We are at one of those intersections again. Public school teachers, principals, and superintendents often are.
Billionaire so-called philanthropists like Bill Gates, who actually use their money to buy big leverage, have made a push to take over public education and standardize it so that large-scale money can be made easily nation-wide by technocrats who know little about actual education.
Educators can either look the other way, or we can resist, remind society of the truth, and recover true education process for our students.
A pivotal book in the effort to resist educational dystopia
Enter Anthony Cody, public school teacher, writer, and owner of his own independent blog Living in Dialogue. In his latest book, The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, Cody describes a series of exchanges that he had with Gates Foundation staff over education “reform”. It didn’t go well for the Gates folks.
Long-time friend Dr. John Thompson has written a very good review of the book here, as well as for several other publications. It serves as a good starting point to getting into Cody’s book.
Cody goes much further than some education writers on the topic of education “reform”. I highly recommend this book, not just for your interest, but as a guide on the worst-case, and very possible scenario for an education dystopia in America if Gates and other billionaires like the Waltons get their way.
Imagining dystopia – then and now
Imagining dystopia in America has been mostly the preserve of those on the political and cultural Right over the decades.
Atheist and guru of the far Right in America, Ayn Rand wrote several novels in the 1940s and 1950s that have become more gospel to many on the Right than, well, The Gospels of the Christian faith.
Her vision of a dystopian welfare state has become a rallying point for fear-mongering by those who would dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even publicly controlled schools. That type of dystopia has never materialized, though, except in the fevered brains of those who control Fox News and radical shock jock radio.
The real threat of dystopia, however, seems to be from developments of huge corporations that truly control most of our lives even now. We don’t even have to wait until the near future. They have immense money and political influence right now since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. We seem to be more on the way to the alternative fiction dystopia of The Hunger Games than the Randian Atlas Shrugged.
Gates is leading us to education dystopia
The earlier parts of this book were familiar since I have been following Anthony Cody’s warnings for some time now. But for me, “Part III: Gates Education Dystopia” was the hardest hitting in the book.
Part III describes Gates ideas of using the same sensor bracelet technology that we see only used for work-out and health enthusiasts today.
Gates contends that galvanic bracelets worn by each student can give data managers a treasure trove of just exactly when and how lessons are hitting their mark with each individual student. Hundreds of data points can be collected on each student and then fed into computerized systems that deliver machine-made lessons to those same students.
Constant video surveillance of the classroom would give visual clues that would match up with sensor bracelets worn by each student. Teachers would be more like tech support departments are today, solving occasional problems and making sure that no one has tampered with or removed equipment.
Cody makes a break-through observation that is the best of the book when he digs deeper into the meanings and inherent weaknesses with Gates’ fascination with measurement and machines. After quoting one author who makes the point that we are constantly having to adjust ourselves to work with computers that are more limited than we are, he says about machines, data, and data managers in education:
We can only manage what we can measure, we are told by our managers. So in order to improve the students who graduate from our schools, we must define learning in terms of measurable outcomes. As we shift to using computers to do this measurement for us, these outcomes are more and more defined by the ways computers can “understand” what our students can do.
Isn’t this what we are hearing right now with VAM and with A-F grading? It is. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count. It just isn’t important.
But Cody gives us a long list of things that are important but not easily measured by machines: creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, etc.
Real, human teachers can and do take measure of those and many other non-data-point skills and abilities every day. And we adjust our teaching accordingly.
Dystopia within sight
And this is where we already see dystopia on the horizon with large charter school organizations already taking over urban districts around the country.
As states take over school districts of big cities populated mostly by the poor due to state and local policies intended to isolate them, charters have arrived offering “scientific” ways to teach the poor that they say will be superior to the old publicly, democratically, controlled schools that they replaced. But their own measures made to make them look good don’t even show that is happening.
Instead, what we are seeing are investor-owned charter schools that use old-style worksheets, drill and kill exercises, and teaching straight to a test designed for that particular teaching.
It is an effort to see just how little can be spent on the poor and still make money for the corporations that do it with minimal effort and little concern for the long-term outcome.
They have a hyper focus on silence, obedience, and compliance. No need for data points there. It is social engineering for control by the 1% rather than learning anything that would equip students to grow up to meaningfully engage in a democracy.
Defend true teaching — don’t comply
Anthony Cody nails our situation in education right now with Gates and other billionaires buying the time and efforts of politicians, big media, and many former-teacher-now-consultant hired guns to promote his agenda.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we have been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
We teachers just can’t keep from seeing the positive possibilities of those around us. It is in our nature to give people with even the most evil intent a fair hearing when they have not earned it or if they have already used it up.
I argue that this takeover by the data miners can be disrupted by educators in each state demanding this:
- Local control of school districts
- Complete state control of standards and tests
- Non-standardization of education nation-wide
True educators cannot afford to forget how education can be when it works. And it works when we have real relationships with our students that is not intentionally interrupted by those who want to sell us their time or machines to justify their capturing the taxpayers money without any real accounting for it.
That’s why some of us continue to speak through protest, writing, singing, and demanding to be heard sometimes through a union, sometimes in other ways.
Those who try to tell us to sit down, shut up, and comply for any reason are wrong. Remember that.