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  • Narratives To Nowhere

    by Arch Puddington on October 12, 2010

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.

    I once appeared on a panel on the state of press freedom with a man who had been a reporter with one of America’s prestigious news weeklies. He told of having been on assignment in the Middle East during an especially bloody terrorist atrocity, carried out by Hezbollah, that had killed a number of Americans. When the journalist asked a Hezbollah contact why his group had committed the atrocity, the response was: "You ignored us before we were terrorists; now, after this act, you take us seriously."

    The message that the reporter took from these chilling words was not that the men who made the decisions for Hezbollah were ruthless murderers. Instead, he discovered a measure of wisdom in the terrorist’s rationalization: The Western democracies, and especially the United States, had for too long held sway over how events were interpreted, history was written, and the news was reported. He saw as altogether encouraging the emergence of differing narratives about world events, especially in combustible regions like the Middle East, where the voices and opinions of the victimized had been suppressed for too long.

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  • It's A Bird! It's A Plane! No, It's The Superman Movement!

    by Eugenia Kemble on October 8, 2010

    Yes, it’s the Superman Movement. Most filmmakers must secretly dream of a sequel that is bigger, better, and more important than the original. The makers of Waiting for Superman are apparently no different. "For us, the theatrical release is just the start of social action," says Jim Berk, CEO of the aptly named Participant Media, the studio behind the movie (see here). "When I started the company, it was to motivate the grass roots and really get people to embrace an issue, and the idea was that the politics would follow," confirms Jeff Skoll, Participant’s founder and chairman.

    In 2009, these leaders decided Participant needed its own organizing arm, so they invented TakePart.com, a website tied to an extensive network of social action websites. TakePart, which constructs a special operation for every film, also offers advice to potential activists on their chosen issues – what to do and how to do it.

    Charter school funders gloated and applauded when an early preview clip of Superman was shown at a Grantmakers for Education (GFE) conference in Baltimore last fall. GFE is made up of a wide array of education funders, ranging from powerhouses like Gates, Broad, and Walton, to community and family foundations of every stripe. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute is an active member.) Participant was already drawing the foundation world into Superman’s policy and action orbit, hoping its dollars would follow the movie’s message.

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  • We Interrupt This Message

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 7, 2010

    So, I’m reading an opinion piece by Harold Meyerson in the online edition of yesterday’s Washington Post. Meyerson starts by talking about how teachers’ unions get blamed for everything. All of a sudden, in the middle of the text, right after the second paragraph, the piece is interrupted by the following message:

    (Watch a video of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee discussing the D.C. Public School system.)
    Strange, I thought. Then, right after Meyerson gets going again, criticizing “Waiting for Superman” and hailing the Baltimore teachers’ contract as meaningful progress, I am interrupted yet again:
    (For more opinions on the trouble with America's education system, read Jo-Ann Armao's "Is the public turning against teacher unions?" and a Post editorial "Education jobs bill is motivated by politics.")
    Now I am taken aback. I’m reading this piece defending teachers’ unions, and at two separate points, in the middle of the text, the Post inserts links: one to an editorial implying that the education jobs bill is a gift to teachers’ unions; one to a video of Michelle Rhee; and the third a short article by Armao that is fair but has undertones. Opinions within opinions, it seems.
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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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