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Who’s Really To Blame for Unemployment?

4:54 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Though some protesters at an ‘Unemployment Olympics’ event in Tompkins Square Park, N.Y. blamed joblessness on ‘the boss,’ a new report suggests that the economic climate is more at fault. (Clementine Gallot / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Guided by the mythology of the “American dream”—the idea that, given the opportunity, the deserving will excel and rise above their peers—politicians often attribute unemployment to a mystical “skills gap.” If people can’t find a job, the logic goes, they clearly weren’t fit to be hired. As a consequence, many legislators tout specialized training programs or education reforms as possible solutions to America’s seemingly intractable jobs crisis. But a new study shows that blaming the “skills gap” for unemployment makes about as much sense as blaming a mass famine on “excess hunger.”

A recent analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute shows that elevated unemployment is due to a general lack of demand in the job market, fueled by overarching economic decline. In other words, this is not a problem that can merely be addressed by retraining workers or revamping the education system.

In the report, economist Heidi Shierholz outlines this economic imbalance by comparing unemployment at different levels of education. Her results reveal that workers are suffering across the board:

Workers with a college degree or more still have unemployment rates that are more than one-and-a-half times as high as they were before the recession began. In other words, demand for workers at all levels of education is significantly weaker now than it was before the recession started. There is no evidence of workers at any level of education facing tight labor markets relative to 2007.

Moreover, the report continues, there are no specific job sectors that appear to be especially “tight.” So it’s not that the economy especially favors, for example, radiologists or software engineers; bosses seem to be shutting the door on workers of all sorts:

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New York’s All-Day Pre-K Plan: Good News for Teachers?

3:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Students at Bank Street Head Start in New York City, a free pre-K program for families under the federal poverty line. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to provide universal pre-K in NYC. (Image: Bankstreet College of Education)

Originally published at In These Times

Following a national trend of opening public schools to children younger than 5, New York’s newmayor, Bill de Blasio, plans to provide universal access to all-day pre-kindergarten, funded by an income tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

Expanding pre-K services to all eligible 4-year-olds in the city—perhaps as many as 50,000 kids—would cost an estimated $340 million, both to enroll new students and to expand half-day programs. Back in the late 1990s, New York state led the country in boosting public pre-K with a law mandating universal access, but since then districts have failed to fully fund this measure, and New York City’s school system falls far short. De Blasio proposes to fund his program with a “rich tax” that would bring in roughly $530 million. The balance of the money would be invested in afterschool programs for middle-schoolers.

The program is a popular one across party lines. Reams of research show that investing in preschool for all children can dramatically shrink “achievement gaps” across racial and economic lines. And it may also pay fiscal dividends: According to the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute, “High-quality pre-kindergarten benefits government budgets by saving government spending on K-12 education, child welfare, and the criminal justice system, and by increasing tax revenues.” Even conservatives, generally skeptical about anti-poverty programs, can at least value the idea of pre-K as a welfare supplement to alleviate the childcare burdens of parents who might otherwise be working more hours. And community groups, teachers and unions have championed De Blasio’s  initiative, focusing on the promise of much-needed resources to serve more pre-school students with more comprehensive programs.

While advocates generally see universal pre-K in New York as a potential boon for the early-childhood education field—one of the few public-education sectors that’s actually expanding nationwide in a time of severe budget cuts—some are concerned about whether the plan will meet the needs of both educators and students in struggling public schools. Read the rest of this entry →

Teachers Seek to ‘Reclaim’ Education

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Chicago Teachers Local Union 1/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

After years of being backed into a corner, on Monday public-school teachers stood up in defiance against what they see as their chief bully—budget-slashing school reforms that have made school more stressful and less fulfilling for both them and their students.

Under the banner of a National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education, educators, students and community groups coordinated demonstrations, rallies and other public gatherings in dozens of cities. In the long run, the day of action kicked off a broader campaign by a coalition of unions and community groups to chart an alternative path to education reform.

According to a policy statement by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the leading union behind the campaign, and its partner groups, the goal is to foster “a community-union movement for educational equity and excellence.” While that agenda may sound neutral to the uninitiated, it speaks to growing resentment toward the prevailing reform rhetoric pushed by the White House and many politicians: corporate-oriented “standards” and “management,” leading to a test-heavy curriculum focused on math and reading at the expense of all else. First imposed under the No Child Left Behind law of the Bush administration, this hardline approach rests on the belief that a lack of academic rigor and “ineffective” educators are impeding U.S. students’ performance. The prescription has been an avalanche of high-stakes testing, public-school funding cuts and free-market privatization measures such as charter schools, often funded by corporate-oriented philanthropists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

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Educators Wary of Tech Fixes for College Affordability Crisis

1:32 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Wikimedia Commons/Avatar)

Originally published at In These Times

As tuitions rise and the job market still slumps, many young college graduates are wrestling with the question of how to make their increasingly expensive educations pay off. Now, new technologies are emerging as a potential solution for the college affordability crisis, according to some educational administrators and officials. The growing public fascination with “Massive Open Online Courses,” or MOOCs, suggests that in the near future, a public university degree may become cheaper and more accessible, with a greater economic “return on investments” for the government. Yet some education advocates are wary of the MOOC phenomenon and urge the government to focus on brick-and-mortar educational investments before seeking a magic bullet.

Though MOOCs are still in their experimental phase, they are being heavily marketed through flashy programs like EdX, which features online courses ranging from “International Human Rights” to “Neuronal Dynamics,” taught by faculty at Harvard, MIT and other top universities and accessible tuition-free, worldwide.

And President Obama’s recently issued college affordability plan cites MOOCs as a tool for boosting return on investment for public education funding, since the model can ostensibly be scaled up to full degree programs—sometimes simply by tacking on a completion certificate that makes the MOOC credentials more official. These education modules are delivered at a mass scale with little overhead, accessible from any Internet connection and supplemented with online tests, peer discussions and tutors.

A new report by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, however, warns that college administrators and politicians might be investing too much in corporate-controlled, data-driven online learning programs.   Read the rest of this entry →

Mexico City Erupts Over Neoliberal Education Bill

1:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Teachers have gathered en masse in Mexico City to protest President Nieto’s new education reform legislation. (Eneas De Troya/Flickr)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Mexico City, school teachers are meting out some serious discipline to a government gone awry.

For the past several weeks, the metropolis has pulsed with a labor insurrection. There have beenfierce union-led rallies, clashes with police, and mass demonstrations that have paralyzed the city, climaxing with an estimated 12,000 teachers storming the streets on Wednesday. The catalyst is Mexico’s new education reform legislationchampioned by President Enrique Peña Nieto and his PRI party, which teachers union activists blast as a thinly veiled attack on organized labor.

After lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to implement the reforms last week, demonstrations flared across the capital, blocking traffic and drawing crowds around the French, Spanish and U.S. embassies. The National Education Workers Coordinating Committee (CNTE), a radical union faction representing a third of Mexico’s public school teachers, has mobilized tens of thousands of protesters. The conflict is now widely seen as as a principle test of Peña Nieto’s political strength, symbolizing the class and ideological tensions between Nieto’s center-right PRI party and Mexico’s embattled leftist movements.

The government maintains that the law, which amends articles of Mexico’s constitution that guarantee the right to public secular education, is necessary for improving management of Mexico’s school system and raising the quality of teaching. Reflecting the same neoliberal “reform” impulse that politicians have pushed in the United States with charter schools and draconian testing systems, the idea is to tighten controls on educators and students by imposing standardized tests and evaluations. The reforms would also ease the process for firing teachers, aiming to dismantle traditional union control and cronyism in employment decisions. As in the U.S., the “reformers” are pushing “merit-based” performance measures other market-oriented reforms.

Teachers see this as an assault on a sacrosanct public institution and view the law as a union-busting campaign masquerading as public-minded reform. In a Labor Notes report last December, Dan La Botz quoted Rubén Núñez Ginés of SNTE Local 22 in Oaxaca:

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Obama’s Universal Preschool Plan: As Good as It Sounds?

6:56 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

President Obama promises to strengthen early childhood education, but will he follow through with funding? (Children's Bureau Centennial / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Of all the mildly liberal, media-genic proposals that peppered President Barack Obama’s state of the Union Address, one seemed especially designed to withstand curmudgeonly criticism from the Right: universal preschool. The image of millions of young tots learning their ABCs and fingerpainting is hard to demonize as evil Big Government.

Nonetheless, Obama’s sweeping plan for the nationwide expansion of early childhood learning programs may not be as straightforward as it seems, especially for the workers who will be expected to carry out the program. The White House’s broad talking points leave open the question of whether the dramatic expansion of preschool programs will be coupled with adequate federal funding.

Plenty of empirical research shows that strong early childhood education can boost future educational development, particularly among kids facing socioeconomic barriers like poverty. But getting early education right means cultivating skilled and motivated teachers. Early childhood programs have long lacked the sustained funding to ensure that educators are equipped with pedagogical training and resources to help “level the playing field” for poor kids. Exacerbating the problem, severe state budget cuts have led to deep funding deficits nationwide.

Generally, the White House’s plan—which aims to achieve “common and consistent standards for quality across all programs”—does appear to promote fairer compensation and support for practitioners, including pay that is comparable to regular K-12 teachers.

But ensuring every kid in the country has a shot at a a high quality preschool program means starting earlier, with teacher training, in order to close massive gaps in the early learning workforce, which advocates say lacks the resources to maintain a well-trained, decently paid corps of educators. And that’s at current enrollment levels; unmet needs will likely soar under a universal preschool system, since currently, many eligible children are unserved because their families lack access to under-resourced public programs like Head Start. The White House’s overhaul proposal so far says little about whether Washington will reverse decades of underfunding.

If we want highly qualified staff that really understands child development and can really deliver high quality preschool, then the implementation of the proposal is definitely going to have to include some support for that workforce to be able to get those credentials and better compensation,” says Christine Johnson-Staub, an analyst with the social policy think tank CLASP.

How to nurture great early-childhood educators

From a labor perspective, the current system fails to provide real job sustainability. Early childhood educators are among the worst-paid education professionals. Unionization rates are typically low, and turnover is extremely high—especially when educators might earn far more money teaching kindergarten instead of pre-kindergarten next door. Many preschool educators are denied basic benefits that K-12 school teachers typically enjoy, such as class planning time and decent health benefits.

Advocates say that programs for early childhood development are often viewed simplistically as caregiving work, rather than as a critical part of a child’s education. That contributes to the low salaries and leads to a patchwork credentialing system and widely varying budgets. According to a 2009 analysis of the early childcare and education (ECE) workforce by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley:

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The Young and the Disconnected

11:02 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Young artists work with Beacon House and DC Summer Youth Employment Program to paint a mural. Such programs help fight youth disconnection and the unemployment that is correlated with it--but they are scattered and underfunded. (Rails to Trail Conservancy / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Originally posted at In These Times

A first paycheck has traditionally been seen as a rite of passage, but these days, that paycheck is often coming later and later. Rather than launching a career, young adulthood is becoming, for many, a springboard to a lifetime of hardship, debt and instability.

According to a sobering new study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), “More youth than ever—2.2 million teenagers and 4.3 million young adults ages 20 to 24—are neither in school nor working…. It often takes a GED to get a job flipping hamburgers. Even some with college degrees are having trouble finding work.”

And joblessness itself, AECF warns, can set back youth in the long term.

Though mass unemployment hits older workers hard, the scourge of joblessness among youth affects the future in ways that concern advocates, who predict that youth are being tracked toward chronic economic insecurity. Getting early work experience can jumpstart youth on a career path, or at least confer viable job skills that make them more economically resilient in adulthood. Conversely, as the AECF report suggests, missed opportunities early in life can deprive youth of long-term dividends:

At this rate, a generation will grow up with little early work experience, missing the chance to build knowledge and the job-readiness skills that come from holding part-time and starter jobs.

The huge numbers of young people who are shut out of those opportunities are typically up against other challenges. Youth “disconnection”—detachment from work and school—is often associated with setbacks such as poverty and household social stress. Disconnected youth are disproportionately black and Latino, concentrated in impoverished households, and more likely to have children themselves. A study published in September by Measure of Americashows that youth disconnection follows socioeeconomic divisions between neighborhoods. In New York, “disconnection rates range from 3.7 percent in parts of Long Island to 35.6 percent in parts of the South Bronx.” Read the rest of this entry →

Civil Rights Groups File Complaint Over New York’s High Stakes Tests

7:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, which signed on to the complaint about race and class bias in secondary-school entrance exams, holds a press conference to protest public school defunding and closing in underserved areas. (New York City Coalition for Educational Justice)

Originally posted at In These Times

Every year, New York City middle-schoolers subject themselves to a grueling academic ritual that could make or break their educational futures, or so they’re told. The 2.5-hour multiple-choice Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) serves as the sole gateway to a suite of elite public schools—particularly Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical. The kids who make the cut tend to be disproportionately Asian and white; Latino and black students are vastly underrepresented.

Civil rights groups are now waging a legal challenge accusing New York City’s education authorities of tying the elite tier of schools to an arbitrary test that effectively perpetuates inequality. The complaint was filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College on behalf of a coalition of civil rights and community groups.

The backdrop to the legal controversy is a growing rebellion against high-stakes standardized tests, which some say perpetuate racial and socioeconomic equity in urban schools. The SHSAT is separate from the state’s standardized test system (which is designed to comply with federal education reforms), but, as a gatekeeper to educational opportunity, raises similar concerns. Read the rest of this entry →

The Formula for ‘Equal Opportunity’: Why Affirmative Action Isn’t Enough

4:34 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Once again, affirmative action is on trial in the Supreme Court. The pending case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, challenges U.T. Austin’s admissions policy, which aims to bring in more students of color by considering race among other factors. The case is driven by the misplaced racial anxieties provoked by affirmative action, but it might offer a platform for truly grappling with the nature of institutional racism and the oft-politicized, seldom-understood concept of “equal opportunity” in schools and workplaces.

The backlash against affirmative action—and more broadly against institutional efforts to desegregate schools and workplaces—has been accompanied by straw-man accusations of “reverse racism,” heard in debates about everything from President Obama to high school textbooks. Meanwhile, affirmative action’s detractors paper over the persistent inequities across our workplaces and classrooms.

A new book, Documenting Desegregation, sheds light on how racial inequity really works and why it’s so pernicious. The book traces the evolution of equal opportunity policies under the Civil Rights Act since its implementation in the mid-1960s. The authors, sociologists Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, tell Working In These Times that effective enforcement of civil rights depends on both strong pro-integration policies and, more importantly, grassroots political movements that can hold institutions accountable. Read the rest of this entry →

Cultural Miseducation: Knowledge, Power and Ethnic Studies

8:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Julio Salgado

Originally posted at CultureStrike

This summer, Tucson students, educators, and activist did something rebellious: they celebrated books. These weren’t just any books, of course. They were the books that had been deemed contraband by school authorities, vilified as tools of a curriculum that promotes ethnic hatred. In other words, they were works like Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 YearsMexican White Boy, the play Zoot Suit, and Like Water for Chocolate. Texts that aim to foster critical thinking, political curiosity, and other dangerous behaviors.

The idea that these books are “subversive” was a pretext for a crackdown on Mexican American studies in Tucson. And once the controversy was broadcast across the country, Americans of all backgrounds saw exactly what these programs threatened: an ossified conservative establishment that masks social control as education.

But the school authorities probably weren’t just annoyed that the books contained radical messages. It was who was reading them that was really troubling: it was Latino youth learning about the conflicts and cultural survival that have carried through history. This has triggered an official campaign of oppression, involving a state-led McCarthyesque investigation. This set off a wave of resistance through legal challenges and grassroots protests using creativity and humor, culminating in the youth-led Freedom Summer. Read the rest of this entry →