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'Occupy Education' Debates the Gates Foundation (and Wins)

Jesse Hagopian

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

The chants of some 150 teachers, students, parents and Occupy Seattle activists reverberated off the windows of the global headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – a leading promoter of a corporate brand of education reform—announcing we were ready for our scheduled debate about the schools as part of a national call to "Occupy Education" on March 1st.

From Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland, California, to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., Occupy activists schooled the nation with experiential learning demonstrations with 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, many of the event 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 simply 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 taking on the JV team; 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 Gates Foundation PR spokesperson declaring that he believes in the right of every students to receive a quality education and that some of the statements that were made during our rally mischaracterized the Foundation—without giving an example of what it would take to get a quality education for all students or explaining what Occupy got wrong.

Wayne Au, former high school teacher, editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, and education professor at the University of Washington, spoke next on behalf of the Occupy education delegation, challenging the foundation on its record of supporting charter schools even after a Stanford University study showed that they underperformed public schools. Professor Au then took on their support for standardized testing, which recently helped to push the Washington State Legislature to pass SB 5895 which mandates that test scores be used in teacher evalutations, and explained how such tests force teachers to narrow the curriculum to the 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 which mandates the failure of students is an invalid measure.”

"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 reply from PR spokesman for the Gates foundation suffered from a common mistake of a rookie on his 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, taking notes from a certain smart aleck in my fifth period who has used the strategy against me, I asked a question that I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer to sully his image in front of everyone: “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 class-room know-it-all strategy: declare victory against authority.

“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 graft scientific management models used in assembly line production onto the classroom by Taylorists and eugenicists—the pseudo scientists that believed intelligence is genetic and that whites were biologically superior to other races or 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 demand were designed by racist pseudo-scientists 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.”

The SAT exam, for example, was developed by Carl Bringham—the Army psychologist and racist eugenicist who used WWI data to declare that whites born inside the United States were the most intelligent of all peoples and 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 the “post racial” era where it is passé to espouse racist ideas. Sadly, American society today—from the prisons to the schools—is dominated by institutional racism. The purpose of standardized tests are the same as they were then: to categorize, sort, and rank black students, students of color, and working class kids at the bottom, while demonstrating the intellectual superiority of the wealthy and white students who score better on the tests. However, that white students score better on the tests is not a comment on their superior aptitude to students of color and low-income students, but rather of their advantages—private tutoring, books in the home, parents with more time to read to their kids, coming to school healthy and more focused, and tests that are created to reflect the values and norms of an affluent, white society.

Today, the Gates foundations 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 voiced into the bullhorn to the Gates policy analysts,

"One thing about value added is that there is plenty of evidence to show that it 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 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 where you have in the same year many teachers who were rated good and then in the same year under a different metric, rated terribly. You can look at Bruce Baker’s study. This shows that when we use tests—even if its only part of the evaluation—it’s a real, real problem.”

The foundation that represents the richest man on earth had no response. Professor Au’s schooling left them speechless and you can be sure it wasn’t because they were the shy kids in back – they clearly had just not 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 simple input-values are used to measure the workers’ (teachers) efficiency at producing commodities (students). Our vision for education reform advocates a holistic education that includes teaching skills of leadership and social responsibility and assess students’ ability to collaborate with peers, reevaluate assumptions based on new evidence, or defend well-reasoned positions on current events—all things that can’t 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 one 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. in education. Does he have the qualifications to speak for me? I say no.”

When it comes to education, the popular occupy chant gets the math problem right: “Ninty-nine to one—they don’t stand a chance!”

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher in Seattle, and the author of the forthcoming book, Teach Truth: The Attack on Critical Race Theory and the Struggle for Antiracist Education. Jesse is editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Black Lives Matter at School, a campaign organizer for the Zinn Education Project's "Teach the Black Freedom Struggle," the co-editor of the books, Black Lives Matter At School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, Teaching for Black Lives, Teacher Unions and Social Justice, and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing. His blog,

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