The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation by Anthony Cody (New York: Garn Press, 2014).
Though this book may have been sparked by an exchange between an experienced science teacher (Anthony Cody) and the Gates Foundation on Cody’s blog for Education Week, “Living in Dialogue,” and on the Foundation’s blog, “Impatient Optimists,” it is much more than an exploration of differences between the representatives of oligarch Bill Gates and an education advocate. It’s an impassioned plea for the removal of education from the influence of business models, influence that began, perhaps, thirty-one years ago, with publication of A Nation at Risk. Perhaps even further back.
Whenever it began, this influence has blurred distinctions between what should be widely separated arenas of society. The book is an argument against this influence of “reformers” who, coming out of free-market and corporate mindsets, ignore the real and distinct needs of effective education in a democracy. Cody writes:
Here is the deeper problem with Gates’ model for educational reform. It is built on a vision for social change that asserts that in order for the needs of the poor to be met effectively, the drive for profits must be unleashed.… In Gates’ view, the way to meet the needs of the poor is to make it profitable for corporations to do so. The simple fact that a drive for profits is far more often the source of poverty than a solution to it has escaped him. (169)
The needs of education must be kept as far from concerns for profit as is humanly possible. Otherwise, as Cody indicates, poverty, the greatest of all impediments to education, never will recede. In almost every aspect of education, the desire for profits impedes education rather than assisting it.
I know: What I have just written opposes the prevailing free-market “reform” narrative of contemporary America, the one that says that the profit motive is best for everything, even in education. But that narrative is fiction–and fiction of a sort that should never influence the raising or teaching of children. Furthermore, it is detrimental to the very idea of democracy. As Cody writes, “All of these ‘reforms’ undermine the democratic control of our public education system, and wherever possible, shift control into testing companies, private ventures, or individuals subject to corporate influence” (170) thus reducing preparation for participation in democracy and making the goal of education the making of money:
One problem with turning education into a hotbed of entrepreneurship in that many advocates of “reform” also stand to make big profits. In this environment, it is hard to tell if the objective is better outcomes for students, or simply more dollars on the bottom line. (102)
This is a problem in more ways than one might imagine. For one thing, it leads to “innovation toward commercially viable solutions for those unable to purchase the sort of personalized education the wealthy choose for their own children.” This leads to a concentration on the measurable (counting has always been central to the quest for profits) and exacerbation of our two-tier system of education for, as Cody continues, “Measurement in education will not serve the poor. It will merely make the schools attended by the poor more efficient in preserving their poverty” (146) and continuation of models for schools in poor areas that will never equal those in richer ones.
But this is not the necessary narrative nor the way things have to be. Cody says:
In the years to come, we can choose to conform to the most efficient ways to organize our work and the process of education, so that to cost the least amount possible, while delivering the technical skills required by the employers who still require human labor. Or we can flip the paradigm, and organize our schools and our lives to serve the full development of children as human beings. (141)
That’s the purpose of his book, to encourage that flip. To restore education to the Deweyan ideal: “Our public schools are one of the cornerstones of democratic life in our country. They exist not only to provide opportunity for individual students, but also as a common resource, in which we invest as community members.” (104) As sources for profit, they can never be that.
There’s a new movement in American education. It’s not simply one of teachers pushing back against the “reformers” but of students and parents who are waking up to the hijacking of their schooling by slavish concentration on standardized testing, of school administrators who are seeing their roles reduced to rote, of politicians who are deciding that money from the American Legislative Exchange Council cannot equal the satisfaction of serving–and bettering–their communities, and of the true believers in democracy across the nation (from all sides of the political spectrum, as opposition to the Common Core State Standards shows) who resist centralized educational “outcomes,” seeming them as means for “groupthink,” not learning. All of them are asking, with Cody, “Instead of schools having as their purpose turning out identically machined parts, what if they existed to find out what a given child is going to be good at doing?” (87), making education focus on the individual and not on the mechanical.
These are people who know that, for all of the demonization of teachers:
The real “serious work” being done in education is not taking place in think tanks and research facilities. It’s being done in classrooms in communities that are experiencing real and profound trauma. Yes, teacher evaluation ought to be all about reflection and growth. A great start would be to create the conditions that will make that growth possible, and to stop obsessing over test scores and measurement systems. (73)
It’s all about learning and progress–for teachers, too.
The irony of this movement is that it is unintentionally real and in reaction, in part, to attempts to create a “reform” movement of real widespread support that is intentionally fake but with a semblance of reality. Cody quotes Irvin Scott of the Gates Foundation: “We’re trying to start a movement. A movement started by you. A movement you’re leading.” (32) Maybe Scott and the other “reformers” did, but it is not the movement they imagined nor one they can control. After all, “Nationally, we have endured a decade of the most misguided, intrusive education reform ever” (90) and people are now demanding something better.
Cody argues that “We need to re-examine our goals, and realize that our schools are not ecosystems walled off from the economy and society. They are porous places, and we must have strong connections with the needs and challenges of our communities” (94). Schools operate within communities, reflecting them. They cannot be changed effectively unless change in the community is also initiated.
What it comes down to is that education operates best on the most personal level possible, and that needs to be reflected in how we view the classroom:
Great teachers know their students and make every effort to communicate on a personal level with them as individuals. They communicate not just information, but also concern, compassion and encouragement. They find ways to build students’ confidence in their own abilities. (130)
The Educator and the Oligarch provides a strong overview of the issues facing k-12 education in America today, as strong an overview as one is likely to see. For the millions appalled by the steamroller “reform” agenda that has been flattening education for more than a decade now, it is a heartening publication. Though we are still in the dark days with the “reformers” continuing in the ascendant, there are signs (like this book) that the situation may soon start to change.