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  • America’s Union Suppression Movement (And Its Apologists), Part One

    Written on April 17, 2013

    Last week, in "Is There A ‘Corporate Education Reform’ Movement?", I wrote about the logic of forming strategic alliances on specific issues with those who are not natural allies, even those with whom you mostly disagree. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t those – some with enormous wealth and power – who are bent on undermining the American labor movement generally and teachers’ unions specifically. This is part one of a two-part post on this reality.

    The American union movement is, it must be said, embattled and beleaguered. The recent passage of the Orwellian named ‘right to work’ law in Michigan, an anti-union milestone in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and cradle of American industrial unionism, is but the latest assault on American working people and their unions.[1] Since the backlash election of 2010 that brought Tea Party Republicans to power in a number of state governments, public sector workers have faced a legislative agenda designed to eviscerate their rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.

    Fueling these attacks is an underlying organic crisis that has greatly weakened the labor movement and its ability to defend itself. Union membership has fallen from a high point of 1 in 3 American workers at the end of WW II to a shade over 1 in 9 today. [2] At its height, American unions had unionized basic industries – auto, mining, steel, textiles, telecommunications – and had sufficient density to raise wages and improve working conditions for members and non-union workers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, organized American labor has fallen to its lowest density in nearly a century. Today, American unions have high density in only one major sector of the economy, K-12 education, and in that sector unions are now under ferocious attack. [3]

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  • Education Under Attack In Bahrain

    Written on April 4, 2013

    Our guest author today is Jalila Al-Salman, a Bahraini teacher and vice president of the Bahrain Teachers' Association (BTA). A leader in the Bahraini uprisings of Arab Spring, she was arrested, held in prison under abusive conditions, tortured and sentenced to three years in prison. Released late in 2012, Ms. Al-Salman continues to advocate for a peaceful, democratic transition in Bahrain.

    Since the outbreak of protests in Bahrain in February 2011, people there have faced varied and numerous forms of oppression by the Government of Bahrain. Peaceful protesters have been arrested and beaten, detainees have been tortured, public and private sector employees have been wrongfully terminated from their positions for participating in protests, and over 100 people have been killed.

    Shortly after the uprising began, the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA), of which I am the vice president, participated in a three-day strike from February 20 to 23. Up until then, we had been escalating our calls for improvements to the education system, so it seemed like an appropriate time to make our voices heard. In addition to calls for political reform, educators expressed frustration with the Bahrain government’s policy of hiring foreign educators from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - a practice that limits opportunities for domestic educators to teach in Bahrain’s schools. Following the strike, an estimated 9,000 teachers marched to the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle in the heart of Manama that served as the epicenter of the 2011 protests. It was the largest protest by educators in Bahrain’s history.

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  • How Many Schools Don't Have Nurses?

    Written on March 26, 2013

    In 2006, the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) commissioned the largest and, to my knowledge, most recent national survey on the availability of nursing services in U.S. public schools. It was administered to a sample of over 1,000 schools in all 50 states and D.C.

    The primary purpose was to gather basic information on the health staff in these schools, as well as a few core characteristics, such as school size and student demographics.

    I must confess that I was a little surprised by the results. Here is the distribution of schools by nursing availability, summarized very briefly (these proportions vary by school size, type and other characteristics):

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  • Causality Rules Everything Around Me

    Written on March 6, 2013

    In a Slate article published last October, Daniel Engber bemoans the frequently shallow use of the classic warning that “correlation does not imply causation." Mr. Engber argues that the correlation/causation distinction has become so overused in online comments sections and other public fora as to hinder real debate. He also posits that correlation does not mean causation, but “it sure as hell provides a hint," and can “set us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality."

    Correlations are extremely useful, in fact essential, for guiding all kinds of inquiry. And Engber is no doubt correct that the argument is overused in public debates, often in lieu of more substantive comments. But let’s also be clear about something – careless causal inferences likely do more damage to the quality and substance of policy debates on any given day than the misuse of the correlation/causation argument does over the course of months or even years.

    We see this in education constantly. For example, mayors and superintendents often claim credit for marginal increases in testing results that coincide with their holding office. The causal leaps here are pretty stunning.

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  • A New Twist On The Skills "Blame Game"

    Written on February 7, 2013

    It is conventional wisdom that the United States is suffering from a severe skills shortage, for which low-performing public schools and inadequate teachers must shoulder part of the blame (see here and here, for example).  Employers complain that they cannot fill open slots because there are no Americans skilled enough to fill them, while pundits and policymakers – President Barack Obama and Bill Gates, among them – respond by pushing for unproven school reform proposals, in a desperate effort to rebuild American economic competitiveness.

    But, what if these assumptions are all wrong?

    What if the deficiencies of our educational system have little to do with our current competitiveness woes? A fascinating new book by Peter Cappelli, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It , builds a strong case that common business practices - failure to invest adequately in on-the-job training, offering noncompetitive wages and benefits, and relying on poorly designed computer algorithms to screen applicants –are to blame, not failed schools or poorly prepared applicants.

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  • Moving From Ideology To Evidence In The Debate About Public Sector Unions

    Written on January 18, 2013

    Drawing on a half century of empirical evidence, as well as new data and analysis, a team of scholars has  challenged the substance of many of the attacks on public employees and their unions –urging political leaders and the research community to take this “transformational” moment in the divisive and ideologically driven debate over the role of government and the value of public services to deepen their commitment to evidence-based policy ideas.

    These arguments were outlined in "The Great New Debate about Unionism and Collective Bargaining in U.S. State and Local  Governments," published by Cornell University’s ILR Review.  The authors – David Lewin (UCLA), Jeffrey Keefe (Rutgers), and Thomas Kochan (MIT) – point out that, with half a century of experience, there is now a wealth of data by which to evaluate public sector unionism and its effects.

    In that context, the authors spell out the history, arguments and empirical findings on three key issues: 1) Are public employees overpaid?; 2) Do labor-management dispute resolution procedures, which are part of many state and local government collective bargaining laws, enhance or hinder effective governance?; 3) Have unions and managers in the public sector demonstrated the ability to respond constructively to fiscal crises?

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  • Egypt's Islamist Government Reaches For Control Of The Unions

    Written on December 12, 2012

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli  has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and  support  for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.

    It is becoming uncomfortably clear that the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is to take control of many of Egypt’s major civil society organizations. While everyone’s attention is focused on the assault on the constitution and the judiciary, President Mohammed Morsi has strategically revised a trade union law that will affect millions of Egyptian workers.

    If successful, this move will affect the lives, jobs, and political freedom of millions of Egyptian workers, as well as renew the Egyptian Trade Union Federation’s (ETUF) longstanding role as an enforcer of government labor policy.

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  • Bahraini Repression Against Teachers And Health Care Workers

    Written on November 30, 2012

    The Kingdom of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf, is a perfect political stew, situated as it is at the confluence of political, religious, economic and international tensions simmering in the Persian Gulf.  A majority Shi’a Muslim country ruled for hundreds of years by Sunni tribal chieftains with family ties to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a dictatorship whose people have regularly demanded political reform and seen their aspirations crushed.

    Today, with strong support from the oil-rich Saudis, the Kingdom’s hard-line Al-Khalifa regime enjoys absolute powers, although the day-to-day political reality is often complex.

    Bahrain is also the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols those volatile waters, largely to keep an eye on Iran. The U.S. considers the port a critical element of its military posture in the Gulf. This consideration drives U.S. policy toward Bahrain. The centuries-old Bahraini-Saudi connection has, predictably, deterred the U.S. and other democratic countries from applying significant pressure to the kingdoms’ rulers. Stability is the byword.

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  • Are Stereotypes About Career And Technical Education Crumbling?

    Written on November 15, 2012

    The stereotypes, bias, and misunderstanding that have for many decades surrounded and isolated Career and Technical Education (CTE) may slowly be crumbling.  A recent report by the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) argues that traditional CTE typology -- the way in which CTE students are identified and classified -- is obsolete.  The distinctions between “CTE” students and “academic” students are no longer useful. Today, nearly all high school students, including the highest achieving academic-track students, enroll in some CTE courses.

    Moreover, a significant number of students complete “high intensity” CTE courses as well as academic courses, in patterns that cross SES lines. In order to understand the contemporary high school experience, these researchers argue, we need a new typology based on the reality of today’s classroom, students, and curricula.

    The October 2012 study, “A Typology for Understanding the Career and Technical Education Credit-taking Experience of High School Students," proposes a new, more nuanced classification system --  one the authors believe would more accurately capture the high school experience and needs of today’s students. The researchers argue that these long-overdue changes could alter experts’ views of what students actually study in high school, break down the obsolete conceptual barriers that currently divide CTE and academic curricula, and help educators work with students to devise the most appropriate pathways to academic and career success.

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  • Looking Backwards Into The Future

    Written on October 15, 2012

    This is an adaptation of a recent message to AFT staff and leadership from Eugenia Kemble, on the occasion of her departure as the Albert Shanker Institute’s founding executive director, a position she held from March 1998 through September 2012.

    I hope you will accept a few reflections from an old-timer as I leave the Albert Shanker Institute, which was launched with the support of the American Federation of Teachers in 1998, a year after Al’s death.

    I started in 1967 as a cub reporter for New York’s Local 2 and have worked for the AFT, the AFL-CIO, and the Albert Shanker Institute since 1975, so I have been on duty for awhile. I was particularly grateful for the decision to create the Shanker Institute.  It has become a very special kind of forum – directed by an autonomous board of directors to ensure its independence – where, together with a broad spectrum of colleagues from both inside and outside the union, core ideas, positions, and practices could be discussed, examined, modeled, and debated.  Its inquisitive nature and program attempt to capture a key feature of Al Shanker’s contribution to union leadership.  As a result, the Institute’s work has helped many, including me, to reach a clearer understanding of the essential character of the AFT, unionism, public education, and of democracy itself, as well as what about them we hope will endure.

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