Education and Employability in Neoliberal Times

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Transcript of Education and Employability in Neoliberal Times

Work-Ready Testing: Education and Employability in Neoliberal TimesRichard Lakes Georgia State University, Atlanta USA

Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, vol.9. no.1

Abstract Work-ready is used to measure employability levels among the working classes. This is the neoliberal era of human capital accounting, and global business pins its profits and losses on worker knowledge and job skills. Employers do not believe that school-based curriculums are capable of properly preparing future workers; and the paper diploma is viewed by most employers as meaningless when gauging human capital potential for waged labor. Foundational workplace literacy skills are considered essential for success in acquiring a first job in shrinking labor markets. Public policymakers promote work-ready testing as a tool to weed-out future workers who fail to engender positive work habits and dispositions as well. Testing vendors are contracted for the purpose of certifying employability levels of career-bound students. Driving this reform movement are the domesticating narratives of strategic business competitiveness. Yet the discourse of employability testing is tied to the allocation of jobs in scarce times, and further indicates the failure of global capitalism to provide quality work for all.

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Introduction Neoliberals have turned their attention to work-ready testing in an attempt to sort future labor. Academic diplomas or grades mean little to employers when making hiring decisions, instead relying upon school-based formal assessments to evaluate future workers on both basic literacy skills and work habits. This technocratic approach sits well with policy reformers intent on implementing tests for employability. The public schools have moved away from democratic visions of what it might mean to be an educated person or how a citizen thinks and acts as a member of a community. Elements of critical literacy are absent in but a few progressive classrooms (Ross and Queen 2010). One would expect to find those teachers engaging in problem-posing exercises around real-life considerations of unequal power relations between workers and corporations, the substance and conditions of various collective bargaining agreements, social and labour market conditions, and the labour market treatment of underprivileged workers (Hyslop-Margison and Sears 2006, 139). Apple (2006) and Hursh (2007), among others, claimed the ultimate goal of neoliberalism is to convert educational systems into markets, and as much as possible privatize educational services. This development is well underway in the form of publicly-supported vouchers for private school tuition, highstakes standardized testing, public and private charters, scripted curricula, the deskilling of teachers, alternative teacher training, outsourcing of tutoring, the elimination of teachers unions, and in general the underfunding of public education (Hill and Kumar 2008).

Saltman (2007) offered an important contribution to the analysis of neoliberal imperatives with his study of schooling in New Orleans and Chicago, and the educational plans for post-war Iraq. For example, privatization schemes in New Orleans have resulted in termination of many unionized teaching and non-teaching personnel and support staff. After the Hurricane Katrina flood waters receded, the state of Louisiana seized the citys public schools and fired all district employees, then rehired a smaller corps of teachers and staff, and reopened some public schools and a limited number of charters. With an unspoken desire not to welcome those flooded-out back into the city, the recovery plan was dictated by the urban cleansing dreams of an economic and racial elite, Saltman (2007) wrote; who noted now that the storm has done the clearcutting, the dream of the field of economic competition can be built (60). Instead of improving the citys schools, however, a neoliberal reality of post-disaster capitalism set-in, ushering forth a

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business-inspired voucher plan to disperse poor black residents from the city into the Gulf Coast region. These practices are part and parcel of a calculated land-grab by realtors who eyed the potential profits to be amassed in urban renewal and gentrification of so-called blighted property.

Transnational corporations already are advantaged by the multibillion-dollar worldwide markets in schooling, as seen in the testing and textbook publishing industries, among instructional technology vendors, and in the food preparation and cleaning services, to name a few. Spring (1993) noted that the testing industry is driven by the profit motive, in the hands of a few major firms, and always on the watch for new ways to increase their markets. Houghton Mifflin foresaw a market potential of $1.6 billion in delivering their tests electronically, and for $16 million acquired Computer Adaptive Technologies of Evanston, Illinois (Sacks 1999). There are standardized tests for wine tasters, baseball umpires, plumbers, ballroom dancing instructors, Bible scholars, and art collectors, wrote Sacks (1999) in a book about the national obsession with the culture of testing. Yet standing behind the illusion held by most employers that such exams can sort the capable from the incapable (170) is the testing industry that sells the mythology one can measure a persons job readiness or work-related performance abilities. Technological advancements in desktop computing include paperless, Internet-available examsthe latest growth area in the lucrative testing industry. There are billions of dollars in revenue to be accumulated from selling and administering educational tests, and these firms are positioned to work in concert with governments and educational reformers. At committee hearings on federal policy, in 2009, the CEO from the Pearson Assessment and Information group offered that his global firm could deliver newer online evaluation technologies to capture annual data needed to measure high school students college and career readiness using benchmarking tests (Kubach 2009). This is the case of elite stakeholders influencing public policy and governance. Businesses and corporations not only collaborate intimately with state actors, Harvey (2007) clarified, but even acquire a strong role in writing legislation, determining public policies, and setting regulatory frameworks (which are mainly advantageous to themselves) (76-77).

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With the fear and uncertainty of continuous employment in times of job scarcity, neoliberals essentially police the working classes through a variety of disciplinary techniques. Quality working life under neoliberalism has become more conditional, temporary and uncertain, with valued good-paying jobs reserved only for those who have managed their biographies appropriately. What has resulted in post-Keynesian times is a shift from the systemic notion of full employment into the neoliberal model of contingent or casual work, meaning the focus is upon individuals to self-manage their lives for futures of mobile and uneven employment. According to Garsten and Jacobsson (2004) the term unemployment has taken on a new understanding: formerly what came to be seen as a social risk and a collective responsibility has morphed into risk management now increasingly something expected from the individual (8). As for the term employability, they continue, it now denotes the capacity of individuals to adapt to the demands of employment. This requires skills enhancement, continuous learning and also, according to one discourse, showing the right attitudes (initiative, flexibility, availability) (8). Neoliberal governments wean citizens away from welfare provisions altogether by re-narrating unemployment or unemployability as widespread dependency on the state due to a weak and defective character. Under new times the economic fates of citizens within a national territory are uncoupled from one another, and are now understood and governed as a function of their own particular levels of enterprise, skill, inventiveness and flexibility (Miller and Rose 2008, 96).

The next section will describe the work-ready tests offered to working-class youth in secondary schools and postsecondary community and technical colleges, and to disadvantaged or unemployed youth or adults in the public sector employment and training system. A succeeding section will explain the national work-ready certificate.

The Test An employability assessment system has been implemented in the states, using a national evaluation instrument named WorkKeys, a product of American College Testing, Inc. (ACT). ACT delivers workforce assessments worldwide, one of the major testing firms in this lucrative market. Founded in 1959, the company created a uniform entrance exam for students planning to attend college nationwide, the central product of the company until they diversified into

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workforce development three decades later. Their global division was created in 2005, with field offices in Australia, China, Korea, Singapore, and Spain. As a private not-for-profit enterprise with 1,500 employees ACT reinvests revenues back into the corporation through its executive and senior management pay scales and 12-member board compensationclaimed to exceed the CEO and director salaries in most other non-profit organizations (Rood 2007). ACT is headquartered in the state of Iowa, and not required to pay federal income taxes due to its designation as an educational institution.

Since the late 1980s WorkKeys has been used to measures levels of workplace literacies and work habits (WorkKeys 2009). This work-ready test provide