Archive for May, 2017

What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in an Iowa Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?

May 30, 2017 Comments off

I just read an article by Patricia Cohen in today’s NYTimes that was alternately heartwarming, infuriating, and perplexing. “Immigrants Keep an Iowa Town Alive and Growing” describes the evolution of Storm Lake, Iowa from a community that was about to lose its one and only factory to a corporation who was ready to move because it could not extract huge concessions from its union employees to a community that has absorbed hundreds of immigrants willing to work long hours at arduous work in arguably dangerous working conditions.

The stories of the immigrants is heartwarming. They moved to this sleepy town in Iowa from war town countries in Southeast Asia and Central America and are proud of how hard they work and are thrilled at the material possessions and relative comfort they have attained. After some initial resistance from the community members whose jobs they effectively displaced, Ms. Cohen describes Storm Lake as a community that has achieved a multi-cultural hegemony that is comparable to that achieved in urban neighborhoods and that described in the aspirational speeches of the nations most progressive politicians.

But Storm Lake is part of Steve King’s congressional district, and Mr. King is one of the most strident anti-immigration political figures in the nation. As a extreme nativist, Mr. King plays to the Caucasians in his region who are resentful of the immigrants who “took their jobs”. But Mr. King also champions deregulation and opposes unions, effectively championing the businessmen who told the union workers four decades ago to accept low wages, longer shifts, and deplorable working conditions before closing their doors completely. Ms. Cohen uses the story of a 66-year old Caucasian who is about to retire as an example:

When Dan Smith first went to work at the pork processing plant in Storm Lake in 1980, pretty much the only way to nab that kind of union job was to have a father, an uncle or a brother already there. The pay, he recalled, was $16 an hour, with benefits — enough to own a home, a couple of cars, a camper and a boat, while your wife stayed home with the children.

“It was the best-paying job you could get, 100 percent, if you were unskilled,” said Mr. Smith, now 66, who followed his father through the plant gates.

After nearly four decades at the plant, most of them as a forklift driver, Mr. Smith is retiring this month.

The union is long gone, and so are most of the white faces of men who once labored in the broiling heat of the killing floor and the icy chill of the production lines. What hasn’t changed much is Mr. Smith’s hourly wage, which is still about $16 an hour, the same as when he started 37 years ago. Had his wages kept up with inflation, he would be earning about $47 an hour.

Later in her essay she describes a decision Mr. Smith made when the factory closed and then re-opened under new ownership without a union:

With vigorous support from town leaders, the upstart Iowa Beef Processors (later known as IBP) bought and reopened it a few months later — slashing wages by more than half and shunning the union.

At that point, Mr. Smith returned to do night cleanup, earning $5.50 an hour with no benefits, but a vast majority of his former co-workers were turned away, he said, because the new owner did not want to hire union supporters. Instead, the company began actively recruiting in Mexico and in immigrant communities in Texas and California.

“They learned real fast to keep a sharp knife and didn’t complain if they had a sore arm,” Mr. Smith said.

Ms. Cohen describes what happened to communities that didn’t forego decent paying jobs: they experienced a flight of those seeking work and a hollowing out of their businesses and a loss of community spirit. And here is what is both infuriating and perplexing: instead of linking the practices of the businesses to the decline of their towns the Iowans outside of Storm Lake link the decline to the immigrants who are willing to work long hours in tough working conditions for low wages… immigrants who, in the words of Dan Smith, Ms. Cohen’s proxy Caucasian who worked side-by-side with them, are “…just trying to make a buck for their family, like I am.”

After reading this article and looking at this dynamic through the lens of an educator, I am left with the question that serves as the site of this post: “What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in a Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?” Does the next generation of immigrants who are now attending Storm Lake HS seek a better life than their parents or do they stay in the community they grew up in and take over their parent’s jobs? If they DO want to accept the work their parents are doing, are they willing to forfeit wage increases that match the CPI? If they DON’T accept the work their parents do, what work will there be for them in Storm Lake? These children-of-immigrants are not be the cohort to face this question, but if the wall that Steve King wants is built, they could be the last…. and if they ARE the last, will the factories pay higher wages to attract more employees or will they flee Storm Lake for other communities where desperate workers are willing to work longer hours for lower wages?

A Fix for Urban Schools No One Mentions in ANY Strategic Plan: Integration

May 29, 2017 Comments off

An op ed piece by Carnegie Mellon graduate student Rob Cullen in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette flags an omission from “Expect Great Things”, the latest strategic plan from the Pittsburgh PA Public Schools: integration. In the opening paragraphs of the article Mr. Cullen offers a valid critique of strategic plans in general, noting that they all offer high-minded phrases that no one could disagree with like: “…developing more rigorous curriculum, addressing the racial achievement gap and providing better support for teachers“. As a result, one could read plan after plan in succession or across the country and find no difference in their findings and, in doing so, get a feeling of de ja vu. But Mr. Cullen notes one glaring omission from the Pittsburgh plans, an omission that is likely fond in a majority of urban strategic plans:

But most disappointingly, there was the word that wasn’t mentioned — not in this plan or any other the district has released in recent years. It’s an idea that could be one of the most effective ways to actually achieve the Great Things that PPS says we should expect: integration.

Mr. Cullen then shows that several studies indicate that the strategies and goals outlined in the Pittsburgh Strategic Plan could be readily accomplished through integration:

….one key long-term goal is eliminating racial disparities… (and) a survey of dozens of studies on integration, researchers with the Poverty & Race Research Action Council found, “Students who attend integrated schools perform better on tests in math, science, language, social studies; they take higher-level math and science courses.”

Another goal is ensuring that all Pittsburgh students are equipped with skills to succeed in college, career and life. Again, the PRRAC study found that attending integrated schools leads to students who “hold higher educational aspirations than their otherwise comparable peers” and “increases the likelihood of attending college, particularly for youth from underrepresented minority communities.”

The district wants to attract and retain high-performing teachers; a research brief from Harvard’s Susan Eaton shows that racially integrated schools are more likely to have stable staffs composed of highly qualified teachers….

Employers are increasingly looking for people who are comfortable working in diverse environments, because racial diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and greater relative profits. Students who attend integrated schools have fewer discriminatory attitudes, more cross-racial friendships and better leadership skills than their peers who don’t.

Like most urban areas, Pittsburgh’s integration is internal as well as external. Mr. Cullen notes that while African-Americans make up just 26.1 percent of the city’s population, and 53 percent of its public school students, more than a dozen Pittsburgh schools, over 90 percent of the student body is African-American. And while Pittsburgh schools are 53% African-American, less that 30 minutes away Lower Burrell High School enrolls fewer than 3 percent non-white students.

So with the clear benefits for both black and white students, why is integration not mentioned anywhere in Pittsburgh’s strategic plan? Here’s Mr. Burrell’s take:

…integration is more contentious than simply saying we should eliminate the achievement gap or provide more support for teachers. For many parents, in Pittsburgh “integration” conjures memories of the 1970s and ’80s, when white families fled the district to avoid what they saw as inferior schools and black students were bused long distances to schools where they were often seen as unwelcome outsiders. Even education advocacy groups committed to racial equity, like A+ Public Schools and Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, don’t mention integration as part of their platforms.

Despite the lack of courage on this issue by the “education advocacy groups” in the Pittsburgh region, Mr. Cullen calls on the public schools to take the lead, citing New York City’s Council as an example.

Still, someone needs to have the courage to at least begin a conversation about integration in Pittsburgh Public Schools. A good place to start would be adopting something like New York City’s School Diversity Accountability Act. The legislation requires the city’s Department of Education to issue an annual report on diversity in NYC schools, make diversity a priority in decision-making and commit to having a strategy for overcoming impediments to school diversity.

But as previous posts on this blog illustrate, issuing an annual report on diversity hasn’t changed the racial composition of city schools, though it has provided an opportunity for parents who value integration to hold the city school system’s feet to the fire on the issue. MAYBE the grassroots movement of these parent groups can achieve what top-down solutions like bussing failed to create. One thing is clear to Mr. Cullen, if we ignore integration as part of the solution, nothing will change:

If Pittsburgh school leaders don’t have the courage to start that conversation, around an idea that decades of research have shown can actually help close the achievement gap, then there’s little reason to Expect Great Things. Instead we should expect more of the same.



China Invests in AI as US Divests… and the Future Looks Bleaker as a Result

May 28, 2017 Comments off

“Is China Outsmarting the US in AI?”, a question posed in an article by Paul Mozur and John Markoff in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes, left me with a chill. Mozur and Markoff describe the divergent paths the governments of China and the US are taking relative to AI (i.e. Artificial Intelligence), with China’s government investing billions in research while the US is spending less. The article makes it appear that there might not be that much difference in which country advances the most in AI, but the notion that China’s amoral and authoritarian command capitalism might dominate the field concerns me. Mozur and Markoff describe China’s rationale for developing AI in this paragraph:

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out sci-fi ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K. Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the internet.

These intended outcomes should drive our country to get the upper hand on AI assuming our country values an equal opportunity for all citizens, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement. But instead of using our values as a positive lever to promote more government spending on AI, we are relying on fear. While the President’s budget cuts funding for AI, there is one department who is concerned:

The Defense Department found that Chinese money has been pouring into American artificial intelligence companies — some of the same ones it had been looking to for future weapons systems.

While our best hope for investment is driven by the Department of Defense who wants to use AI for weapons, China purports a desire to use AI for peaceful purposes. Mozur and Markoff offer this contrast in investment strategies:

On a national level, China is working on a system to predict events like terrorist attacks or labor strikes based on possible precursors like labor strife. A paper funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China showed how facial recognition software can be simplified so that it can be more easily integrated with cameras across the country.

China is preparing a concerted nationwide push, according to the two professors who advised on the effort but declined to be identified, because the effort has not yet been made public. While the size wasn’t clear, they said, it would most likely result in billions of dollars in spending.

President Trump’s proposed budget, meanwhile, would reduce the National Science Foundation’s spending on so-called intelligent systems by 10 percent, to about $175 million. Research and development in other areas would also be cut, though the proposed budget does call for more spending on defense research and some supercomputing. The cuts would essentially shift more research and development to private American companies like Google and Facebook.

The balance of the article describes why China’s top-down authoritarian government arguably hobbles research efforts, using the example of medical research on SARs as an example. The piece concludes with this observation by Clay Shirkey, an NYU futurist:

For all the government support, advances in the field could ultimately backfire, Mr. Shirky said. Artificial intelligence may help China better censor the internet, a task that often blocks Chinese researchers from finding vital information. At the same time, better A.I. could make it easier for Chinese readers to translate articles and other information.

The fact is,” Mr. Shirky said, “unlike automobile engineering, artificial intelligence will lead to surprises. That will make the world considerably less predictable, and that’s never been Beijing’s favorite characteristic.”

But if China’s purpose in the development of AI is to control workers by predicting labor strikes and control the populous through the widespread use of simplified facial recognition software one thing IS easy to predict: the world of Winston Smith (Orwell’s protagonist in 1984) is far more likely to occur than the “do no evil” world of Google.

And one last note: it’s unclear to me that unpredictability is Washington DC’s favorite characteristic… and even more unclear that voters are seeking a less predictable world. If anything, we are seeking an orderly world where things are as they used to be in a past that never was….

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