Letters: US election; Exams and algorithms; Ballot school workers?

Submitted by AWL on 23 September, 2020 - 10:09
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Help defeat Trump

Socialists in the US should be trying to build a working-class campaign to throw Trump out of power. In the last six months the Trump Administration has moved decisively in the direction of open fascism.

Violent racist, transphobic and anti-left rhetoric was always part of his repertory. Since the start of the pandemic and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests that has stepped up decisively. Trump has effectively celebrated far right shootings of anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter protesters. He encourages followers to take up arms against BLM and Antifa. He is trying to designate Antifa a "terrorist organisation".

Trump has used the Department of Homeland Security far outside their juristiction as his personal paramilitary force to attack protesters.

He has tried to use the regular army in the same way, and only the Pentagon's reluctance has stopped that.

He is signalling active support for the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, which is giving a millenarian and apocalyptical edge to much of his support.

He is also actively trying to undermine the electoral process by attacking the US postal service and signalling that he will refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any defeat in the polls.

US federalism and the separation of powers blocks Trump from full power. So the US is not a fascist state.

However, that is only true at the moment. As long as Trump sits in the White House, events could conspire to break the deadlock in Trump's favour.

US workers, if they have any incipient sense of class-consciousness, will be trying to drive Trump from power by all means at their disposal. One of those means is electoral. That means voting for Biden.

Howie Hawkins is a trade unionist and a good hearted reformist. But he has no traction, even by the standard of recent Green Party or left candidates, because the US working class is in a epochal struggle against fascism and he is a paper candidate not even on the ballot in 20 states.

Down the ballot, socialist candidates should be voted, for not standard Democrats. However, the Presidential election will be won by Trump or Biden, a fascist or a bourgeois liberal.

Socialists should build socialist politics against Trumpian fascism; but they do need to recognise the seriousness of the situation by being honest that voting out Trump means voting for Biden.

Luke Hardy, Leeds

Descriptive, not algorithmic

Like Martin Thomas (("In defence of algorithms"), I strongly support action to dismantle the current system of high-stakes summative public assessment. Unlike him, I value the role of personal judgement in formally assessing students.

In his recent piece defending algorithms Martin writes: "But it would be bad, not good, for student gradings (for example) to be decided by personal judgements rather than by objective rules".

I think it's essential to retain such judgement when grading certain high stakes public summative exams, provided that judgement is undertaken in line with appropriate assessment criteria, is suitably informed, is buttressed by a process of moderation, and is open to appeal.

I can't see how in the creative arts, in English Literature, or (though the case may be weaker) in the Humanities, appraising a student's exam performance can be better done by attempting to eliminate the human factor, if the integrity of these subjects is to be retained. Assessment in these subjects requires the student not only to parade acquired knowledge and demonstrate security in following skilled procedures, but to organise and convey original thinking and express a personal responsiveness.

The extent to which a candidate's exam-performance displays these qualities can only be decided by interpretation and evaluation, not by "precisely-defined lists of instructions". No list of this kind can anticipate every student's response to such exam-questions or tasks as: "How successful was the 1945 Labour Government in introducing the Welfare State?" or "Make an artwork entitled 'Self Portrait'", or "Who or what do you blame for the death of Eva Smith, and why?"

It cannot define precisely enough what should or should not be rewarded in an answer. Only informed professional judgement can meet the case. Scope for judgement will be circumscribed by the wording of assessment criteria. But these work descriptively, not algorithmically.

An exam script which argues King Lear is a comedy must be weighed up for the case it makes, not given a low mark on the grounds that the play is tragic.

Patrick Yarker, Norfolk

Ballot the school workers over safety!

I agree with the London school worker who says schools should be considered an essential service. I am in favour of additional measures such as exempting children from the "rule of 6", keeping outside of school activities open even in otherwise hard lockdowns.

Given that children do not appear to get particularly ill with this virus and there is some evidence they are not particularly infectious, you could imagine a Covid strategy that allowed children to carry on much as normal even if harsh restrictions are placed on the adult population.

However, we are not in this situation. The government's priorities are elsewhere: encouraging the work-from-home section of the workforce back into their offices so they can spend in the high streets and maintaining millions of workers on the most precarious terms and conditions so that many cannot afford to comply with the isolation strategy.

It seems likely that we will be in a crisis similar to March 2020 before too long. The National Education Union (NEU) has already challenged the government on the timings of lockdowns and lockdown easings in May-June 2020 and with some success. They should prepare for the next episode of this battle by backing up their rhetoric with action. School workers seek to win a live national strike mandate where they can walk out on health and safety grounds under conditions where it is dangerous to work i.e. when the infection rate is high. If they are successful in winning a ballot then the point at which school workers use the strike mandate can be determined democratically.

To achieve this would require an agitation in schools. What would that agitation look like? The NEU should point to all the many failures and random innovations that the Tories have delivered: PPE, care homes, Eat out to Help out, Track and Trace. They should highlight the official government estimates that only 20% are complying with isolation strategy, that millions still do not have adequate sick pay, including some school workers. They should highlight that the government did not use the summer to implement the recommendations of the SAGE committee. These failures have not only led to the highest death rate in Europe but also created an environment where the virus is able to spread rapidly, meaning just two weeks into term many classes, year groups and schools are quarantining.

We have no faith in the government to do the right thing as the infection rate rises. The risk inside a school is largely determined by the risk outside the school. A live strike mandate would give school workers democratic control over when to walk off the job if the infection rate rises. It would be a powerful lever of workers control that may force government action on the many social measures we know would make schools safer.

Presumably there is little appetite from the NEU leadership for this industrial strategy but the increased NEU membership and large meetings in May-June this year suggest there might be an appetite among the rank-and-file. We will only find out by making the argument.

Stuart Jordan, London

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