FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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: hagopian.jesse@gmail.com  

 

More articles by:
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
Gary Leupp
When Did Russia Become an Adversary?
Uri Avnery
“Not Enough!”
Dave Lindorff
Undermining Trump-Putin Summit Means Promoting War
Manuel E. Yepe
World Trade War Has Begun
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Stomps Britain
Wim Laven
The Best Deals are the Deals that Develop Peace
Kary Love
Can We Learn from Heinrich Himmler’s Daughter? Should We?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Franklin Lamb, Requiescat in Pace
Weekend Edition
July 13, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Brian Cloughley
Lessons That Should Have Been Learned From NATO’s Destruction of Libya
Paul Street
Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of Formula and Honey
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s Intellectuals Bow to the Queen of Chaos 
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail