FSA (Again . . .) MRK III

A report from the Vancouver FSA meeting – Report Card

My commentary in response to the discussion on “The Report Card” about BC’s FSA.

There are in fact a number of ‘real’ issues here. As I see it they can be thought of this way (1) the specific issue of the FSA test itself, (2) the larger more abstract issue around the balance between classroom assessment/evaluation and an externally regulated system of assessment/evaluation, and (3) the differences between assessing and evaluating learning. There are also other issues that, while important, are less critical to me, which I’ll just skip over.

Of the three issues listed above I would suggest that the first and second are the most pressing. (1) The FSA has become a site of conflict between opposing viewpoints on education. For those arguing in favour of market mechanisms a la the late Chicago economist Milton Friedmen, having some kind of universally comparable quantity is critically important. It allows for the comparability of different cases or units (i.e. schools) and the convertibility of divergent variables to a few very easily read and understandable quantities (i.e. the Fraser Institute Report Card). For much of the period from the 1980s to the present the reviewed ideas of unrestrained market mechanisms as the natural’ and ‘best’ approach toward the governance of everything from social services and education and healthcare to art and culture have played a greater and greater role in managing our societies. So much so that even conservative economic thinkers are now saying that the pendulum of regulation has to start sweeping back toward greater government control before our current recession becomes a depression.

In terms of education, and by this I mean teaching and learning, the market mechanism has not proven effective. Just as Ms. T.A. suggests that teachers have identified parents as a powerful block to be used or manipulated to the teacher cause, so too have the anti-union lobby. Education activists who oppose teachers’ unions have championed the cause of parental involvement and parental choice as the lever by which they can unseat unions.

There is a body of academic and popular writing that juxtaposes parental involvement in decision-making against teacher unionism. Writers such as Mark Holmes and Edward Wynne are explicit in being “unsympathetic to strong union structures in schools” (Making the School an Effective Community. New York: Falmer Press, 1989:135). Members of this school of thought conceive of unions as using collective agreements “to advance a barrage of complaints, grievances and even personal attacks” (Holmes and Wynne 1989:134). Writers like Holmes are clear that their goal is to weaken unions and that one of the best ways to do it is through “the growth of private schools, particularly in combination with some form of state aid or voucher system” (Holmes and Wynne 1989:135). The same school of writers also advance the idea that increased parental control over school-based governance can also be used as step toward weakening teacher unionism. This approach has been clear in the current provincial government’s educational agendas. Two of their first education action were stripping the teacher’s contracts and creating an expanded (though seriously limited) form of direct parental governance through the School Planning Councils in 2002.

In all of this has stepped the FSA which then takes on a role far larger then it really is and the test, what ever it may be, becomes a flash point, a symbolic threshold that opposing political agencies and social interests struggle over. Nonetheless, to listen to the Ms. T.A.’s and the Mr. P. Corwley’s one would think that teachers’ unions really run the show. However, the empirical evidence of the last few years clearly shows that the teachers’ unions have been on the defensive and despite what their publicity may say have been losing most every battle that they have taken up.

There is some role for some sort of diagnostic evaluation of students that supports and supplements classroom assessment. The FSA, coming in at grade four is too little, too late. The FSA is more about a system wide control mechanism to ensure the compliance of the labour pool without investing the real resources in terms of in-service training, proper sized classrooms, adequate support aids, appropriate class sizes and in a context in which direct supervision and surveillance is too costly. Despite what the advocates of the FSA say publicly the evidence around the test would suggest that it really has nothing to do with authentic educational practices that work for our children.

(2) This moves me to my second point –finding the balance between classroom assessment and evaluation and externally regulated assessment and evaluation. Many of the debates and arguments in the above section apply here but in this point I want to move to a more abstract level and to try and disassociate the argument from the specifics of BC’s FSA.

Having the capacity to compare across large groups of different students, schools, districts, and regions is a useful tool. It allows us to check and control for socio-economic disparities, to address local problems or errors, and to identify exemplary practices (once one factors out confounding effects).

Having instruments that are independent of classroom assessments and evaluations can be useful (in my opinion) if they are designed to complement in class teaching and learning. If they are designed as a form of incipient or covert surveillance then we will find our selves in a conflict situation.