Book review: “The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation” by Anthony Cody

This book was actually a choice of my wife’s. Jenni is an educator by training, and has a real passion for helping make schools a better place for students. She has witnessed some of the flaws in the system working at a struggling charter school in an urban area with a high population of minority students. In The Educator and the Oligarch, Cody Anthony, a veteran teacher, takes aim at one of the biggest players in education policy, Bill Gates.

The main argument in the book actually supercedes the topic of education. The thesis is that elites, such as Bill Gates, that represent the status quo have taken the reigns of reform to direct it toward their ends, effectively hijacking democratic processes. While you can hold a politician accountable in elections, you can’t hold a billionaire accountable for anything. Decisions are no longer made by the people, but by the few. This isn’t new. We just had one billionaire attempt to buy the democratic ticket, while the billionaire from the other party is already in the White House. But they billionaires-become-politicians aren’t the ones at the forefront of this book. These are more subtle because they paint themselves as agents of change. This theme was actually very familiar, because it was the thesis of Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World:

All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions. They believe that their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as if it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.

The initiatives mostly aren’t democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo– and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win– are the secret to redressing the injustices.

This sounds very familiar to Anthony’ Cody’s The Educator and The Oligarch but tailored to issues surrounding education policy:

As wealth has concentrated in the accounts of individuals such as the Gates, Walton and Broad families, they have used this to wield unprecedented power over the lives of those of us without access to such resources. They pay for research that creates the supposed “facts” which they then use to frame the public debate. They pay for their own media outlets, and heavily subsidize others. Their money redirects existing grassroots groups, and underwrites new ones. They work with ALEC to write legislation, and funnel money through PACs to buy off politicians to move this legislation forward across the country. They are utterly insulated from any sort of accountability. They do not face voters in any election. Nobody “evaluates” them. They cannot be fired. They may on occasion choose to engage in dialogue, but they are not obliged to respond to the substance of the criticisms raised.

While Cody takes issue with multiple aspects of Gates’ priorities in educational policy, the major tack is high-stakes testing for students, used to evaluate both the performance of students and the effectiveness of teachers. This also sounded awfully familiar, because it sounded like a more general problem outlined in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Change Our Lives by Tim Harford. Harford illustrates this problem beautifully with an example from the British National Health Service:

A target was first set in the 1990s. It was designed to improve how ambulance services respond to emergency calls. When an emergency call was made from an urban area, and the case was judged to be “immediately life threatening” the target became active: the ambulance service had eight minutes to get to the scene.

The unintended consequences soon began to emerge.

The most obvious was the outright lie. This lie became obvious if one plots the data for reported response times on a graph. The graph rumbles gently along, showing an even distribution of response times. And then something curious. The graph immediately starts to rise sharply at 7 minutes and 50 seconds, reaching implausibly high levels at 7 minutes and 59 seconds, and soaring further at 8 minutes exactly.

Such lies probably don’t matter too much: they will not be the difference between life and death, because they don’t affect what ambulance crews actually do. But other responses were not so benign– these were the ones that involved “gaming”, changing the behavior of the ambulance service in ways that made the target easier to hit but may well have harmed patients.

One problem was that “within eight minutes” turns out to be a poor substitute for “as soon as possible.”

Another serious piece of gaming involved the definition of “life-threatening” cases… The target gave an incentive to say that a call wasn’t urgent– because at that point they were spared from hitting the goal.

Ambulance services even changed their vehicles to flatter the target. Two paramedics in a single ambulance could be split and put onto motorbikes or even bicycles… but if the patients need to be taken to the hospital, then a bicycle will not do the job.

Finally, managers relocated ambulances to urban areas, where the targets were tougher to hit, from rural areas. The target wasn’t designed to favor the cities over the countryside, but it may have had that effect.

When you try to summarize success into one easy target, you get a whole host of unintended consequences. The same thing happens when you try to measure teacher success by the test scores of their students. Cody outlines a lot of these. Classrooms are restructured around tests, rather than on the long-term well-being of students (think Professor Umbridge here, this book is pretty much about Umbridge).

Good teachers can get bad test scores, and bad teachers can get good test scores under this system:

And these tests draw attention away from actual problems that need to be addressed to help students succeed. Anthony Cody points out that 60% of student success is determined by factors outside the classroom– the biggest one being student poverty– while less than 20% is attributable to the teacher. This isn’t meant to excuse bad teachers, but it shows that evaluating teachers based purely on test scores is like evaluating weathermen based on how many sunny days happen that month.

I care about public schools. I think they are foundational to our democracy. I attribute many of deepest moments of growth to my teachers. We shouldn’t sacrifice these experiences in the name of efficiency. I definitely would take up Cody Anthony’s challenge to Gates.

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