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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 1, September 2004

The World Education Forum

by Jacqui Birchall

This, the third World Forum on Education (WEF) is called "Education for a Better World." Activists from 44 countries are crowded into the Estadio Gigante, in Porto Algre, Brazil. Political chants ring out from university students in one part of the stands. The opening ceremonies fail to materialize. Someone starts the "Let’s go" hand clap, and everyone takes it up. At last, the lights dim, and classic, folk, and samba dancers accompanied by wonderful orchestras and singers provide a dazzling display. (All the performers are local elementary and high school students.) Politicians brought in to open the ceremonies are booed and finally the serious debates begin.

Debates are led regarding the individualistic logic that sees education as a commodity that can be sold. The forum examines who has access to knowledge in the globalized world, whom the information society has privileged, whom it has excluded, and ways to deal with the issues. We need to think of a new world where the struggle for education is based on humanitarian, ethical, social principles that defend our right to life. This event is designed to internationalize the WEF and to create guidelines for a World Education Platform to guide the considerations concerning education the world over as well as to be a reference for policies, programs, plans, and projects related to every level of teaching.

The program provides the theoretical, philosophical, and political bases for writing the guidelines. It is also intended to mobilize institutions, governments, networks, and social movements to participate in the debate; to allow the exchange of information among educators, researchers, social-movement members, NGOs, and students; and to share educational experiences that are based on the educational democratization process with the idea that "another world is possible."

The three major plenary sessions are Education beyond capital, Knowledge, power and emancipation, and Solidarity, democracy and peace–another world is possible. As well, some 79 smaller workshops occur. One that I attend and enjoy very much concerns the dangers and effects of GATS, NAFTA, etc., on public education. Led by Steve Stewart, of Co-development Canada, a B.C. NGO closely aligned with the BCTF, and including a presentation by Larry Kuehn, director of the Research and Technology Division at the BCTF, the workshop includes presenters from Mexico, Argentina, the U.S.A., and Ecuador. The workshop also investigates the effects of the neo-liberal assertion that standardized tests are important and relevant. How, one presenter asks, can standardized tests measure the ability of students to be critical thinkers? Standardized tests make the companies that create the tests wealthy. In the U.S., the companies that prepare such tests are then able to compete globally, winning international rights to provide standardized tests to developing countries. They win the right to do this because they have already been overpaid to provide such irrelevant testing in the U.S. and they can easily outbid indigenous companies vying for the same contracts. Thus, the standardized testing of such G8 powers as the U.S. is then able to make further inroads into the cultures of others.

How does the right succeed, and what can the left learn? There are four dominant groups now in power in the world.

1. The neo-liberals believe public is always bad and private is always good. Standardized tests are essential to neo-liberals so they can tell the good schools from the bad. They favour a national curriculum and a test to measure teachers.

2. The neo-conservatives enjoy cultural struggles in favour of dominant groups. The "Real America" for instance, is the battle cry of neo-conservatives in the U.S. The neo-conservatives believe in the control of national values.

3. The conservative evangelicals such as George Bush believe that capitalism is God’s economy, and one must not deal with race, sexuality, etc.

4. The new professional middle class has dominated education. This group believes that cultural capital is the measurement of capital, that educators must show they are competent through results and more testing, more often, and that if it moves in the classroom, it must be measured.

All of these beliefs will disempower those who already struggle for and in education.

We teachers must join the fight to keep education from becoming a commodity in the NAFTA, etc. We should become very aware of what is happening to our education in B.C., where we have a neo-liberal government willing to ruin what has been achieved over decades.

If you would like to learn more, check out the IDEA Network, (Initiative for Democratic Education in the Americas), at www.vcn.bc.ca/idea, e-mail the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York at ccage@pscmail.org to receive copies of the publication Globalization, Privatization, War: In Defence of Public Education in the Americas.

To learn more about the World Forum on Education, check out their web site at www.portoalegre.rs.gov.br/fme/interna.asp?mst=5.

The World Social Forum takes place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 26 to 31, 2005. This very important conference provides space for discussion among civil society actors dedicated to alternative globalization. Go to this multilingual web site www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/home.asp.

Jacqui Birchall is a teacher at Fraser Heights Secondary School, Surrey, and a member of the BCTF’s International Solidarity Committee.

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