Victory for Houston teachers in suit to protect their employment rights

US Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith on May 4 handed Houston public school teachers a victory when he allowed a suit against the local school district’s questionable teacher evaluation system to go to trial.

The judge said that the suit by seven teachers and their union, the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), raises valid concerns about their employment rights.

HFT in 2014 filed the suit to stop the Houston Independent School District from using EVAAS, an automated system managed by a private contractor, to evaluate teacher performance.

The union filed the suit on behalf of seven high performing and award-winning teachers who received bad performance evaluations from EVAAS.

EVAAS is a value-added measure (VAM) software system marketed by its owner SAS as an analytical tool that measures the value that teachers add to their students’ education.

The software supposedly measures value added by using a secretive and proprietary algorithm that compares student standardized test scores over time.

The union’s suit describes EVAAS’ evaluation methodology as “complex and opaque.”

A 2014 study by education experts found that value-added measurement was not an effective way to evaluate teacher performance, but HISD as well as at least 30 states continued to use it.

HISD had sought a summary judgment to have the union’s suit dismissed, but Judge Smith on May 4 ruled against the district and allowed the suit to proceed.

“Houston developed an incomprehensible, unfair, and secret algorithm to evaluate teachers that had no rational meaning,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Judge Smith saw that it was seriously flawed and posed a threat to teachers’ employment rights; he rejected it. This is a huge victory for Houston teachers, their students, and educators’ deeply held contention that VAM is a sham.”

According to Audrey Amrein-Beardsley in her blog Vamboozled, VAM was developed by a statistician with the US Agriculture Department named William Sanders who thought that education achievement and teacher performance could best be evaluated by a statistical model similar to one he used to measure the development of animals.

He sold his VAM rights to SAS, a private company that sells software and data management consulting services to businesses and government agencies.

SAS used VAM to create EVAAS, which it then sold to school districts around the country that were trying to comply with the 2002 No Child Left Behind law that, among other things, encouraged states and school districts to use student standardized test scores to evaluate teacher performance.

At a cost of $500,000 a year, HISD in 2011 contracted with SAS to evaluate teacher performance by using EVAAS.

(Last year, the HISD Board of Education voted not to renew its evaluation contract with SAS.)

Judge Smith noted in his ruling that using a private contractor to evaluate teacher performance waiproblematic because SAS treats EVAAS as a trade secret and won’t divulge how the software evaluates teachers.

The union’s suit alleges that the secretive nature of EVAAS and VAM make it impossible for teachers who receive a poor EVAAS evaluation to challenge the evaluation, thus depriving them of due process.

“Due to a faulty, incomprehensible, and secret formula, good teachers are being labeled failures,” said Weingarten in 2014. “We have enough evidence to make clear that not only has VAM not worked, it has been really destructive and it in no way helps improve teaching and learning.”

At about the same time that the union filed its suit in 2014, Dr. Morgan Polikoff,  assistant professor of education at the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, and Dr. Andrew Porter, dean and professor of education at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, published a paper questioning the effectiveness of VAM.

Polikoff said that there is little evidence to show that VAM is a reliable method for evaluating teacher performance.

“While value-added measures do provide some useful information, our findings show that they are not picking up things we think of as good teaching,” said Polikoff, whose research was funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation.

Given the extent to which VAM is being used, Polikoff said that his and Porter’s findings were “troubling.”

“Our results suggest that it’s going to be difficult to use (VAM-based) systems to improve teacher performance,” one of the selling points that SAS uses to market EVAAS.

Given the evidence against EVAAS and VAM and Judge Smith’s ruling, Zeph Capo, president of HFT, called on the school district to take immediate steps to right the wrong done by EVAAS.

“With (Judge Smith’s) decision, Houston should wipe clean the record of every teacher who was negatively evaluated,” said Capo. “From here on, teacher evaluation systems should be developed with educators to ensure that they are fair, transparent, and help inform instruction, not be used as a punitive tool.”

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Unions condemn Trumpcare; Urge health care for all

When the US House of Representatives on May 4 narrowly passed the Republican proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act–also known as Obamacare–unions representing 8.4 million workers issued statements condemning the vote.

Bob Martinez, international president of IAM called the vote, “a blatant attack on working families.”

D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, said that because of the Republican health care proposal, which he called Trumpcare, “millions of hard-working Americans are one step closer to seeing their health care destroyed.”

RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, asked rhetorically, “did the Marquis de Sade write (the Republican) health care bill?” She also called for creating a single-payer health care plan that “would provide health care for all.”

Republicans passed their health care plan, which they called the American Health Care Act (AHCA) by a vote of 217-213.

Despite heavy pressure from party leaders and the White House, 20 Republican lawmakers defected by voting no on the bill.

AHCA, or Trumpcare as Taylor called it, will now be taken up by the Senate.

Like other critics, unions criticized Trumpcare because it cuts taxes for corporations and the wealthy by $765 billion at the expense of working people’s health care benefits.

To offset the tax cut, Trumpcare slashes Medicaid funding by $880 billion. As a result, millions of  the low-wage workers, nursing home residents, and people with disabilities will lose their Medicaid benefit.

Unions also joined other AHCA critics in condemning the legislation for allowing states to let insurance companies ignore customer protections required by Obamacare.

“They voted to strip basic health care protections from working families and allow insurance companies to sell health care plans that don’t cover essential care or necessary treatment like chemotherapy,” said Chris Shelton, president of the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

AHCA also would make it possible for insurance companies to discriminate against people with pre-existing medical conditions by charging them more for health insurance.

A pre-existing condition, according to the United Steelworkers statement on AHCA, could be anything from heartburn to heart disease.

In addition, unions blasted the Republican health care plan for making employer-based health insurance more expensive.

One of Obamacare’s features that unions have long opposed is the 40 percent tax on high quality employer-based health insurance. The tax becomes effective in 2018. AHCA delays its implementation but keeps the tax in place.

Keeping the tax will make health care more expensive for 177 million workers, said UNITE HERE’s Taylor.

There is a misconception about the high quality health care plan tax, which is also known as the Cadillac tax. The misconception is that it only applies to a few high-end health insurance plans.

But according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in four employer health insurance plans could be affected by the tax.

Unions also criticized the Republican health care plan as a job killer.

Because of the AHCA, “thousands of members of my union and other health care workers will lose their jobs,” said Shelton.

The New York Times reports that the health care industry is one of the leading industries for job growth.

Since 2014, according to the Times, much of the job growth at hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, and medical laboratories has been spurred by the expansion of Medicaid.

But cutting Medicaid funding by $880 as proposed in AHCA will not only end the expansion, it will cause a contraction of the benefit. Fewer people will receive medical care, and fewer dollars will be spent at local health care providers.

The contraction will lead to layoffs and other job losses.

Some unions that criticized the passage of AHCA said that protecting Obamacare from the ravages of the Republican plan isn’t enough.

“Congress needs to pass a bill that will move America toward health care for all, not the few,” said a statement on the AHCA by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM).

One piece of legislation that if enacted would guarantee health care for all is the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act (HR 676) sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan.

On Wednesday, May 10, members of National Nurse United will be in Washington DC to lobby lawmakers to pass HR 676.

“Nurses understand that we are in a health care crisis that is only going to get worse for our families and communities, and so it is imperative that Congress act now to solve the crisis through the implementation of a single-payer Medicare for All system,” said Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United.

Conyers said that he has seen a surge in public support for a single-payer, Medicare for all system

Gallup, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and other polling organizations have found that there is majority support for Medicare for All in America today,” said Rep. Conyers in a recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press. “Thanks to this groundswell,  single payer is politically achievable.”

More than 100 members of  the US House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of HR 676.

When nurses arrive at Congress on May 10, they will be urging more lawmakers to sign up as co-sponsors and to commit to voting for Medicare for All.

“Health care is a human right, and the way to make that right a reality for everyone in this country is through an expanded and improved Medicare for All system,” said Ross.

DC transit workers criticize boss for lack of safety culture and more

Angry union members on April 27 turned their backs on and walked out of a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board meeting chanting, “Who moves this city? We move this city.”

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 attended the meeting to protest WMATA’s new sick leave policy that requires workers to give three days advanced notice before taking sick leave.

But the sick leave issue is only one of a number of grievances that has raised workers’ ire with WMATA’s management, especially its Chief Executive Officer and General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.

Workers are angry about the lack of a safety culture at WMATA, threats to workers’ jobs caused by management’s proposal to outsource more work, proposed legislation intended to tilt the bargaining relationship in favor of management, concessionary contract demands proposed by management, and high fares and operational problems that have caused a dramatic decline in the number public transportation riders in the Washington DC area.

Earlier in the month, Wiedefeld proposed a plan to revive WMATA’s troubled bus and commuter rail service. His plan relies heavily on outsourcing union jobs and cutting workers’ benefits.

“Instead of offering real proposals to improve (Washington DC’s public transportation) system and win riders back, Wiedefeld has, once again, pitted riders against workers in an attempt to balance the agency’s budget on the backs of WMATA’s hard working employees,” reads a statement issued by Local 689 to Wiedefeld’s proposal.

Local 689 offered its own proposal for improving public transportation in a report published in March.

The report proposes new options for funding WMATA that do not include raising fares as Wiedefeld has proposed.

It takes a lot of money to maintain the commuter trains, buses, tracks, and other capital equipment required to keep the nation’s third largest public transportation system running.

But for too long, WMATA  has been underfunded, and without adequate funding, it has been difficult for the transit authority to keep its trains, buses, and rail lines in good working order.

Without well maintained vehicles and infrastructure, reliable public transportation is next to impossible.

To make the Washington area’s public transportation more reliable, Local 689 has proposed a number of ways to increase WMATA’s funding without raising fares.

One of its proposals would be to create WMATA Assessment Districts that would assess and collect fees from properties located near WMATA stations.

Businesses located close to stations have benefited from their location, and an assessment fee would return some of those benefits to WMATA and its riders.

The union proposal also calls for a less complicated fare structure that would allow transfers between rail transportation and buses.

Allowing transfers between buses and rail increased ridership in New York City by 15 percent and could do the same for DC, states the report.

The union report also talks about the need to improve the safety culture at WMATA.

The lack of safety at WMATA has caught the attention of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which oversees safety at WMATA.

Last year, FTA issued what the Washington Post called “a damning . . . report” on the lack of track safety on WMATA’s Metro rail system “that put(s) riders at risk.”

More recently, FTA in a letter to Wiedefeld noted several safety incidents that show that “WMATA has not consistently followed its own (Roadway Worker  Protection)  requirements and that unsafe practices exist that present substantial risk of death or personal injury to roadway workers.”

The letter threaten WMATA with the loss of federal funds unless it takes immediate action to resolve the safety issues.

Local 689 applauded FTA’s directive and and called on WMATA to work with the union in a labor management partnership for safety.

“If WMATA is serious about addressing its safety failures, they will engage the workforce in creating a plan and stop putting its employees and riders in danger,” said the union in its statement about FTA’s letter.

But Wiedefeld has shown little interest in working with workers or their union on safety or other issues.

In fact, he is supporting federal legislation that will weaken the union and allow WMATA to outsource more work to private contractors.

The bill entitled the Improvement Act of 2017, sponsored by John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland, requires changes to the collective bargaining agreement between WMATA and Local 689 that would allow WMATA to outsource more work.

Doing so, said the union, would create more safety problems.

“Contract workers lack familiarity with Metro’s particular issues and are prone to performing substandard work,” said the union. “Local 689 members are often called upon to redo work that has been poorly done by private contractors. This is both inefficient and dangerous.”

Rep. Delaney’s proposed legislation comes at a time when negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between Local 689 and WMATA have broken down.

The old contract expired last summer, but union members continue to work under its terms.

Jackie Jeter, Local 689’s president, told WTOP News that negotiations broke off because WMATA keeps saying “no” to everything the union proposes.

General strike mobilizes 40 million to oppose austerity in Brazil

An estimated 40 million people took part in a general strike in Brazil. The April 28 general strike was called to protest austerity measures proposed by Brazil’s President Michel Temer.

The austerity measures include changes to the country’s labor law that will result in Brazilians working longer hours for less money.

Temer also wants to reduce pension benefits and freeze spending on social programs.

Temer says that his austerity measures are needed to end recession that has lasted more than two years and increased the country’s unemployment rate to 13.7 percent.

But supporters of the general strike had a different take on Temer’s austerity proposals.

“We are demanding our rights, as workers, because the president of the country proposed a law for people to work more and live less, so you will only receive your pension when you die,” said Edgar Fernandes, a Rio de Janeiro dock worker as he explained to the Associated Press why he was on strike.

President Temer came to power one year ago after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached on dubious charges.

Her impeachment was engineered by the country’s financial, commercial, and media elites because Rousseff refused to enact the austerity measures that Temer is now trying to advance.

At the time of Rousseff’s impeachment, Temer was serving as vice-president.

The role of Brazil’s elites and the dubious charges that led to her impeachment caused some observers to call Rousseff’s ouster a coup.

When Temer came to office, he immediately laid out an austerity plan that had the enthusiastic backing of Brazil’s elites.

The plan, which Temer dubbed his Bridge to the Future, would raise the age when people can retire, freeze increases in public spending for 20 years (which would undo some of the social programs that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty), and allow employers to increase the number of hours their employees work and pay them less.

It would also remove restrictions that protect workers from having their jobs outsourced and make it easier for employers to hire temporary workers to replace full-time workers.

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies recently passed Temer’s proposed labor law changes which led Brazil’s largest labor federation, the CUT, to call the April 28 one-day general strike.

CUT Secretary Sérgio Nobre said that the strike was the largest in the nation’s history and called it an unqualified success.

Automobile factories owned by GM, Ford, Toyota, Daimler were shut down because of the strike.

Public transportation throughout the country came to halt.

Schools were closed

Dock workers, miners, oil workers, agriculture workers, bank workers, and retail workers all stayed off the job.

The success for the strike was due in large part to the unpopularity of Temer and his austerity program.

According to one poll,  Temer’s disapproval rate is 87 percent.

In addition to his unpopular austerity plan, Temer’s  astoundingly high disapproval rate is stoked by high levels of corruption in his government.

Eduardo Cuhna, a Temer ally and former speaker of Brazil’s House of Deputies, was recently sentenced to prison for 15 years after being convicted of bribery.

Eight of Temer’s cabinet ministers (that’s one-third of his cabinet) are being investigated for bribery, embezzlement, or money laundering.

In November, Temer himself was accused by one of his cabinet members of pressuring the minister to reverse a decision that hurt one Temer’s lieutenants.

Marcelo Calero, the former Culture Minister, publicly accused Temer and his legislative liaison Geddel Vieira Lima of pressuring Calero to reverse his decision to disallow the construction of a luxury apartment project on the site of a historic district.

As it turns out, Lima was an investor in the project that Calero turned down. He resigned after his role in the project came to light.

Despite his lack of popularity and the corruption charges hanging over his head, Temer was able to get the Chamber of Deputies to pass his changes to the labor law.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

CUT leaders say that the success of the general strike should give pause to lawmakers before they proceed with supporting Temer’s austerity measures.

“Deputies and senators must listen to the voice of the people,” said Nobre. “The strength of the strike is a sign of popular support for the unions and discontent with (Temer’s) labor and welfare changes.”

Vagner Freitas, president of CUT, said that more actions are possible if the government refuses to listen to the people.

If (the strike on the 28th) is not enough, we can repeat another general strike, bigger, maybe 48 hours,” said Freitas. “We can occupy Brasília, go to the National Congress. . . if they if they do not stop voting against labor and social security.”