Monday, January 12, 2015

Standardized testing: a pillar of privatization

It's FSA season again. Every year in British Columbia, every student in grades 4 and 7 has their regular classroom schedule put on hold for two weeks while they complete the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) -- a collection of standardized tests mandated by the provincial government.
Every student, parent, teacher and citizen should oppose these tests. There is a litany of reasons for this, but top among them is the role standardized tests play in the very destruction of public education itself -- by privatizing a public service. Masquerading as a test for system quality, they are in fact an instrument of system change, and not change for the better. 
The origin and rationale for standardized testing dates back to the cold war. As early as the 1960s, the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), funded with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, was promoting the use of standardized exams for comparison of states and districts. The so--called "need" for testing was ramped up in the infamous report A Nation at Risk, published by the U.S. government during the Reagan administration in 1983. The report insisted that America's schools had to do better to fend off the Soviet threat.
As an international phenomenon, testing was promulgated by the OECD in the 1990s. It developed the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, as a way to measure member states and compare their education systems. Since this time, member states of the OECD have been only too happy to comply. State-wide testing was mandated federally in the US through the notorious No Child Left Behind act. BC has the FSAs. Ontario the EQAO. 
BC's province wide standardized exam system has been in use since 1974, but it has changed over time. The first testing program, administered in grades 4, 8 and 12, was called the Provincial Learning Assessment Program (PLAP), and was a replacement of IQ tests. The results of the PLAP were not published but rather used internally for curriculum review and to manage the school system. But in 1984 the BC government decided to publish the results of Grade 12 provincial exams and by 1998 the Fraser Institute published its first ranking of BC schools. In 2002 the BC Liberals abolished the school accreditation system altogether and now relies on Accountability Contracts from each school district to ensure school quality. These documents, produced by school boards, in turn rely heavily on FSA test scores and are of dubious quality. All FSA results are now routinely made available by government on their web site and the Fraser Institute publishes rankings annually. Media outlets gleefully report on the best and worst schools.
Thus the FSAs, like standardized testing in many jurisdictions, has morphed in the last half century from a mechanism designed to internally review the quality of an individual education system, to a comparison tool to rank schools and districts.
The changes that took place are not accidental. They are part and parcel of the usual fare of neo-liberalism: deregulation, defunding, market based provision of services, and privatization.
How does this work? In today's BC school system, a parent can pick up the Fraser Institute rankings and use them to choose a school. Because we no longer have closed school boundaries based on neighbourhoods, they can register their child in the school of their choice. As their child progresses, they have access to a litany of special programs, such as Sports Academies and International Baccalaureate, many of which provide enhanced services through additional fees. Of course it is some parents choosing to do this -- typically immigrant families and low income families simply send their children to the neighbourhood school. Many districts are therefore experiencing a form of "white flight" out of inner city schools.
If you were Milton Friedman, one of the intellectual architects of neo-liberal policy, you would look at this happily as a variant of what he called school vouchers. Acknowledging that even in the free-est of markets, the state has a role to play to ensure basic literacy levels, he advocated that all parents receive a voucher for their state education allowance with the ability to use it at the school of their choice. Now admittedly in Friedman's world, these schools would be privately administered, but the mechanism for parent choice (testing and ranking), the market of schools, and the additional resources provided through school fees all mimic the Friedman model. The virtual school voucher is the provincial funding that follows a child to attend the school of their choice. 
The US has taken the testing craze a few more steps. Not only do they have an insane battery of tests (at least two every year from grades 3 - 8), but they have attached high stakes to these tests so that every aspect of the school system becomes "accountable" to a test score. If a school does badly, close it. If a teacher doesn't improve student test scores, fire the teacher. If universities graduate new teachers whose students do badly, shut down the teacher preparation school. 
Unfortunately, the test scores mostly reflect one thing -- the socioeconomic status of the student writing the test. The inevitable result, therefore, is that it is poor (and disproportionately black) students who are losing their teachers and losing their schools. It is no accident that the first jurisdiction to have no public schools remaining at all is New Orleans.
We can learn from our neighbours to the south, where a growing anti-test movement is sweeping the country. We have the opportunity to scrap the testing and ranking before it completely takes over our public school system. If you are a parent, please withdraw your student from the FSA. If you are a teacher, please work with your colleagues to encourage parents and others to refuse to take the tests. If you are anyone else, work with teachers and parents to end the testing mania and advocate for a school system administered by and for the public.
This article has also appeared on my blog

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Badass Book Review: The Future of our Schools, Teachers Unions and Social Justice by Lois Weiner

Badass Book Review: The Future of our Schools, Teachers Unions and Social Justice by Lois Weiner

Since the massive public sector upsurge in the 60's and 70's, teachers unions in the US have been in a long steady decline in power. Only very recently, with the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, have we seen any resurgence in teacher union power. Why is this?

Weiner presents an overview of the pitfalls of teacher unionism and what teachers can do to revive their organizations. For any teacher anywhere, frustrated by the untenable working and teaching conditions we now face, this book is essential reading. She describes the project well in a way any teacher can relate to: "The best way to explain what the union should be is to describe what it should not be, which is like most schools: hierarchical and paternalistic." Sound familiar?

Weiner herself has a long tenure in the teaching profession and with teacher unions. She therefore brings real expertise to an analysis of the history of teacher unionism in the US and the prescription for more effective unions. Key to her understanding is a focus on rank and file activism and social unionism. While she is using US examples and history, the global nature of the education reform movement means that her arguments are really relevant for any teacher, anywhere.

Social unionism is a type of organizing philosophy that contrasts with another historic trend - business unionism. In Weiner's approach, social unionism has two key elements. The first is  to adopt a set of issues and bargaining objectives that reach beyond traditional "bread and butter" demands like wages and pensions. This has traditionally meant objectives such as smaller classes and more recently the fight against standardized testing. She argues, rightly, that in a public sector context, these bridges with the community are essential to creating the social power necessary to win. Weiner writes, "One essential change from what occurred in the 1960s and 1970s is that we must now reach out to allies to ask how they think the union might use its legal and political power, including the right to negotiate legal agreements, to improve schools....It's critical that teachers understand that we are in a greatly weakened position, and parents, students, and community activists are being courted quite seductively by our opponents."

If you are a teacher in the BCTF, you might think we already do this - we are a social justice union. But I believe Weiner is arguing for a more organic and connected form of working together. While we have, in BC, approached bargaining with a view to improved learning conditions, we have not seriously engaged with some objectives that are clearly a high priority for parents, such as playground equipment and seismic upgrades. We have instead sought out parents as allies to our objectives.

The second critical component to social movement unionism (which I think distinguishes it from social justice unionism), is the requirement to have grass-roots, rank and file activism and democratic control of union decision making.

"Often union members assume someone else - anyone else - will run the union, and it will, somehow, continue to exist. Their perception and passivity are supported by the leadership's conception of the union. Perhaps without realizing it, members and leaders accept the "service model" of unionism that predominates in US labour. In this model, sometimes referred to as "business unionism," the union is run like a business and exists to provide services including lower rates for auto insurance; benefits from a welfare fund; pension advice; contract negotiations; and perhaps filing a grievance. Officers or staff make decisions on the members' behalf. The union as an organization functions based on the assumption (generally unarticulated, unless it's challenged) that paid officials know best about everything. They're supposedly the experts. Often they conduct negotiations in secret, reporting  back only when a tentative agreement has been reached. Then members have the legal right to vote on whether the contract should be approved. But other than voting on a contract and electing officers every few years, members are passive."

I'm sure this description speaks to many trade unionists, not just in teacher unions but throughout the labour movement. And while there may be aspects that are more or less true in any given union, we need to be always reminding ourselves and encouraging as much member democracy as possible in every situation. This is not just about fetishizing democracy, it is actually needed to create powerful unions that can win.

Finally Weiner touches on a number of issues that can divide us, such as race and gender, and focuses on some that are very particular to teaching. One is the "nurturing" aspect of teaching, and to what degree teacher unions should "defend schooling's social purposes and teaching's nurturing aspects". The social union perspective guides her conclusions: "The struggle to create schools that are caring makes teachers allies of parents in creating places in which we want to teach and children want to learn. Putting forward an ideal of a caring school reframes the debate about our working conditions, explaining our needs as workers and professionals in human terms."

Given the struggle we are in to defend public education and to push back on corporate and privatizing reforms, this book is a timely guide on how to revitalize our unions so that we can not just stop the tsunami of neoliberalism, but actually make gains and improve our schools.