Anybody paying attention to school reform in recent years knows the power that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has wielded with its ability to play a leading role in driving the reform agenda by distributing mountains of cash to every sector of the education world. Veteran educator Anthony Cody has been questioning the role of the foundation on a blog, Living in Dialogue, that he wrote for some time on Education Week, and now as an independent Web site. He even engaged in a discussion with the foundation about its role in school reform. Now Cody has written a book titled, “The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges Bill Gates,” in which he explores the foundation’s influence on education issues and whether that has been good or bad for the public school system.

Cody taught in high-poverty schools in Oakland, Calif., for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He is the treasurer and a founding member of the nonprofit Network for Public Education.

Here’s a Q&A I did with Cody (over e-mail) about his new book:

Valerie Strauss: The title of your new book is intriguing, “The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation.”  What is the challenge?

Anthony Cody: In my book, I share a series of challenges that I posed to the Gates Foundation, and to Bill Gates himself. The real challenge we face is that which the Gates Foundation states it has taken on — how to make our society, and our education system, more equitable. However, when I look at the approach they have taken, I see some basic problems. Their approach has been to pursue standardization and the metrics of test scores in order to put market forces in the driver’s seat in education. This has had very bad effects on students, who are not at all standard, and on teachers, as well. I challenge them with the understanding I gained in my 24 years working in Oakland, where I came to understand the sort of collaborative environment we need to foster growth among teachers.

One of the problems with the Gates Foundation is that they have had an almost unlimited source of funding over the past decade. And they are conducting a large-scale experiment with the children of the nation. Nobody voted for them to do this. They use the power of their money to pay for research, to pay organizations to support their agenda, and this undermines democratic decision-making, especially in communities that, due to poverty, lack effective political power.

I have no great wealth, no real access to political power. I am a retired science teacher with a blog. I saw the effects their agenda had on the schools in Oakland and across the country, and I challenge them to take a closer look and see what is happening. See what happens when you increase class sizes, as Bill Gates suggested. See what happens when you tie teacher evaluations to test scores. See what happens when your policies ignore the very real effects of poverty. See what happens when you attempt to “personalize” instruction by the use of computers instead of human beings. I am one teacher, but as more and more people realize the experiment we have all become unwilling subjects of, more will join me in challenging this oligarch. Because money may give you the power to do all this, but might does not make right.

V.S.: Can you be more specific about the “large-scale experiment” you say the foundation is conducting? What has Gates money paid for in recent years that has affected students and teachers?

A.C.: The term “experiment” comes from Bill Gates himself. In a 2008 interview, he spoke of how his foundation was investing in districts with strong mayoral control. [See video here.] Here is what he said:

There’s a lot of issues about governance, whether it’s school boards or unions, where you want to allow for experimentation, in terms of pay procedures, management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe the majority of teachers and voters will be open-minded to these new approaches. And so, we have to take it a step at a time. They have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation [emphasis added].
The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things. And we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned. We need to make more investments, and I do think the teachers will come along, because, after all, they’re there because they believe in helping the students, as well.

The policies that the Gates Foundation was promoting in these three cities were the same ones they were able to get turned into federal mandates through the Race to the Top and NCLB waivers. That is why the federal government now requires states to adopt “college and career ready” standards such as the Common Core, include test scores in teacher evaluations, and demands that limits on charter schools be lifted as a condition of funding.

Unfortunately, a report came out from the Broader and Bolder Initiative last year which shows that in the very cities the Gateses spoke of in such glowing terms, market-driven reform has failed to deliver any results, in spite of the full embrace of the Gateses’ vision. (See here.)

In scientific research, if one is conducting an experiment and clear negative effects are observed, the experiment is discontinued. I think this experiment has run its course and should be ended before more damage is done to our schools and children who attend them.

V.S.: There are a lot of foundations investing in education “reform.” Why write about Gates?

A.C.: There are certainly other books to be written about the roles other corporate foundations in education, but the Gates Foundation has become the elephant in our classrooms. Through their strategic investments in research, journalism and advocacy, the Gates Foundation has purchased a sort of consensus among the powerful in terms of what must be done to improve schools. Their agenda has become the agenda of the Department of Education, and many large school systems have embraced the direction they have set.

Take a look at the major trends in education reform. We have the Common Core, paid for by the Gates Foundation. We have charter schools rapidly expanding, with very little regulation, actively promoted by the Gates Foundation. We have a dramatic rise in the number of tests and the consequences for those tests, for both students and teachers, again, a high priority for the Gates Foundation. We have billions being spent on educational devices, which is being called “personalization.” Gates and his foundation are not the only ones promoting these trends, but the Gates Foundation has been particularly strategic and systematic with its investments and placement of key leaders.

I also found it fascinating to focus on the words and thinking of Bill Gates. Here is one of the wealthiest people in the history of the world, and he has more influence on education policy than anyone — perhaps even than the president. Why has he decided that test scores can serve to overcome inequity? How does he see market forces working to improve schools? How can he reconcile what is happening to the economy with his stated goal of improving the lives of the poor? I explored what he has said and written and found a window into his thinking. His model has worked well for him in business — but what are its limitations when brought into the field of education?

Lastly, I have found it remarkable that an education reform project built around the concept of “accountability” has no mechanism, no means by which we, the public, can hold its sponsors accountable. We have “bad teachers” who must be held accountable. Schools and students that must be held accountable. But Bill Gates himself? Who holds him and his employees accountable for the devastating effects their reforms have had? My dialogue with the Gates Foundation was an attempt to bring that responsibility to their attention — but it did not seem to get the point across.

The Gates Foundation came to our schools with money that had so many strings attached that nearly everyone has become their puppets. We need to cut those strings so that our schools and teachers can regain their autonomy.

V.S.: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching this book?

A.C.: I have been listening to what Bill Gates says and what he writes for a while. His discussions of education are strongly informed by the idea that market forces will generate competition and innovation, which will lead to better outcomes for students. But there is a sort of a box built around the education system that keeps everything contained within the realm of the school and defines student outcomes in terms of test scores. Gates’s education reform work rests on a huge assumption that increased test scores equals more learning, and sending more young people to college will expand the middle class. Therefore I was surprised when, in a moment of candor, in an interview last March at the American Enterprise Institute, Gates said this.

Well, technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses… It’s progressing. And that’s going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set.  And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

This corresponds with a study I saw this year that suggests that in the next 20 years, 45 percent of the jobs of today may be eliminated by technology.

When I see the remarkably low pass rates for the Common Core tests, which apparently are low by design, this makes me wonder if there is some sort of rationale being created for a two-tier society — those who have passed the tests and proven themselves “college and career ready” and the rest, who have proven themselves unworthy of such opportunities.

The surprising thing to me was that Gates acknowledged that capitalism is creating more inequality — and he seems to see this as an inexorable historic trend. And likewise the substitution of technology for human labor as time and technology move forward. I see corporate reform as creating a false meritocracy that attempts to cover up these trends, and to rationalize the stigmatization and economic marginalization of those unable to pass ever more “rigorous” tests. It is unlikely anyone will ever acknowledge this to be the case, but I think Gates’s comments about the growth of inequality and the replacement of drivers and nurses — perhaps teachers, as well — give us some indication of where we are headed in the absence of a strong social movement in a different direction.