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  • A Hypocritical World Bows A Little More Deeply to Workers' Rights

    by Randall Garton on October 6, 2010

    What to think? The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) last week approved by "consensus" the creation of a "Special Rapporteur" on freedom of association and assembly. Special Rapporteurs are empowered to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions to human rights problems. In this instance, the Rapporteur will review members’ compliance with a UN resolution on these fundamental rights.

    The first reaction to this development, of course, must be skepticism, leavened with deep suspicion. The UNHRC’s membership is usually heavily weighted toward nondemocratic states which routinely infringe on citizens’ right to freedom of association and assembly, including many nations with a majority Muslim population. As a result, the Council, formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has a long record of pursuing any and all human rights allegations against Israel with single-minded fury. So, when such a body, with such a disgraceful record, creates a Special Rapporteur on any subject, it necessarily sends a shiver down the spine.

    Still, it is interesting. What makes the resolution intriguing is that Russia, China, Cuba, and Libya – who love to grandstand at the Council – opposed the Special Rapporteur and "disassociated themselves" from it, though they chose not to upset the "consensus" applecart by calling for a vote. Their objections make interesting reading. To sum up, they are all for freedom of assembly and association (sort of). They just don’t need some UN guy snooping around, raising questions, talking to people, and writing reports. Even worse, if they don't cooperate with the snooper, he’ll write a report about that.

    Well.

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  • Talking About But Not Learning From Finland

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 5, 2010

    Finland’s education system has become an international celebrity. Their remarkable results are being trumpeted, usually in the “What can we learn from them?" context. Yet a lot of the recent discussion about what we can learn – as far as concrete policies – has been rather shallow. 

    Right now, the factoid that is getting the most play is that Finnish teachers come from the “top ten percent” of those entering the labor force, whereas U.S. teachers don’t. But without knowing the reasons behind this difference, this fact is not particularly useful.

    Although there has been some interesting research on these issues (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), I still haven’t really seen a simple comparison of Finnish vs. American policies that can help us understand what they’re doing right (and perhaps what we’re doing wrong). I am not an expert in comparative education, but I have assembled a few quick lists of features and policies. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we do everything Finland does, and cease doing everything they don’t. It's very difficult to isolate the unique effects of each of these policies. Also, more broadly, Finland is small (less than six million residents), homogeneous, and their welfare state keeps poverty and inequality at one of the lowest levels among all developed nations (the U.S. is among the highest).

    But if we are going to learn anything from the Finnish system, it is important to lay out the concrete differences (I inevitably missed things, so please leave a comment if you have additions).

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  • Performance-Enhancing Teacher Contracts?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 1, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    Please check out our two other posts (here and here), which present summaries and discussions of the actual evidence on the relationship between unions and test scores.

    For years, some people have been determined to blame teachers’ unions for all that ails public education in America. This issue has been around a long time (see here and here), but, given the tenor of the current debate, it seems to bear rehashing.  According to this view, teachers unions negatively affect student achievement primarily through the mechanism of the collective bargaining agreement, or contract. These contracts are thought to include “harmful” provisions, such as seniority-based layoffs and unified salary schedules that give raises based on experience and education rather than performance.

    But a fairly large proportion of public school teachers are not covered under legally-binding contracts.  In fact, there are ten states in which there are no legally binding K-12 teacher contracts at all (AL, AZ, AR, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TX, and VA). Districts in a few of these states have entered into what are called “meet and confer” agreements about salary, benefits, and other working conditions, but administrators have the right to break these agreements at will. For all intents and purposes, these states are free of many of the alleged “negative union effects."

    Here’s a simple proposition: If teacher union contracts are the problem, then we should expect to see higher achievement outcomes in the ten states where there are no binding teacher contracts.

    So, let’s take a quick look at how states with no contracts compare with the states that have them.

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  • Walmart To South Africa?

    by Randall Garton on September 29, 2010

    South African unions are rightly disturbed at prospects that anti-union retail giant Walmart will move big time into their country. Walmart executives have announced a $4.6 billion bid for South Africa’s Massmart, an important, unionized company.  Massmart Holdings Limited operates more than 290 stores in Africa, most of them in South Africa

    "We will oppose the setting up of any Walmart stores in the Western Cape," a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said. "These companies are notoriously anti-union and anti-workers' rights."

    Probably thinking of the three weeks of tumultuous strikes that recently swept the country, Massmart leaders hastened to reassure COSATU that its intentions, and the intention’s of Walmart, were strictly on the up and up with regard to its employees and their union. In this context, the company placed the following statement on its website:

    We are committed to the principles of freedom of association for our employees and regard union membership as an important indicator of this commitment .… We have no doubt that Walmart will honour pre-existing union relationships and abide by South African Labour law. 
    The statement cited the comment of a Walmart vice-president, who said that his company hoped for a “continuation of the relationship that Massmart has with relevant unions in the country."
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  • Lazy Librarians And Other Privatizing Tales

    by Randall Garton on September 28, 2010

    Where’s Laura Bush when we need her? While the country’s most renowned ex-librarian is enjoying retirement in Texas, there’s a company abroad in the land quietly privatizing public libraries and trashing librarians while they’re at it.

    In a recent New York Times article, we learned that public libraries, a sacred, respected public institution if ever there was one, have joined police and social service agencies in the outsourcing gunsights. The article cites Santa Clarita, California, where city officials have voted to turn their financially healthy public library over to Library Systems & Services, LLC (LSSI). LSSI is a national library outsourcing firm, which is now the fifth largest library system in the country, having privatized public library systems in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas.

    Why privatize a healthy system? Well, in the article, the Santa Clarita political leaders say it’s to "ensure the libraries’ long-term survival in a state with increasingly shaky finances." And how will LSSI do that? Frank J. Pezzanite, LSSI CEO has "pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees."

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  • Three Questions For Those Who Dismiss The Nashville Merit Pay Study

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 27, 2010

    The reaction from many performance pay advocates to the Nashville evaluation released last week has been that the study is relatively meaningless (see here and here for examples).  The general interpretation: The results show that the pay bonuses do not improve student achievement, but short-term test score gains are not the "true purpose" of these incentive programs. What they are really supposed to improve, so the line goes, is the quality of people who pursue teaching as a career, as well as their retention rates.

    While I disagree that the findings are not important (they are, if for no other reason than they discredit the idea that teachers are holding their effort hostage to more money), I am sympathetic towards the view that the study didn’t tackle the big issues. Attracting the best possible people into the profession – and keeping them there – are much more meaningful goals than short-term test score gains, and they are not addressed in this study (though some results for retention are reported).

    But this argument also begs a few important questions that I hope we can answer before the Nashville study fades into evaluation oblivion.  I have three of them.

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  • Standing Up For The Rights Of Others

    by Randall Garton on September 27, 2010

    "...part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others..."   - President Barack Obama

    In an extraordinary speech at the United Nations last Thursday, President Obama asserted his leadership and the leadership of the U.S. in the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. Think that’s a "no news" story? You’d be wrong. The Bush administration’s effort to frame the Iraq invasion as an effort to bring democracy to the region has had the effect of linking traditional U.S. democracy promotion to military intervention in the minds of many people, in the U.S and abroad. And, although Mr. Obama campaigned in support of democracy promotion, his administration has approached the issue cautiously. In fact, the administration has been criticized for backing away from a tough democracy and human rights line in its bilateral relations, especially in the Middle East and China. Moreover, although he promised to increase the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy, in his first budget, the President actually proposed a funding reduction, but in the subsequent compromise legislation, signed off on a small increase.

    In this context, apparently anticipating a skeptical reaction to the speech, the White House released a "fact sheet" outlining activities and initiatives to illustrate its commitment to promoting democratic ideals.

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  • Remorse Code (Or Comments From A Crib Strangler)

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 24, 2010

    Those who publicly advocate for the kind of education policies put forth in "Waiting for Superman" are now seeing the equivalent of a letter-high fastball down the middle. They can wait on it and crank it out, using the buzz created by a major motion picture to advance the movie’s/campaign’s arguments at face value. I'm a little late on this (at least by blog standards), but over at Fordham’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli saw this fastball, yet instead of unloading, he sacrifice bunted the runner into scoring position for the good of the team.

    Responding to an interview in which Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, claims that charter schools have "cracked the code" on how to educate even the poorest kids, Petrilli warns against the hubris of thinking that we are anywhere beyond first steps when it comes to fixing urban schools. He points out that charters like KIPP benefit from selection effects (more motivated and informed parents seek out the schools), and that the degree to which these schools have actually "closed the gap" between poor and affluent schools has been somewhat oversold. Petrilli also notes that while some of these schools seem to have "cracked the code," there is still little idea of how to expand them to serve more than a tiny minority of poor kids.

    Thoughtful comments like these should remind those of us who care about expanding quality education that, although we may have canyon-sized differences between us on what needs to be done (Petrilli claims that those who disagree with him are trying to "strangle" reforms "in their crib"), there may be a few important respects in which we are closer than we may appear. Still (in addition to the crib-strangling allegations), I would take issue with one of Petrilli’s central points – that charters like KIPP may have "cracked the code," and the main problem now is how to scale them up. From my perspective, the "code" is specific policies and practices that produce results. And on this front, we’re practically still using decoder rings from cereal boxes.

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  • Educational Unilateralism

    by Randall Garton on September 24, 2010

    In New York City this week, a special "plenary summit" of the UN General Assembly met to encourage the world to step up support for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) first okayed by the UN in 2000. These eight goals – which include slashing poverty, combating disease, fighting hunger, protecting the environment, and boosting education – had a 2015 target date for their achievement. Ten years on, the summit reviewed progress and urged participants to speed up the pace.While the eradication of disease and hunger was named as the key priority, the nations of the world also recognized the crucial importance of education. Goal 2 focuses on the right of all kids to at least a primary school education. Goal 3 promotes the right of girls to have the same access to education as boys – a major problem in much of the developing world. 

    Although the U.S. is the world’s largest donor country, surveys show that few Americans have heard about it. President Obama, who during his campaign pledged to fund a $2 billion Global Fund for Education, has done little – what with the financial crisis and debates over both the means and ends of foreign assistance programs getting in the way. In the meanwhile, critics call MDG little more than a laundry list of needs, with no real strategy on how to achieve them. Still, the goals are well worth reading, if only as a reflection of what the world believes (at least on paper) are the rock-bottom problems facing humanity in the 21st century.

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  • Persistently Low-Performing Incentives

    by Matthew Di Carlo on September 21, 2010

    Today, the National Center on Performance Incentives (NCPI) and the RAND Corporation released a long-awaited experimental evaluation of teacher performance pay in Nashville, Tenn. It finds that performance bonuses have virtually no effect on student math test scores (there were small but significant gains by fifth graders, but only in two of the three years examined, and the gains did not last into sixth grade).

    Since this is such a politically contentious issue, these findings are likely to spark a lot of posturing and debate. So it’s worth trying to put them in context. As I discussed in a prior post, we now have at least preliminary results from three randomized experimental evaluations of merit pay in the U.S., the first contemporary, high-quality evidence of its kind.  This Nashville report and the two previously-released studies – one from Chicago and one from New York City's schoolwide bonus program – reached the same conclusion: Performance bonuses for teachers have little or no discernable effect on student test scores. 

    Although the NYC and Chicago findings are preliminary (the evaluations are still in progress), the NYC program provides schoolwide and not individual bonuses, and one additional study (Round Rock, Tex.) is yet to be released, the three already-released reports do represent a fairly impressive, though still very tentative, body of evidence on merit pay’s utility as a means to improve test scores.

    And at this point, it’s a good bet that, when all the evaluations are final and the smoke has cleared, we will have to conclude that performance bonuses are, at the very least, a very unpromising policy for producing short-term test score gains. 

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