Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What could a Canadian Syriza do?

It has been so inspiring to see the Greek people reject austerity and vote in a government committed to radical change. And what is so radical about Syriza? They want to do something pretty much no other government on the planet has committed to: put people first.

Given the drastic impacts of the austerity program imposed on Greece, it is not surprising to see people so fervently reject yet more of the same. One quarter are unemployed, and of those still with work, average earnings have plummeted. It is frightening to imagine one’s own household with one lost job and the other wage down thirty percent. No wonder in these conditions the Greeks are now measuring statistics such as who can no longer afford electricity to heat their homes. 

It is early days for Greece, and no doubt there will be disappointments along the way, but how refreshing to see this morning’s news: they are halting the sale of the state owned port, and stopping plans to privatize their power corporation.

For most Canadians, austerity has not been so drastic - yet. But it has been hard to have much hope in a country where child poverty is on the rise, wages are stagnant or falling, public services are clawed back and privatized, and the only hope on offer from government is the false promise of oil wealth by degrading our environment. 

I am happy that the federal NDP has finally put out a few platform proposals that are genuinely progressive - a promise for $15/day childcare and an increased federal minimum wage. But this comes after two decades where the NDP, like its European social democratic counterparts, has pretty much bought into the "austerity light" form of social democracy. And even these proposals are being accompanied by the usual soft right policies supposedly meant to attract a centre-left electorate. Just today they announced a plan to give small businesses a tax break, which economists say will mostly help families earning over $150,000 a year. What little the NDP has put on the table is, frankly, too little too late.

Imagine instead what a Canadian Syriza could do? Here’s my starting list:

Sound crazy? Every one of these ideas has been proposed by not so radical people in some part of the country. What we don’t have is a political party articulating them as policy.

Many look to the NDP to be that party. I don’t think that will happen. After many attempts, such as the New Politics Initative of the early 2000s, I don't believe it is possible to change the NDP from within. And interestingly, that isn’t what happened in Greece either. The traditional social democratic party, PASOK, supported austerity until they were so unpopular they collapsed. It took a new party, built on the strength of anti-austerity activism, to put a genuinely social democratic agenda on the ballot. Spain is following the same trajectory, with the incredible rise of the brand new Podemos party, built on anti-austerity left wing politics, and rooted in social movements.

Now I don’t happen to believe that Syriza, or any social democratic party that doesn’t challenge the underlying contradictions of capitalism, will ultimately succeed in creating the world we need. But unlike the Blairite practices of most social democratic parties in the west, Syriza is a step in the right direction. 

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