was chair (I left teaching high school after 18 years and entered teacher education just before my daughter entered high school). Throughout my career as a high school English teacher, I had focused on teaching writing in authentic ways--emphasizing student choice, the writing process, and holistic approaches to literacy. My pedagogical commitments did not match most of my colleague's traditional views of teaching literacy--practices that essentially followed this pattern:

Assign a classic text to class, a text that was standard for all students in that grade.

Teach the students the authoritative interpretation of that text.

Test the students on the text and assign a critical essay on the text, an essay that repeated back to the teacher the authoritative interpretation the teacher had taught the students (who primarily never read the text).

This traditional approach to text and writing has remained standard in the teaching of English (especially during the accountability era), and it exposes the essential flaw with coercion in education--and when my daughter came against this in her high school experience, I chose to speak with the principal (also a former colleague as well as teacher of mine) instead of confronting the teacher herself.

My daughter and her classmates had submitted their first essays, a culmination of the process I outlined above, and the teacher had marked those essays, returned them, and then proceeded to walk the students through the essay on the overhead, directing the students to revise their pieces in a uniform way to produce the essay the teacher required. When I carefully explained that I found the practice to be doing far more harm than good for students, the principal responded with a comment that I consider central to what is wrong with the school reform movement we face today; she said, exasperated, "Paul, if the students can't do what they are told, how are they supposed to make any decisions for themselves?"

This principal, an educator and person for whom I have tremendous respect, sat there trapped in an ideology that resonates with most people in authority: Humans must suffer compliance in order to earn their autonomy.

My university colleague Nita Schmidt and I examined a central element in the accountability era driven by standards and testing--scripted teaching and learning. [1] While our focus was on literacy at all levels of K-12 education, we found that much of education policy and calls for reform was grounded in the same ideology expressed by my daughter's high school principal above: Education aimed at individual freedom and democracy was somehow supposed to spring from an education system in which teachers and students were mandated to follow tight scripts, were labeled by mechanistic tests, and were ultimately to be held accountable for their ability to be compliant.

Speaking within the current accountability era begun in the early 1980s, Freire (1998) warned well before No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the recent acceleration of accountability under President Obama:

"The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated. We are speaking of that invisible power of alienating domestication, which attains a degree of extraordinary efficiency in what I have been calling the bureaucratizing of the mind." (p. 111) [2]

Education reformers--such as Secretary Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee--as well as administrators, such as my daughter's principal, are trapped within authoritarian paradigms (as distinct from authoritative paradigms inherent in critical pedagogy [3]) that reflect, ultimately, a debased view of human nature and the teaching/learning dynamic within a commitment to social justice, human agency, and democracy.

Like the principal's sincere question above, one of the most powerful themes in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale resonates with me each time I address the fatal flaw of coercion in schooling and the lives of children. In Atwood's dystopian novel, the main character June/Offred speaks to the reader from beyond two distinct lives--one lived much as we view twentieth-century living as normal and one as an oppressed handmaid whose sole reason for living is to become pregnant in order to repopulate the dwindling Caucasian race within a theocracy sprung from a somewhat nebulous human-made apocalypse.

June appears to have been a compassionate and decent person in her normal life before the rise of Gilead; the reader has evidence that June loves deeply her daughter, leaves the necessary killing of the family pet to her husband, and clings to her love for her husband despite some undertones that fidelity between any couple is tenuous at best.

Well into her reduced life as Offred, however, the reader encounters a June who fantasizes about stabbing another human being with knitting needles and feeling the blood run warm over her hand. This chilling scene, narrated by June/Offred herself, is matter-of-fact and feels disturbingly reasonable in the context of her oppressed existence.

Atwood's narrative, although speculative fiction [4], dramatizes for us the essential failure of coercion as a central element of education. As Kohn has warned, authoritarian discipline and self-discipline [5] produce compliance, not challenging students:

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