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09.24 Focusing on Teacher Voice

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

Back when I taught high school Spanish, September was a time ripe with anxiety. I was worried about maintaining strict discipline during the crucial first month, navigating curricula and textbooks for new classes, and setting up my classroom so I could keep a semblance of organization throughout the year (I've never quite figured that last part out).

I had it easy. These days, teachers have a lot more on their minds, especially with the trifecta of new teacher evaluation systems, new Common Core learning standards, and new assessments that often have high stakes attached to them.


Isaac Rowlett leads a discussion on focus group facilitation with Hope Street Group teacher fellows.

These reforms are not without controversy, as is evident from opening any newspaper. Implementation of these reforms has been shaky at best, divisive and distracting at worst.

It is our belief at Public Agenda that education policy – as with any policy – is stronger, more sustainable, and better aligned with over-arching goals when those affected by policy are key partners in its design and implementation. For this reason, we joined forces a few years ago with the American Institutes for Research to develop Everyone at the Table (EATT), an initiative devoted to boosting teacher agency in education reform.

EATT pursues this mission by providing clear methods and strategies, practical materials and tailored trainings to help teachers engage their colleagues in productive, solutions-oriented dialogue about teacher evaluation and other education reform issues. We provide these resources and trainings directly to educators, schools, districts and education leaders. We also partner with other organizations and associations dedicated to improving teacher practice or boosting teacher voice in policy. (We also wrote a book about the project that explores the theory and methodology behind teacher and other stakeholder engagement in depth.)


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09.22 Pathway Redesign: Competency-Based Education?

Monday, September 22nd, 2014 | Alison Kadlec, Ph.D.

This post is written for readers working in higher education reform and was originally published on the Completion by Design blog. Completion by Design is a national initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion and graduation rates. Read more about our work with Completion by Design.


“Competency-based education” (CBE) is one of the most ubiquitous buzz phrases in higher education today. But what it is and what it means for the student success and completion movement remains to be seen. Most simply, “competency-based” is used to describe any model or approach that substitutes the assessment of student learning for seat-time measures when determining a learner’s progress toward a degree or credential. There are a few facts and trends that, when taken together, help account for the incredible rise of interest in CBE in recent years:

Competency-based models aren’t exactly new – some have been around for decades, with first-generation innovators like Excelsior College in existence for more than 40 years. And a new generation of innovators at public institutions, those like Kentucky Community College and Technical System and University of Wisconsin-Extension, have built and launched a new generation of models that they hope will scale to a wide range of learners not well served by traditional models.

But there are real and serious questions to be asked about the conditions under which competency-based models are appropriate and for what types of learners. There are also fundamental questions about what constitutes high-quality when it comes to CBE programs.


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09.08 Parent Involvement in Education - What Really Matters Most?

Monday, September 8th, 2014 | Jean Johnson

Would eating less margarine reduce the divorce rate in Maine? Could we increase the number of graduate engineering degrees by upping mozzarella consumption? Some correlations are ridiculous, which is exactly the point of the very clever web site “Spurious Correlations."

In K-12 education, though, the link between parent involvement and student achievement makes intuitive sense, and it is backed by extensive research. According to Education Week, multiple studies have shown that "students with involved parents” get better grades and test scores and are more likely to go to college.

You don’t need to convince parents that what they do matters. Nearly 8 in 10 say that parents are more important than schools in determining whether children learn. Teachers are on board too. The vast majority say they’d rather work in a school with strong parent support and good student behavior than in one where they could earn more money.


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08.25 Arthur White, Longtime Friend to Public Agenda, Has Passed Away

Monday, August 25th, 2014 | Public Agenda

We were saddened to learn that a long-time friend of Public Agenda, Arthur White, died over the weekend after a long and deeply fruitful life. Arthur was a co-founder of Yankelovich Partners with Dan Yankelovich, Public Agenda’s co-founder.


Arthur White and his wife, Vivien White stand in front of the sculpture screen in Whitey Heist Park in Stamford, Conn. on Wednesday June 29, 2011. (Photo: Kathleen O'Rourke / The Stamford Advocate)

A life-long advocate for equal opportunity, Arthur also founded Jobs for the Future and Reading Is Fundamental. He worked closely with us on a series of studies of young adults’ views on higher education and college completion. And he was a warm and wise presence at Public Agenda events, a valued adviser to the organization, and a wonderful “connector,” always ready to introduce people to one another when mutual benefit and public good could result.

We will miss his insights, his enthusiasm, and his dedication to making our country better.

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08.14 When Curiosity Reigns

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 | Monica Foust, Ph.D.

Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer. The purpose of the project is to improve dialogue, relationships and collaboration between these two communities, often viewed as staunchly divided. This blog is one in a series from our public engagement team, who write to reflect on their experiences moderating the dialogues. For more information about the project, email Allison Rizzolo.


Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda.
AAAS/David Buller

As we make the final preparations for the next set of Perceptions Project dialogues, I can’t help but think back to our first dialogues in Pasadena.

We spent considerable time preparing for those conversations, between evangelical pastors and scientists. We worked with our partners on the project, AAAS, thinking about who should participate and how the dialogues might unfold. We anticipated the tensions that might emerge – tensions that could stall conversation between the two communities. And we thoughtfully planned ways to surface areas of common ground and shared understanding.

Yet despite the many hours of planning that led up to the dialogues, I was unable to foresee what it would feel like to be in them. What I hadn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, anticipate was how eager participants would be to talk to one another and ask questions about each others’ experiences. While there was some tension between the groups, the overarching theme was curiosity.


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07.29 Is This Really Working for Us? Public Views on Foreign Policy

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 | Jean Johnson

“We, as a country, are just spread way too thin to get involved in anything else . . . “

“I understand the need for world order . . . but it just seems like whenever there is a huge international crisis, the United States is always the first one to run out and open [its] mouth . . . “

“I think we really should focus on this country. We are in such trouble ourselves.”


U.S. Marine Corps via Flickr

This is a sampling of comments from focus groups exploring American attitudes on foreign policy and on the crisis in Ukraine in particular, conducted this spring (before the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17) by the FDR Group and the Kettering Foundation. National polls over the last few years pick up responses similar to those captured above.

According to the Pew Research Center, for example, 8 in 10 say the U.S. should “concentrate more on our own national problems” and “not think so much in international terms.” More than half of Americans want the country to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own .”


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07.16 Defying Expectations

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 | Isaac Rowlett

Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer. The purpose of the project is to improve dialogue, relationships and collaboration between these two communities, often viewed as staunchly divided. This blog is one in a series from our public engagement team, who write to reflect on their experiences moderating the dialogues. For more information about the project, email Allison Rizzolo.


Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda.
AAAS/David Buller

When I told people that I was headed to LA to facilitate a conversation between evangelical pastors and scientists, most reactions fell somewhere between surprise and cynicism. "Why bother," asked a friend, "when they’re never going to agree on anything anyway?"

But a strange thing happens when you get a small group of people together in a room for a facilitated dialogue: they listen to one another. And instead of trying to persuade the group to support their worldviews, the pastors and scientists each respectfully introduced themselves and explained why they do what they do for a living. Similarities emerged right off the bat: curiosity, compassion and an unyielding search for truth.

It wasn’t long before the conversation took on a lighter tone. One participant, a reproductive biologist, acknowledged the tension in the room as he explained his research: "We already covered religion and politics," he said, "so I figured I’d throw sex in there too."

And there were profound moments as well, like when a scientist explained that he wasn’t 100 percent certain of anything, and that all scientific theories exist only until proven false. "What you just said makes me feel safe," a pastor replied, "because many of the scientists I know seem so definite in their beliefs, so I don’t feel comfortable expressing my faith."

Three hours later the group had hammered out areas of common ground and ideas for next steps to foster collaboration between the two communities. But more importantly, the conversations continued well past the end of the formal discussion. Most participants lingered in the room and talked, exchanging contact information and discussing how to keep the conversation going.

As a facilitator, it was humbling to witness a group of people overcome significant differences to explore how to work together to improve their community. Let’s hope that they can continue to defy expectations and set an example for the rest of us.

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06.10 Most Americans Think Government Should Do More to Fight Obesity – or Do They?

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 | Jean Johnson

Except for kids themselves, just about everyone wants children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Even so, there’s plenty of disagreement about what government can or should do to make that happen.

For First Lady Michelle Obama, federal standards for more nutritious school lunches help “parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and don’t want their efforts undermined during the day at school.” But for critics, these standards are a costly and counterproductive example of government interference. They ask why “the federal government should make these decisions rather than parents, students and local school officials.”

The school lunch dispute is one of several that have emerged when governments -- federal, state, and local -- move beyond their traditional role of providing nutrition education and try to take stronger steps to combat the country’s rising obesity rates.

What’s Government’s Role?


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06.05 Missing the Mark on Big Data in Higher Ed

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

Word that the federal administration intends to create a grading system for colleges has unnerved college leaders and set off a maelstrom of debate. But all of the arguments cast out by both supporters and naysayers lack a key consideration: for some students, at least, the data behind the proposed grading system just aren't meaningful.


The college grading system ostensibly aims to help prospective students make better choices about where to attend school. Ultimately, grades would be used to allocate federal student loans and grants. The system would be based on factors including how many students graduate from the college, how much debt they accrue, and what alumni earn.

But prospective students we surveyed last year - many of whom are underserved by the traditional college system - did not immediately understand how these sorts of data relate to their own chances for success in college and in the work force. In fact, just about half of the students we surveyed think statistics like a college's graduation rate, loan default rate, or the types of jobs and salaries that average graduates get is "essential" information to know during college searches.




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05.15 Student Perspectives on For-Profit Colleges

Thursday, May 15th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

In an effort to limit predatory behavior and poor performance among career colleges, the federal government is seeking to enact new regulations on the sector. The regulations, known as the gainful employment rule, would affect a large number of for-profit colleges.


With the public comment period on gainful employment due to close on May 26th, we're hearing a lot from advocates - including students - on either side of the issue.

This is typical when it comes to public debate on divisive policy - the strongest, most passionate voices are the ones we hear from most. This tends to paint a very black-and-white, polarized picture. Outside of the influence of advocacy and persuasion, what do average students of for-profit colleges have to say about their schools?


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