On Thursday, June 26, I joined several hundred educators, parents and students who marched and rallied in Seattle, Washington, in protest of the Gates Foundation’s agenda for public education. The Educating the Gates Foundation event was completely grassroots, organized by local teachers active in the Washington Badass Teachers association. We rallied in downtown Seattle, where we heard from education professor Wayne Au and city councilperson Kshama Sawant. Then we marched through the streets to Gates Foundation headquarters, where we heard from United OptOut activist Morna McDermott. Seattle area teacher Susan DuFresne delivered several hundred teacher letters and a petition with hundreds more signatures to a Gates Foundation representative, from the Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates project. Then, on the sidewalk in front of Gates Foundation headquarters, I spoke. You can watch the video here.
Two years ago, in July of 2012, I came here and spent the day with members of the Gates Foundation education team. I did my best to convey the wisdom of classroom teachers, who understand that learning cannot be reduced to test scores, who understand that equity is not going to arrive as a result of standardized tests. [see the Dialogue with the Gates Foundation here.]
There is a growing understanding around the country of what the Gates Foundation has done to education. Just a couple of weeks ago an interview with Bill Gates was published in the Washington Post. A lot of us have been saying that the Common Core was really a Gates Foundation project. People said “you are some kind of conspiracy theorist.” Lindsay Layton actually had the nerve to ask Bill Gates “how did we get the Common Core?” And he told her, “well, I paid for it. They came and asked me ‘would you pay for it?’ and I said ‘sure, it sounds like a good idea.’” And I’ll tell you why he thought it was a good idea. It is because Bill Gates is all about measurement and markets. Measurement is the means by which markets are able to operate. In a business you have a profit and loss, you have a bottom line. The problem with our schools was there was no bottom line to open and close, or to declare schools bankrupt. So we got No Child Left Behind, and now we have the Common Core, to declare our schools bankrupt if they don’t raise their test scores. The reason we need to declare schools bankrupt is we need to disrupt the public education system - the democratically controlled, taxpayer-funded public education system, and replace it with profit-driven schools.
A few weeks ago Bill Gates had the nerve to go to the National Board teacher’s conference. A few years ago he said “the field of education doesn’t know much about effective teaching.” Because he believes the field of education needs the “science” that his tests bring. He went to the National Board teachers and he told them, “our classrooms are like electric sockets.” In the field of appliance manufacturing, appliances all rely on the same common electrical socket. According to Gates, our classrooms need to be standardized so that innovators can create appliances for our classrooms. In their view, the innovation comes from people who are making all sorts of devices. So what that means is our classrooms have to be standardized, our teachers have to be standardized, and our students have to be standardized. The only variable that is allowed is the learning systems that are all competing in this marketplace.
Bill Gates has it exactly upside down. The innovators are the classroom teachers. The innovators are the students. The innovators are the people working in the schools creating new things every day. We can use technology, but technology is not where we look for innovation. We look for innovation within the creative minds and spirits of the people who choose to spend their lives working with children.
When Bill Gates was asked about how much influence he has, he said his influence is “just a rounding error.” This is the same thing Arne Duncan has said about the Department of Education. But they have leveraged their billions to control the entire system. They have organized not only the Department of Education, but the Gates Foundation funds academic research, the development of curriculum, our unions, and anyone who will carry water for the Common Core these days. If you want a million dollars, write yourself a grant promoting the Common Core. The PTA is doing it, our professional organizations are doing it - anybody who has a name and a reputation that is worth something to the Gates Foundation, you can sell it if you are willing to.
Those of us here are not willing to sell our reputations. We are not willing to accept a profit-driven education system. Teachers and students are the front line of defense for the institution of public education in America. Educators are the ones that understand what is happening to our public schools. Educators are out in front, informing the public. And that’s our job. This rally is all about “educating the Gates Foundation,” but it really needs to be about educating the American public. The American public needs to understand that for teachers to innovate, to do the work that parents and communities want us to do, teachers have to have that autonomy. We cannot be driven by tests. We cannot be subject to the intense standardization in the service of free market profits.
Someone once said “teachers are like gardeners.” We create the conditions for learning in our classrooms. We are suffering from the equivalent of chemical pollution damaging the crop we are trying to grow. Michelle Gunderson recently wrote that when you are not interested in politics is when politics gets interested in you. Teachers are ready to defend public education. We need to rally with other allies, with labor and parents.
The fundamental issue is that corporate education reform is perpetrating a fraud on the American public. They are pretending that the source of inequity in our society is bad teachers. You don’t need to look inside our schools for the source of inequity. You need to look outside, where there’s unemployment, where our students are being put into a college pipeline that leads to debt, as the jobs they were promised are evaporating. And teachers are supposedly to blame. When the American public realizes that our democratically controlled schools are a foundation of our democracy, we don’t want it to be too late. So please stand with your local communities, stand with your parents, stand with labor, and especially the communities of color that are seeing their schools closed left and right, stand with people fighting the overwhelming growth of prisons and the school-to-prison pipeline.
They (the Gates Foundation) needs billions of dollars to try to carry public opinion. We don’t need billions of dollars. We need the spirit, the hope, and the careful education that every one of us can carry out in our communities. So please, go forth and educate!
What do you think? Should we standardize our classrooms and seek innovation from the marketplace? Or should we allow educators the autonomy they need to innovate?
Photograph by Michael Peña, used with permission.
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.