Pedagogy of Fear

Elisa Waingort posted a nice short essay by Morna M. McDermott yesterday over at Cooperative Catalyst that I'd like to share and briefly comment on.

In her essay "Pedagogy of Fear," McDermott, a professor of education at Towson University, says that public education is being driven by fear. NCLB, standardized tests, school closures, scripted curriculum, and psycho administrators drive teachers away from thinking about how to best meet student needs and toward compliance with mandates that are often made thousands of miles from where the pedagogy interacts with students' minds.

As a result, McDermott points out,

"Common sense is losing ground everywhere. I have teachers tell me how so many of their students don’t get the material of a particular subject, and while common sense would dictate that they circle back and re-teach (or better yet, teach differently) that material until the students “get it” that they “must” move on in their curriculum because the calendar in the guide tells them they must. Is this really leaving no child behind?…. Really?"

Many education commenters have noted the shock doctrine's role in advancing today's version of "reform." David B. Cohen makes an excellent case for why their narrative both works in their interest and is unfounded. 

The pedagogy of fear helps destroy the beautiful thing that could be education. I've seen it myself in so many of my colleagues. Rarely do any of us sit down to discuss the things that made us excited to be teachers in the first place. Often, we all sit down and talk about the ways policy constrains us.

During a visit I made to a private school in Denver last November, one of the teachers there confided in me that he moved out of public education because he didn't want to be a bureaucrat. The comment struck me. I'd never thought of myself as a bureaucrat before, but he's right - I am.

I think the effects of this pedagogy of fear and ultra accountability we're seeing of late in public education are best expressed by Sue Hemberger writing about DCPS:

"Often, the attempt to idiot-proof a process involves imposing a formula designed to produce a consistent result. When this approach is successful, that result is reliably better than incompetence but generally falls far short of excellence. And the task has become sufficiently de-skilled that no one who aspires to excellence wants any part of it."

I lose sleep worrying over the future of my profession. What competent, dedicated professional wouldn't knowing they were being forced into a box by people who'd never been in their position? 

Fear indeed.


  1. I love the Sue Hemberger quote.

    No competent educator (let alone one that strives to be more than competent) wants to settle for mediocrity.

    But you have two choices: succumb to the expectations of the flawed system and receive your S from the admins that be, or close your door, make the choices you think are best for your students and hope that you make the right decisions. One slip (or set of bad test scores) and you will be exposed for the rebel that you are -bad teacher, thinking you knew how to teach students without your DOE website! - and you are either on the shit list or marked unsatisfactory.

    A U isn't the worst thing in the world. Unless you like and believe in your job. Oh, and you want to eat.


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