Book Review: "The Educator And The Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges The Gates Foundation"
By Raghav Kaushik
10 October, 2015
There is a bipartisan consensus that public education in America is broken. We are told that America is being beaten by other countries that produce higher test scores. The crisis is supposed to be so profound as to threaten not only the US economy but also national security. The cause for the “dysfunction and disrepair” is claimed to primarily be the poor quality of teachers; further teachers’ unions are alleged to be an obstacle in the path to improving schools since they insist on a measure of job security for teachers hence making it hard to fire poorly performing teachers. As a result, the emphasis of the bipartisan (so-called) “school reform” movement has been to essentially mount an assault on public schools, in particular their teachers. The primary instrument of the assault has been to increase testing of students and insist on using test scores almost exclusively to evaluate not only teachers but also schools overall.
The effects of the above assault are visible, for instance in the school closings in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, the parallel increase in the number of charter schools, and the increased threat to teachers’ job security ranging from measures to reduce their bargaining power to straight out firing of teachers for failing to sufficiently raise test scores. But the most profound impact of the “school reform” movement has been to fundamentally change the discourse around public education in two ways. One is to entrench inequality into the system whereby schools performing well (as defined by test scores) are rewarded with greater resources and other schools are punished by withdrawing resources, the only difference between the two parties being in specifics of reward and punishment. Contrast the institutionalized inequality with John Dewey’s vision for public education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” The other is the institutionalization of behaviorist ideology. Reducing a complex process such as education to a crude test score and using the test score in a reward-punish paradigm for teachers and schools is classic behaviorism. The irony is that while the ideology is out of favor in the sciences, it is being invoked in the field of education in the name of science. (We emphasize that our issue is not with testing per se, but with high-stakes testing that is used in the behaviorist fashion described above.)
At the same time, the alleged “dysfunction and disrepair” does not hold up upon closer examination. Test scores in the US have been improving over time, and while it is true that America is lagging behind other countries, it does not follow that there is a fundamental problem with the public education system; much of the gap can be explained in terms of poverty. Child poverty in America is among the highest in the OECD countries with an increasing number of students receiving free or low-cost school meals. Public schools in wealthier areas of America rank among the best in the world. Furthermore, there is little correlation between test scores and the strength of teacher unions; the states that consistently have high test scores (e.g. Massachusetts) have the strongest unions and job protections, whereas many of the lowest ranking states do not.
We do not contend that public schools are fine the way they are. American education does need higher standards; teacher quality and curriculum do need improvement, and the inequality in the system needs to be addressed. However, it is our view that the assault that is currently under way intends to undermine the system of public education, not improve it.
One of the biggest players in shaping education policy is the Gates Foundation, which is the focus of the book. Whether or not one agrees with the views of the Gates Foundation, as a matter of logic, it should be clear that by spending inordinate amounts of money, the Gates Foundation is very influential in shaping the debate on education. There is little doubt that the Gates Foundation outspends all the teachers’ unions. Yet, coverage of the issue consistently presents philanthropy as benign, with no serious challenge to the politics behind the philanthropy, whereas teachers’ views are consistently emphasized to be political. The first contribution of the book is to correct the above bias by analyzing the Gates Foundation’s active role in the field of education.
The book then analyzes the ideology of the Gates Foundation. Gates’ intervention is founded on three principles:
1. Student outcomes must be measured
2. The measurements must be used as the primary means to evaluate teachers and hold them accountable, with measures ranging from merit-pay to outright firing of teachers.
3. Improved school quality via market-based competition
The book offers several critiques of the above principles. The first is to analyze the specific way in which principles 1 and 2 have actually been applied in practice. The clearest example in this category is the value-added method of teacher assessment where by monitoring student test scores from year to year, a statistical model is developed to determine the “value added” by a teacher. The idea has roots in agriculture and is used to assess for instance the value added by fertilizers to crop growth. It is applied to education by drawing parallels between on the one hand, crops and fertilizer, and on the other hand, students and teachers. The book cites studies that show conclusively that the value-added method as actually applied to teaching is highly inaccurate, e.g. teachers who add a lot of value one year add little value the next year, and even within the same year, the value added by teachers varies widely between different classes taught by them. Implicit in the above is a critique of a broader trend in society to treat numerical evidence as somehow superior to verbal evidence. Quoting from mathematician John Ewing’s critique of value-added models: “the most common misuse of mathematics is… mathematics employed as a rhetorical weapon—an intellectual credential to convince the public that an idea or a process is “objective” and hence better than other competing ideas or processes. This is mathematical intimidation. It is especially persuasive because so many people are awed by mathematics and yet do not understand it—a dangerous combination.”
A more fundamental critique of principles 1 and 2 is to identify them with behaviorist ideology. The essence of behaviorism is to frame behavior primarily as a response to external stimuli, from which it follows that behavior can be controlled by positively reinforcing some stimuli and negatively reinforcing the rest. Under a behaviorist view, learning is the acquisition of specific skills in a process that is linear and incremental. In fact, the biggest leaps in learning are highly non-linear and functions of intangible, unmeasurable factors such as attitude, curiosity, engagement and the ability to think out of the box. Imposing a behaviorist view on a complex social process such as teaching seriously distorts the educational experience, emphasizing only those factors that lead to improved measurements at the expense of the intangibles. One of the consequences of behaviorism is Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to measure.” The book convincingly cites various ways in which the above distortions take place by for instance encouraging teachers to “teach to the test”.
The book notes that the Gates Foundation is careful to distance itself from crude applications of its principles. For example, it recommends using value-added models as only one of multiple measures of effective teaching. However, such a defense is facile. As noted earlier, much of the funding in the “school reform” movement is by the Gates Foundation itself, making it hard to excuse the gap between principle and practice. Even setting aside the funding aspect, a set of principles can only be judged by how it is actually put into practice, not by some putative non-existent ideal implementation.
This leaves us with the third principle around market-based competition. Here, the book quotes Gates’ belief in “creative capitalism”: “We can make market forces work better for the poor if…we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities.” Public education in America is founded on the principle that education is a fundamental right, and the only way to realize a right is to make it the responsibility of the state. The notion of education as a fundamental right directly eliminates the market as a solution. As the book notes, markets place the issue beyond the democratic control of citizens making it impossible to guarantee rights, no matter how creative capitalism gets.
We conclude with a few comments about the style of the book. While it is a great read for those familiar with the background, it is not self-contained. Further, it is based on blogs written by the author; hence, many of the main arguments in the book need to be pieced together by readers rather than being laid out for them. Nevertheless, the content of the book is so compelling and the issue so important that it more than makes up for the stylistic shortcomings.
Raghav Kaushik is a software engineer working in Microsoft in Redmond WA, and is a member of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 37083 union. He has a PhD from University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Bachelors degree from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras.