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  • PISA For Our Time: A Balanced Look

    Written on January 10, 2011

    Press coverage of the latest PISA results over the past two months has almost been enough to make one want to crawl under the bed and hide. Over and over, we’ve been told that this is a “Sputnik moment," that the U.S. among the lowest performing nations in the world, and that we’re getting worse.

    Thankfully, these claims are largely misleading. Insofar as we’re sure to hear them repeated often over the next few years—at least until the next set of international results come in — it makes sense to try to correct the record (also see here and here).

    But, first, I want to make it very clear that U.S. PISA results are not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, and we can and should do a whole lot better. Nevertheless, international comparisons of any kind are very difficult, and if we don’t pay careful attention to what the data are really telling us, it will be more difficult to figure out how to respond appropriately.

    This brings me to three basic points about the 2009 PISA results that we need to bear in mind.

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  • A Call For Democracy And Human Rights In The Arab States

    Written on November 23, 2010

    On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world," they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.

    Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.

    The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.

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  • GDP: Government, Democracy, Prosperity

    Written on November 11, 2010

    Public spending has been under relentless attack in the U.S. since before President Ronald Reagan first took office.  The notion that “shrinking government” grows the economy, builds character and may even save our immortal souls is now one of the verities of our political discourse: public=bad; private=good. Indeed, it was the central belief uniting Tea Party members during this year’s campaign. Research and experience don’t support this conviction, but here we are.

    The massive government spending that was deployed to push the economy back from the brink of depression has aggravated the always inflamed passions on this issue. With red lights flashing and sirens wailing, anti-spending Tea Party-backed politicians are now riding to Washington to slay – or at least rein in – the beast of government.

    This is the narrative we live with.

    There is an alternative narrative however, supported by years of research, that tells a different tale, one in which public spending is a positive good, for the economy and society. In this narrative, public spending rises naturally as societies prosper and voters – demanding better infrastructure and better public services for themselves and their families – understand the need to pay for the kind of society in which they want to live.

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  • Narratives To Nowhere

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

    Written 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

    Written 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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  • Walmart To South Africa?

    Written 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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  • Educational Unilateralism

    Written 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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  • Labor Day In Hell

    Written on September 13, 2010

    The new Albert Shanker Institute-supported report, The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, released on Labor Day by the human rights organization Freedom House, has received some notable attention in the press, both here and around the world. One photo essay in Foreign Policy, titled "Labor Day in Hell," illustrates 14 of the worst-offending nations, among them Belarus, North Korea, and Sudan (see the screenshot below).

    Indeed, the report, which examined the state of labor rights in the world for the year 2009, found serious violations of workers’ freedoms in all parts of the world except Western Europe. Countries were ranked on a five-category scale of Free, Mostly Free, Partly Free, Repressive, and Very Repressive.

    The United States was rated as Mostly Free—the same rank accorded to Bolivia, Mongolia, Romania, and Zambia—less free than all of Western Europe and such nations as Australia, Canada, Chile, South Africa, and South Korea. As the report notes, although American law recognizes core labor rights, the U.S. political environment is "distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest." So not Hell, but not Heaven either.

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  • Free Labor In A Hostile World

    Written on September 3, 2010

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House. The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, the Albert Shanker Institute-supported report he cites below, is available here. A "Map of Workers’ Rights," depicting its findings is here. 

    This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement that played so crucial a role in the collapse of Communist rule in Poland and ultimately everywhere else where it held sway. Solidarity emerged from a series of spontaneous strikes called by workers at the shipbuilding yards of Poland’s Baltic coast cities. It quickly spread throughout the country, pulling in workers from steel works, textile mills, and coal mines. Soon, the working class was joined by the intellectual opposition, a loose movement of academics and former student activists that had been gathering momentum as the corruption of the Communist system became increasingly apparent. 

    Solidarity thus quickly evolved into a broad movement for democracy, with a free-wheeling press, a diplomatic apparatus, and close ties to Poland’s influential Catholic Church. It was, however, the support of Poland’s huge working class that ensured Solidarity’s staying power. Where Communist regimes had faced down opposition stirrings among students and intellectuals in the past, it had never been confronted by an adversary as large, disciplined, and well-organized as Solidarity came to be.  

    It’s worth mentioning during this U.S. Labor Day period that U.S. unions, led by individuals such as AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and AFT President Al Shanker (from whom this blog is named), among many others, were Solidarity’s staunchest supporters in the U.S.

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