Sunday, March 31, 2013

Today in Labor History—March 31

March 31, 1927: Birth of Cesar Chavez.

March 31, 1941: Wisconsin state troopers attack striking auto workers in Milwaukee. The strikers succeed in holding off scabs.

March 31, 1949 – Last great strike of the Canadian Seaman's Union.

March 31, 1966: Two day boycott of Seattle schools protesting de facto segregation.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Today in Labor History—March 30

March 30, 1930: 30,000 unemployed marched in New York City. At the time, there was virtually no formal or institutional aid available for the unemployed or poor. Even the AFL did not support unemployment insurance, as it saw itself as the representative of skilled workers only, and could care less about the unskilled and factory workers. Another reason for the lack of government support for the unemployed was that working conditions were so terrible the ruling elite feared that workers would choose the dole over work if given the choice. In New York, police attacked the marchers.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Feds Bust Charters for Corruption

In its recent report to congress, the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Inspector General found an unprecedented number of criminal actions by high ranking charter school officials who “used their positions of trust for personal gain and cheated the students they promised to serve,” the 4LAKids Blog reported last week. According to the report, eight charter school bosses were busted for criminal activity, including several who were sentenced to prison for embezzlement.

One of the audits found that the DOE itself was asleep at the wheel in terms of monitoring charter school grants and that it lacked an effective process for ensuring that state agencies adequately oversaw their charter school subgrants. Some of the problems discovered included the use of unqualified reviewers to monitor grants, not tracking how grants were spent, and inadequate monitoring of charter school closures.

Today in Labor History—March 29

March 29, 1973Description: anarchist, laborA wildcat strike and occupation of Fiat plants at Mirafiori began on this date. (From the Daily Bleed)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Suspend Tests, Not Students

California plans to suspend some of its standardized testing for certain grade levels while it develops new computerized exams for the Common Core Standards (CCS). The plan is projected to save the state $15 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.

While the temporary suspension of tests will be a welcome respite for the minority of teachers and students affected by the plan, it will do nothing to improve education funding since the implementation of CCS is projected to cost well over $1 billion. Additionally, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has asked the state Board of Education to use the savings for developing higher-quality tests linked to the CCS, leaving little, if any, of the $15 million for hiring teachers, giving raises, buying classroom supplies or any of the myriad other needs of California’s schools.

The new tests are being touted as something that will foster critical thinking and sophisticated reading and writing skills. However, it is unlikely they will improve learning outcomes any better than any of the previous tests because all tests merely assess—they do not teach students anything. Furthermore, the new tests will be just as high stakes as the previous tests, thus perpetuating test anxiety, student stress and disillusionment with learning, and teaching to the test.

Torlakson said, “These new assessments will provide our schools with a way to measure how ready students are for the challenges of a changing world.” While this might be desirable for technocrats and their investor benefactors who expect to profit from the test results by selling snake oil remedies like digital learning aids, textbooks, tutors, and charter schools, it will do little to actually make students more ready for these challenges, let alone prepare them to be critical members of society with the skills and courage to challenge its injustices.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that virtually all academic assessments correlate more strongly with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds than any other factor, including the quality of their schools and teachers. Therefore, simply implementing new tests, no matter how good they are, while continuing to underfund the schools and ignore students’ poverty, will not change the results. At the end of the day, reformers and critics of public education will still be able to complain that too many students are failing to meet academic expectations.

Today In Labor History: March 28

March 28, 1871 – Paris Commune, over 200,000 people turn out at the City Hall to see their newly elected officials, whose names are read to great & festive acclaim, making this day a revolutionary festival. The red flag, raised over all public buildings, is emblematic of the Commune.

March 28, 1911: Part of the anarchist Bonnot Gang was caught & killed by cops after months of bank robbing & mayhem.

March 28, 1915: Emma Goldman was arrested for giving a lecture on contraceptives. Goldman believed that knowledge of and access to contraceptives was key to women’s ability to control their own bodies and thus their social and material wellbeing.

March 28, 1918—2,000 Canadians protested against conscription and forced police to retreat.

March 28, 1968Martin Luther King led a march of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Police attacked the workers with mace and sticks. A 16-year old boy was shot. 280 workers were arrested. He was assassinated a few days later after speaking to the striking workers. The sanitation workers were mostly black. They worked for starvation wages under plantation like conditions, generally under racist white bosses. Workers could be fired for being one minute late or for talking back and they got no breaks. Organizing escalated in the early 1960s and reached its peak in February, 1968, when two workers were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck.

March 28, 1972—A General Strike was called in Quebec to support workers locked out of La Presse newspaper. The workers went out in early April and again in May, however, some sources also give late March as the beginning of the General Strike. (Also see here and here).

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is The Ed Tech Bubble Ready to Burst?

For anyone who still believes the Ed Deform movement is entirely motivated by compassionate individuals who just want what’s best for our children, a recent article on the burgeoning Ed Tech Bubble posted on ought to set them straight.

The push to get more technology into the classroom started almost immediately with the advent of inexpensive personal computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with high tech magnet schools sprouting up in many districts. I even attended one of these early adopters in middle school and have fond memories of playing the primitive fantasy game, Adventure, during class time. However, I have no memory of learning anything practical and didn’t even own a computer until after I graduated from college. More disturbingly, this magnet school was located in a poor, African-American neighborhood with a few middle class white kids bussed in to take advantage of its new computers and science equipment. During my time at that school, it was only these middle class carpetbaggers who had access to the new technology, perhaps a consequence of the naïve assumption that only middle class students could bring profits to the tech companies who sold the equipment.

By the late 1980s and early 90s tech companies started to push for desk top computers, computer labs and internet access for all students, recognizing that all students, regardless of class, could bring them profits because the school districts, rather than individual parents, were purchasing the hardware, site licenses, tech support and software. They also started to realize that even poor people were purchasing cell phones and apps—an indication that perhaps they could also be sold education technology products for personal use.

Over the last few years, however, things have really taken off, with a plethora of companies squeezing districts for millions of dollars in service contracts, data analysis packages, communication software, online courses, ebooks and myriad other snake oils they argue will solve districts’ academic problems. They are also jumping into political campaigns, especially for school board races and state initiatives, hoping this will increase sales. For example, Bill Gates, the Walton Family and Amazon were large funders of Washington’s recent ballot initiative to increase the number of charter schools in the state, while  Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch were large funders of candidates for the Los Angeles school board race. While Gates’ connection to technology is obvious, the Waltons, Bloomberg and Murdoch are purveyors of information technology and also stand to profit from the increased use of technology in the schools. The focus on charter schools might also seem obscure. However, because they are less restricted by district regulations and procurement rules, charter schools are seen by many tech companies as an easier sell than traditional public schools, particularly with the growing number of online charter schools that rely on technology hardware and software to deliver their curricula.

Of course some of the ways technology is being incorporated into the classroom reflect its changing role in society as a whole. It would be absurd, for example, to expect students to continue using typewriters when most of the rest of the world abandoned them years ago. Similarly, communication, collaboration and inexpensive web design software facilitate communication between teachers, students and parents. However, much of the new technology is of dubious benefit to students and teachers, but immensely profitable to the people pushing it. Some school districts, for example, have purchased expensive site licenses for software that they don’t even use or that serves no purpose. Even technologies which increase efficiency (e.g., LCD projectors, which replaced overhead/transparency projectors, which in turn replaced chalkboards), do not necessarily improve learning outcomes.

Geekwire notes several indications that the bubble may be ready to burst, including a quote by Susan Wolford, Managing Director of BMO Capital Markets, who said that too much money is being spent on ideas “that should have been left to die.” According to the Geekwire piece, “record numbers of companies are receiving venture funding” for educational technology projects and the Consumer Electronics Association recently named education technology as one of five “prominent technology trends expected to influence the consumer electronics (CE) industry in the years ahead.”

Larry Cuban identifies another potential reason for the bubble to burst: the exaggerated claims or assumptions that simply dumping technology into a school will magically transform academic outcomes for students. This has contributed to massive spending on technology that rapidly becomes obsolete or that gets ignored because teachers and students find it burdensome or useless. He points to several notable cases, including instructional television in the 1960s and desktop computers in the 1980s. Even the One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative (OLPC) has failed to deliver its promised outcomes for poor children throughout the world. So far, the laptops have gone primarily to rural Peruvian children and the outcomes have been mixed, at best. According to an evaluation of the program by the World Bank, there is no evidence that OLPC has improved learning in math or language.

Today In Labor History: March 27

March 27, 1912: Start of the 8-month Northern railway strike in Canada by the IWW. Wobblies picketed employment offices in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Tacoma and Minneapolis in order to block the hiring of scabs.

Fellow workers pay attention to what I'm going to mention,
For it is the fixed intention of the Workers of the World.
And I hope you'll all be ready, true-hearted, brave and steady,
To gather 'round our standard when the red flag is unfurled.

Where the Fraser river flows, each fellow worker knows,
They have bullied and oppressed us, but still our union grows.
And we're going to find a way, boys, for shorter hours and better pay, boys
And we're going to win the day, boys, where the river Fraser flows.

For these gunny-sack contractors have all been dirty actors,
And they're not our benefactors, each fellow worker knows.
So we've got to stick together in fine or dirty weather,
And we will show no white feather, where the Fraser river flows.
Now the boss the law is stretching, bulls and pimps he's fetching,
And they are a fine collection, as Jesus only knows.
But why their mothers reared them, and why the devil spared them,
Are questions we can't answer, where the Fraser River flows.
(Lyrics by Joe Hill, 1912, to the tune of “Where the River Shannon Flows.”)

(Sources: IWW, Its First Seventy Year, by Fred Thompson and Patrick Murfin, and Daily Bleed).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The New Network for Public Education

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

 A new anti-reform education reform movement is taking shape: The Network for Public Education
Led by Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Leonie Haimson and other lefty ed reformers, the NPE is calling for an end to privatization schemes; increased funding; assessments that are used to inform instruction, not to penalize schools, students and teachers, among other reforms; community control; teacher autonomy; and a host of other reforms..

As far as reformist movements go, the NPE’s initial platform seems like a reasonable start. However, when examined more closely, it’s hard to tell what the NPE is actually demanding or how it intends to achieve its goals. For example, what do they mean by “democratic control?” One parent, one vote? One teacher, one vote? School Site Councils, (which are essentially advisory and subservient to school boards)? The abolition of school boards (representative democracy) to be replaced by some sort of direct democracy? Workers councils led by employee delegates who are recallable at any time by their colleagues?

Currently, most public schools already have some sort of democratic control (e.g., school site councils, PTAs and elected school boards), but these are heavily influenced by moneyed interests and politics and provide the actual stakeholders (e.g., parents, teachers, students) only nominal influence over decisions that affect students’ learning conditions and teachers’ working conditions.

Similarly, what do they mean by providing resources “that students need” or “equitable funding?” Bringing the poorest schools on par with the wealthiest schools is a pretty mild demand, considering that even the best-funded schools do not have sufficient resources. Creating equity from peanuts just means that all schools receive a paltry share of the peanuts.

Perhaps it would help to set some benchmark goals, like one nurse for every 250 students; class sizes that never exceed 25:1 in the secondary grades and never exceed 15:1 in the elementary grades; free preschool for all, and generous, ample funding, rather than “equity” from the pittances we currently receive. Likewise, how about mandatory wages and benefits that are not only adequate for supporting school employees in the communities where they work, but that are actually generous and allow a degree of luxury and security?

The NPE argues that there should be more emphasis on early childhood education because the achievement gap begins before kindergarten and early childhood education can help mitigate this. However, preschool and Head Start, alone, cannot erase the pre-K achievement gap, because this gap is a direct product of poverty. Will the NPE also fight for programs and initiatives that close the wealth gap and reduce poverty, since this is the number one cause of low student achievement and will continue to hinder children’s academic success, regardless what happens in the classroom?
NPE calls for the evaluation of teachers by professionals, not by unreliable test scores, yet they say nothing about who these professional should be. As long as evaluators continue to be site administrators there will be an inherent bias that can lead to good teachers being disciplined or fired and incompetent or corrupt teachers being promoted. These professionals should be highly trained, objective outsiders (ideally teachers, themselves), who evaluate teachers blindly. Furthermore, the evaluations should be used to support professional growth, not to punish teachers for petty infractions or to fire them for being union organizers, student advocates or higher paid veterans.

Lastly, while NPE opposes profiteering off of public education, they have not yet indicated whether they expect this to wither away through voting and protesting, or if they recognize it as an inevitable product of education’s role in capitalism. All the other problems they criticize stem from this relationship. Even without the transfer of tax dollars from public school budgets to private charter schools, tech companies and test and textbook publishers, there will continue to be an incentive by the state to spend as a little as possible on education and keep its employees under tight control (e.g., accountability schemes, limitations on unions and strikes).

Ultimately, even with a more coherent and specific plan, NPE, like all other liberal/reformist initiatives, will at best only be able to reduce the problems they identify with public education, since all of these problems have capitalism, itself, at their root. For example, when teaching is no longer tied to wages, the problem of administrators firing teachers (or giving them bad evaluations) for being union organizers, student advocates or higher paid veterans would cease to exist. There would no longer be a need for high stakes tests, since there would no longer be a motivation for sorting students by ability in order to track them into wage work versus management. Schools could be funded rationally, based on their actual needs, rather than being held hostage to a system designed to make the wealthy even wealthier by reducing social spending to the bare bones. Perhaps most importantly, in addition to practical skills (e.g., critical thinking, reading, writing, math) teachers could start teach what students themselves want to learn, fostering creativity, curiosity and an intrinsic love of learning.