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  • Democracy Under Siege

    Written on October 19, 2017

    Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.

    But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.

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  • Domino Effect: The AFL-CIO And The End Of Communism

    Written on June 15, 2017

    Our guest author today is Paweł Zyzak, an award-winning Polish historian, civic activist, and currently an advisor to the Polish Investment and Trade Agency. The following is drawn from a recent talk about his new book, Efekt Domina: Czy Ameryka Obaliła Komunizm w Polsce? (Domino Effect: Did the United States of America Overthrow Communism?).

    Surprisingly, the Polish publishing industry has very few works on the topic of Washington’s policies towards communist Poland. There are a few reprints of books by American authors dealing with Polish issues, but these are hardly Polish experts and they focus on secondary issues, such as John Paul II’s cooperation with Ronald Reagan or the CIA’s support for Solidarity, which is in fact hard to trace. Or, for example, Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), in which Greg Domber tells mainly an official version of the Reagan Administration.

    Thus, mine is the first history published in Poland to recognize the American labor movement and the American anti-communist Left as having a rightful place in bringing about the Polish transition from communism. Thanks to a grant from the Albert Shanker Institute, I was able to reach all available American archives and historical witnesses, as well as articles and studies on the AFL-CIO’s activities and the American government’s policies towards Poland. And thus my book, which one might say is a “missing link,” deals with not only Poland’s modern history, but America’s as well.

    Poland was indeed an element in the political strategy of the Reagan administration as part of the destabilization of the Soviet empire (at least during President Reagan’s first term), but the title of my book (Efekt Domina) recognizes that it was the AFL-CIO‘s leadership that argued Poland was the place from which the domino effect leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc would originate. And it was the AFL-CIO leadership that actually had the decisive impact in bringing that about.

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  • Putting The International Refugee Crisis In Context

    Written on May 17, 2016

    Tomorrow, the Shanker Institute and Jewish Labor Committee will hold an event on the International Refugee Crisis. In the popular discourse, the difference between the terms “asylum seeker”, “forced migrant,” and “refugee” is often blurred, causing confusion. It is therefore hard to pinpoint whether the recent upswell in negative attitudes towards refugees reflects anti-immigrant sentiments generally, dissatisfaction with the international protection system, or animus against specific ethnic or religious groups of refugees.

    Moreover, as the global refugee situation is rarely discussed, the general public is largely unaware of the issues related to where refugees are, relocation and resettlement needs, and refugee integration.

    The objective of this post is to clarify the main differences between refugees and other groups of migrants, and to describe the law as it applies to them. I will also summarize recent refugee movements to Europe, and then, in a subsequent post, discuss attitudes towards refugees and different migrant groups.

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  • A Quick Look At U.S. Voter Turnout In International Perspective

    Written on June 9, 2015

    At quick glance, voter turnout in the United States seems quite low. Over the past 30 years, the turnout rate among eligible voters has fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent, whereas barely two in five eligible voters turn out in midterm elections. And this is not getting better. Turnout in the 2014 election was just under 36 percent, the lowest since the Second World War (these national percentages, of course, vary considerably between states).

    It is important, however, to put these figures in context, and one way to do that is to compare U.S. turnout with that in other nations. The Pew Research Center compiled data from recent elections in 34 OECD nations, and the graph below presents those data. The election to which the data apply is noted in parentheses. There are two rates for each nation: One is turnout as a percentage of the voting age population; and the other as a percentage of registered voters (i.e., the proportion of people registered to vote who actually cast a ballot).

    The first major takeaway from the graph is that turnout among those old enough to vote is relatively low in the U.S. Of course, the sorting in the graph may obscure the fact that several countries, including Spain and the U.K., are ranked considerably higher than the U.S. but the actual differences in rates aren’t massive (and the U.S. would have ranked much higher in 2008, or if turnout was expressed as a share of the voting eligible population, which, due mostly to felon disenfranchisement and non-citizen residents, is a few percentage points higher). Nevertheless, U.S. electoral participation doesn't look too good vis-a-vis these nations.

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  • Teacher Strikes In China

    Written on December 16, 2014

    Teachers in China are joining other workers in protesting their compensation and working conditions, reports the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a workers rights-monitoring and research group founded in Hong Kong in 1994 (CLB’s executive director, Han Dongfang, is a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors).

    Throughout the past three months there have been at least 30 strikes by Chinese teachers. In the map below, which is taken from the CLB article, the numbers are strike frequencies. Many of them occurred in smaller cities and higher-poverty inland areas. For example, last month, over 20,000 teachers went on strike in cities and districts surrounding Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

    The article notes that low (and/or unpaid) salaries are a recurrent theme in the protests, but there are a couple of other issues on the table that may sound familiar to those who follow U.S. education policy.

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  • PISA And TIMSS: A Distinction Without A Difference?

    Written on December 4, 2014

    Our guest author today is William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

    Every year or two, the mass media is full of stories on the latest iterations of one of the two major international large scale assessments, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). What perplexes many is that the results of these two tests -- both well-established and run by respectable, experienced organizations -- suggest different conclusions about the state of U.S. mathematics education. Generally speaking, U.S. students do better on the TIMSS and poorly on the PISA, relative to their peers in other nations. Depending on their personal preferences, policy advocates can simply choose whichever test result is convenient to press their argument, leaving the general public without clear guidance.

    Now, in one sense, the differences between the tests are more apparent than real. One reason why the U.S. ranks better on the TIMSS than the PISA is that the two tests sample students from different sets of countries. The PISA has many more wealthy countries, whose students tend to do better – hence, the U.S.’s lower ranking. It turns out that when looking at only the countries that participated in both the TIMSS and the PISA we find similar country rankings. There are also some differences in statistical sampling, but these are fairly minor.

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  • Attitudes Toward Education And Hard Work In Post-Communist Poland

    Written on October 3, 2014

    The following is written by Kinga Wysieńska-Di Carlo and Matthew Di Carlo. Wysieńska-Di Carlo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

    Economic returns to education -- that is, the value of investment in education, principally in terms of better jobs, earnings, etc. -- rightly receives a great deal of attention in the U.S., as well as in other nations. But it is also useful to examine what people believe about the value and importance of education, as these perceptions influence, among other outcomes, individuals’ decisions to pursue additional schooling.

    When it comes to beliefs regarding whether education and other factors contribute to success, economic or otherwise, Poland is a particularly interesting nation. Poland underwent a dramatic economic transformation during and after the collapse of Communism (you can read about Al Shanker’s role here). An aggressive program of reform, sometimes described as “shock therapy," dismantled the planned socialist economy and built a market economy in its place. Needless to say, actual conditions in a nation can influence and reflect attitudes about those conditions (see, for example, Kunovich and Słomczyński 2007 for a cross-national analysis of pro-meritocratic beliefs).

    This transition in Poland fundamentally reshaped the relationships between education, employment and material success. In addition, it is likely to have influenced Poles’ perception of these dynamics. Let’s take a look at Polish survey data since the transformation, focusing first on Poles’ perceptions of the importance of education for one’s success.

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  • The Global Relationship Between Classroom Content And Unequal Educational Outcomes

    Written on July 29, 2014

    Our guest author today is William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

    It is no secret that disadvantaged students are more likely to struggle in school. For decades now, public policy has focused on how to reduce the achievement gap between poorer and more affluent students. Despite numerous reform efforts, these gaps remain virtually unchanged – a fact that is deeply frustrating, and also a little confusing. It would be reasonable to assume that background inequalities would shrink over the years of schooling, but that’s not what we find. At age eighteen, rather, we find differences that are roughly the same size as we see at age six.

    Does this mean that schools can’t effectively address inequality? Certainly not. I devoted a whole book to the subject, Inequality for All, in which I argued that one of the key factors driving inequality in schools is unequal opportunity to learn, or OTL.

    It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them.

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  • Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

    Written on June 4, 2014

    Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

    On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

    Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

    But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics.

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  • In China, Democracy Must Begin On The Factory Floor

    Written on February 20, 2014

    Our guest author today is Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin. You can follow him on Weibo in Chinese and on Twitter in English and Chinese. This article originally appeared on The World Post, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

    After 35 years of economic reform and development, China's Communist leaders once again find themselves on the edge of a cliff. With social inequality and official corruption at an all-time high, China's new leaders urgently need to find some way of putting on the brakes and changing direction.

    The last time they were here was in 1978 when, after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the then leadership under Deng Xiaoping had no option but to sacrifice Maoist ideology and relax economic control in order to kickstart the economy again.

    Unfortunately, the party relaxed economic control so much that it ceded just about all power in the workplace to the bosses. Workers at China's state-owned enterprises used to have an exalted social status; they had an "iron rice bowl" that guaranteed a job and welfare benefits for life. Some three decades later, that "iron rice bowl" has been completely smashed and the majority of workers are struggling to survive while the bosses and corrupt government officials are getting richer and richer.

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