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Occupy Education v. the Gates Foundation


“Gates Foundation, you will fail! Education is not for sale!”

The chants of about 150 teachers, students, parents and Occupy Seattle activists reverberated off the windows of the global headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announcing that we were ready for our scheduled debate as part of a national call to “Occupy Education” on March 1.

From Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., Occupy activists schooled the nation with “experiential learning” demonstrations that had the instructional objective of making education a right for the 99 percent, not a privilege for the 1 percent.

In Seattle, when our spirited march for education arrived at the Gates Foundation, a leading promoter of corporate education reform, many of the organizers were as nervous as kids before a high-stakes test–not because they doubted the validity of challenging one of the biggest backers of charter schools and standardized testing, but because many expected a no show from the foundation that they would have to chalk up as an unexcused absence.

As it turned out, the wealthy foundation sent three poor souls to debate the Occupy movement.

I should admit from the start that it wasn’t a fair competition–something akin to the varsity team taking on the JV squad’s second-stringers. In our corner, we had people who have attended public schools, taught in public schools and are parents of kids in public schools. All they had were policy analysts and public relations specialists.

The “throwdown” began with the p.r. spokesperson declaring his dedication to the right of every student to receive a quality education, but that he disagreed with our rally’s characterization of the Gates Foundation. He never offered any vision of what it would take to get a quality education for all students, nor did he specify what Occupy got wrong.

Former high school teacher Wayne Au, an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and education professor at University of Washington, spoke next on behalf of the Occupy education delegation. Au challenged the foundation for its record of supporting charter schools even after a Stanford University study showed they underperformed public schools.

Au then took on the foundation’s support for standardized testing, which helped pressure the Washington legislature to pass a law mandating the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. Au went on to explain that such tests force teachers to narrow the curriculum to tested items.

Then he set the hook: “If all the students passed the tests you advocate, that test would immediately be judged an invalid metric, and any measure of students that mandates the failure of students is an invalid measure.”

The reply from the Gates foundation spokesperson was crippled by a mistake worthy of a rookie on the high school debate team: He failed to address any of the points the opposition raised. The spokesman retorted, “We think that testing should be part of multiple measures, and not the only judge of student performance.”

At this point, I couldn’t help but enter the debate. I grabbed the bullhorn and, deploying a tactic a certain smart-aleck in my fifth period once used against me, asked a question that I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer, just to tarnish his image in front of the crowd: “How did standardized testing enter the public schools originally?”

“I’m not the person to answer that question,” he replied.

It worked. So I moved on to phase two of the classroom know-it-all’s strategy: declare victory against authority. I offered:

I consider this debate a victory for our side, if they do not know how and why standardized testing entered the public schools in the first place. As a history teacher, I find it insulting to come to a debate about education and not know the history of how testing entered the public schools. I can break it down about it being part of the eugenics movement.

As Wayne Au explains in his book Unequal By Design, standardized testing entered the public schools in the early 1900s as a way to bring scientific-management models used in assembly-line production into the classroom. The “scientists” in charge of marrying Taylor’s strategies for industrial regimentation to the education of children were adherents of the early 20th century school of eugenics, which is the view that intelligence is genetic, and that whites are biologically more intelligent than other racial and ethnic groups.

Au writes:

Looking back to its origins in the eugenics movement, standardized testing provided the technological apparatus for the functioning of the production model of education…It is no coincidence that I.Q. testing, eugenics and standardized testing all become prominent during the same period.

The point I made to the Gates Foundation policy wonks was this: While they claim to be part of a 21st century civil rights movement for education, advocating policies they insist are specifically designed to close the achievement gap, the standardized tests they insist are central to their project are designed by racist pseudoscientists of the early 20th century. As NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois wrote:

It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [First] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put Black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.

For example, the SAT test was developed by Carl Brigham, an Army psychologist and a figure in the eugenics movement. Brigham used data collected during the First World War to “prove” that whites born in the U.S. were the most intelligent of all peoples. He also found the “evidence” showing that immigrants were genetically inferior.

Contrary to the assertions of corporate education reformers who claim to be crusaders against the status quo in education, there is nothing innovative about advocacy for standardized testing. It is merely the repackaging of eugenics for a “post-racial” era in which it is “passé” to espouse racist ideas, and yet American society–from the prisons to the schools–is dominated by institutional racism.

The purpose of standardized tests today is the same as it was then–to provide a way to categorize, sort and rank students. These tests “prove” that some students–Black students, students of color generally and working-class kids–belong at the bottom, while simultaneously demonstrating the intellectual “superiority” of the wealthy and white students who score better on the tests.

But while white students may score better on such tests, such scores don’t actually measure what standardized testing boosters say they do. These tests don’t prove that white and wealthy students actually have superior aptitude compared to students of color and low-income students. They measure social advantages–private tutoring, books in the home, parents with more time to read to their kids, children who come to school healthy and more focused. The tests are created to reflect the values and norms of an affluent and white society.

Today, the Gates Foundation advocates for so-called value-added tests to pinpoint a teacher’s contribution in a given year, by comparing current school-year test scores of their students to the scores of those same students in the previous school year, or to the scores of other students in the same grade. But as Professor Au explained by bullhorn to the Gates policy analysts:

One thing about value-added is that there is plenty of evidence to show that it is absolutely unstable as a measurement. If you use one year of test scores to evaluate a teacher, you have a 35 percent error rate. That’s error rate–not even taking into account the validly of measurement. If you use three years of test scores, there is a 25 percent error rate to measure teacher effectiveness. That’s a one in four chance that you could be rated as poor instead of effective…

High-stakes testing is so volatile from year to year, teacher to teacher. As we see with the New York City case, you have many teachers rated good, and then, in the same year, rated terribly using a different metric. You can look at Bruce Baker’s study. This shows that when we use tests–even if it’s only part of the evaluation–it’s a real, real problem.

The foundation that represents one of the richest men on earth had no response. Professor Au’s schooling had left them speechless, and you can be sure it wasn’t because they were the shy kids in back–they clearly just hadn’t done their statistics homework on value-added testing.

Occupy Education made it clear that day that we will not allow billionaire flunkies to remake our schools in the image of a production line, where stopwatches are used to measure the workers’ (teachers) efficiency at producing commodities (students).

Our vision for education reform advocates a holistic approach to education, including the teaching of leadership skills and social responsibility. We need to assess students based on their ability to collaborate with peers, to reevaluate assumptions based on new evidence, and to defend well-reasoned positions on current events. None of these things can be neatly quantified by standardized tests.

We believe that real education reform would equalize the resources of our schools, demand culturally relevant pedagogy and assessment, lower class size to provide the individualized attention that students deserve, and support the most effective form of assessment that has yet to be devised, one that can adjust to every child, evaluate results quickly and make appropriate changes in instruction–the human educator.

The most important point of the debate was made by a parent who locked eyes with the Gates Foundation representatives and demanded to know, “Why should Bill Gates’ views matter to me as a public-school parent? I actually have a B.S. degree in education. Does he have the qualifications to speak for me? I say no.”

When it comes to education, the popular Occupy chant got the math problem right: “99 to one–they don’t stand a chance!”

Jesse Hagopian is a public high school teacher in Seattle and a founding member Social Equality Educators (SEE). He serves on the Board of Directors of Maha-Lilo—“Many Hands, Light Load”—a Haiti solidarity organization.  Hagopian is a contributing author to the forthcoming book, Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (Haymarket Books).  He can be reached at:  


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