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02.24 Unrest, Instability & Oil Insecurity

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The unrest in Libya is rattling the world oil markets – but is it enough to put dependence on foreign oil back on the agenda in the United States?

The waves of change sweeping the Middle East, and the bloody uprisings in Libya in particular, have driven oil prices up to $110 per barrel, a level that hasn't been seen since the price spike of 2008. More importantly, the changes are again raising questions about American dependence on foreign oil, with U.S. leaders raising questions about the national security and economic implications of getting more than half our oil from overseas.

When Public Agenda examined this in our Energy Learning Curve survey, we found eight in 10 Americans worried that our economy is too dependent on oil (47 percent said they worried "a lot") and that oil dependence will involve us in conflicts in the Middle East (43 percent worried "a lot").

But it will take more than worry to address this problem; it's going to require grappling with the choices involved in actually changing how we use energy. The United States hasn't been able to meet all its own oil needs since 1957, so this problem is well-entrenched. Almost all the oil we use is for transportation, which means this is closely tied to how much Americans drive, and what we drive.

Yet our Energy Learning Curve also found a lot of public resistance to anything that increases the cost of driving, and very low knowledge levels on some key facts, such as how much of the world's oil is actually in the United States (about 2.5 percent).

We do have options for changing how we use energy, but they require some basic national choices: what do we want to use to fuel our cars? What kind of infrastructure do we need to support that? How much do we want to spend to do it? And since no energy source is perfect, all of our options require making tradeoffs, in one form or another.

There are some problems, even public policy decisions, that can be left to the experts. Energy isn't one of them. It's too interwoven into our daily lives. If we are to seize this moment and change the nation's course on energy, leaders are going to have to present the public with realistic options – and a clear sense of what it'll take to get there.

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02.16 The Budget Challenge, In 500 Words or Less

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 | Francie Grace

One of the first, widespread reactions to the budget President Obama proposed this week was this: it's avoiding the real issue. That's because the president didn't propose solutions to the basic problems driving our fiscal problems, namely, the health care costs and aging population that will drive up spending on Medicare and Social Security.

But, the president's advisers were also fairly open about why they did this, which is that they don't think Washington is ready to tackle those problems. Better to propose spending cuts and tax increases in other areas, and see if that provides openings for the two parties to move forward. The president did suggest a bipartisan effort to work on Social Security, and set out his views on what would be acceptable.

Polls show that many Americans are fundamentally uninformed or conflicted about key aspects of the budget problem, which makes this a daunting problem for elected officials on both sides of the aisle. But if the country isn't ready to think about these problems, it needs to get ready, because the problem is closer than most people think. In as little as 10 years, our national debt could be as big as our entire economy. Sooner than that, government auditors say, more than 90 cents of every tax dollar will be taken up on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the national debt. Allowing this problem to play out won't help our fiscal situation, or our economy.

Getting our deficit and national debt under control requires setting priorities and making tradeoffs, and it takes time for the public to grapple with those questions. The knowledge needed isn't that complicated – in fact Public Agenda authors Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle managed to "Tackle the National Debt in 500 Words or Less." The Our Fiscal Future initiative, in which Public Agenda is a partner, also sums up choices and challenges quickly.

The public can make choices on this problem, if our leaders will let them, and if they can tame their tendency to try to spin the facts to suit their own political aims. We will all have to live with the consequences of what the country does or doesn't do as we grapple with the budget and the debt. As political leaders in Washington edge toward decisions, we'd urge them to remember that the public has a role to play here, and the American people have the right to understand this debate and take part in it.

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02.16 In Their Shoes – Students Teaching Us About Higher Ed

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

A recent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed wondered "Where Are the Student Voices?" when it comes to community colleges. "This paucity of on-the-ground knowledge is a prescription for policy disaster, for the history of social policy is littered with reforms that failed because local knowledge was ignored," the authors say. "How, we wonder, can legislators and educators know what kinds of interventions to create without hearing from the very people they are trying to help?"

We agree. And we can shed some light on the question.

In our With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them survey, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we asked young Americans who started college, but weren't able to complete their degrees, what kinds of obstacles they faced. What they told us was very different from what many policymakers assume. Nearly all of the young people we surveyed recognized the value of a college degree is in today's work force. Relatively few told us that they left college because they didn't like it, or, didn't think it was worth the money.

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02.10 Getting The Debt Debate In Perspective

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 | Francie Grace

We'll be hearing a lot about the federal budget in the next week – but how much of the debate will actually help Americans figure out their choices?

President Obama will be formally submitting his budget on Monday, with proposals from Republicans already circulating. But with all the highly wonky plans and counter-plans, and the inside-the-Beltway debates over debt ceilings and resolutions, what gets lost is that the budget debate is about setting priorities – and the public needs to play a role in setting them.

Projections show the national debt will be nearly as big as our entire economy in as little as 10 years, and that more than 90 cents of every tax dollar will be taken up by rising costs for Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and interest on the money we've already borrowed. If we're going to change those projections, it'll help to act sooner rather than later. Yet we're also facing a frail economy, high unemployment and lots of needs the government has to meet.

Fortunately, we've got some resources to guide you through the blizzard of billion-dollar numbers you'll be hearing in the next week:


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02.10 Teaching Teachers: How Well Are Colleges Meeting The Challenge?

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 | Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

It's an old question in education reform, and an important one: how well do we teach our teachers?

U.S. News and World Report, already a player in the education world because of its popular and controversial college guide, has plunged into the debate with its plan to issue ratings of teachers colleges. A number of schools of education, citing concerns about how the magazine will reach its conclusions, have said they won't participate.

In Public Agenda's Lessons Learned survey, we found most first-year teachers gave their training programs good marks. Nearly 7 in 10 said their training on direct instruction helped them "a lot" and 6 in 10 said that what they learned about classroom management helped "a lot." Overall 8 in 10 felt they were prepared for their first classroom (42 percent said "very prepared).

However, by the new teachers' own account, there are places where their instruction fell down. For example, three-quarters of new teachers said their training covered dealing with diverse classrooms, but only 39 percent said it helped them "a lot" once they were in their own classroom.

Moreover, new middle and high school teachers were more likely to criticize their training for putting too much emphasis on theory compared to the practical demands of the classroom. More than half (53 percent) of new high school teachers say their preparation was too theoretical, while just 40 percent of new elementary teachers say this.

The survey also raised questions about the kind of support brand-new teachers get from colleagues and administrators when they take on their first classroom, especially new high school teachers. Just a quarter of new high school teachers (26 percent) said they get excellent advice on lesson plans and teaching techniques, compared to 39 percent of elementary school teachers who said the same.

There is also a 10-point difference on the advice they said they got about handling unmotivated students: 31 percent of high school teachers say they get excellent advice, compared to 41 percent of grade school teachers.

There are dissatisfied, struggling teachers in America, beyond question, and they're an uncomfortably large group. In our Teaching for a Living survey, we found 4 in 10 teachers are "disheartened" about their jobs. More than half teach in low-income schools, and they're more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and an undue focus on testing. Their concerns are not so much about their training as they are about working conditions once they are on the job.

We need to produce the best possible teachers, with the best possible training. Second-rate training certainly won't produce first-class teachers. But the powerful frustration we've found among teachers in surveys focuses less on their preparation for the classroom than on what they found, and what they need, once they arrive.

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01.27 Science Ed: Waiting Too Long, Settling For Too Little?

Thursday, January 27th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

No sooner did President Obama call for a new focus on math and science education in the State of the Union than new test scores showed how big a challenge this will be. The new edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released the day after the speech, showed only 21 percent of American high school seniors are "proficient" at science.

This isn't the first time American political and business leaders have sounded the alarm about students' poor performance in math and science, particularly compared to other countries. There's a whole range of theories about why this might be. The most recent one is that Chinese students perform better because Chinese parents are more strict and goal-oriented than American ones – the so-called "tiger mother" theory.
Whatever the virtues and weaknesses of that theory, we'd point out that in science, American students also lag behind nations like Hungary and Russia, so that can't be the whole explanation.

In Public Agenda's surveys, what we've found suggests the real issue for American parents may be complacency and priorities.

Most parents we surveyed want their children to take advanced science in high school (54 percent) – but even more (70 percent) also say science can wait until middle and high school.

In addition, most parents may also believe their children are doing better than they really are in this area. About half (52 percent) say that the amount of math and science their child is getting is "fine the way it is."

The way to change those attitudes may be to talk about opportunity – particularly the opportunities that might be missed if Americans don't do better in this area. Some 84 percent believe there will be a lot more jobs in the future for those with math and science skills, and even more (88 percent) say those skills are an advantage in getting into college.

When it comes to improving math and science education, parenting may matter – but parents' priorities may matter more.

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01.20 A More Civil Debate, But Was It More Helpful?

Thursday, January 20th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

This week's congressional debate on repealing health care reform was significantly more civil than the previous fights on this issue (with at least one notable exception). But was it more helpful to the public?

Certainly the more measured tone, part of the fallout from the Arizona shootings at a congressional event, was a relief after the hyper-partisanship of last year's debate. There's also growing momentum for a symbolic gesture of civility next week, namely having members of the two parties sit mixed together at the State of the Union instead of on opposite sides of the aisle.

Civility is a crucial first step for a more effective debate. At the same time, the House health care debate showed how the current process isn't helpful to the public.

One of the problems with the health care debate of 2009-10 wasn't just that it was angry and partisan – although it certainly was – but that it was also hyper-technical. Health care is a complicated issue, and there was little effort spent on trying to make it easier for the public to understand what their options are, or what the unknowns might be.

This week's debate was a chance to revisit some of these questions. But instead the House and the policy community spent much of their time debating the accuracy of Congressional Budget Office projections on the law's impact on the deficit and the economy. That's important, but it's also a technical argument that the public isn't prepared to judge for themselves – particularly when Republicans and Democrats have such radically different interpretations. (These summaries from Factcheck.org on the economic and deficit implications are helpful, as is the Five Things You Need to Know About Health Care and the National Debt from Choosing Our Fiscal Future).

If any health care reform is to succeed, the public needs a sense of what the alternatives really are. If not this plan, what? What are the pros and cons, what are the tradeoffs? How does this health care bill stack up against other ideas – and against a fiscally unsustainable status quo?

These are crucial factors if the public is going to make sound judgments about anything. They didn't get them in the first health care debate, and they didn't get them from this week's debate, either. A more civil tone can help that more sophisticated discussion happen – but it's not enough by itself.

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01.13 Tragedy, Civility, and the Public Discourse We Need

Thursday, January 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

We may never completely untangle the reasons behind last weekend's shootings in Arizona. The slayings of six people at a congressional event, including a nine-year-old girl, have prompted a national debate over whether hyperpartisan, overheated political rhetoric pushed the accused gunman over the edge. President Obama himself called for a more civil dialogue at the memorial service yesterday.

But the truth is that our system of political discussion is broken, even if it played no role whatsoever in this horrible event. Part of the evidence for that is the fact that so many in politics and the media immediately thought that inflamed rhetoric could have played a part in the Arizona tragedy. That says as much or more about the state of our debate – and the people who largely shape it -- as it does about the mind of Jared Lee Loughner. So many in public life apparently already suspected that some day, somewhere, someone might snap because of the state of political debate – even, it seems, as they participated in that debate every day.

Life is not a civics lesson. Passion, even anger, are an essential part of public debate. Demonization of your opponents isn't. The calls for greater civility coming from all quarters are entirely right, and we agree.

Yet a harsh tone is only part of what's wrong with our public discourse.

  • Our model of "an informed public" isn't working. We do a reasonably good job of alerting citizens to problems, but we do an appalling job of helping them understand how, realistically, we can solve them.
  • Rather than helping citizens understand issues, much of the news consists of experts talking to each other, scoring points off each other rather than really explaining anything. As a nation, we do very little to help people actually follow the discussion.
  • As more people choose their news sources to match their preconceptions, there aren’t enough venues where typical citizens from different walks of life can exchange their ideas and perspectives. When Public Agenda helps communities organize conversations on important issues, participants routinely tell us how fascinating and important these kinds of discussions are. They want to know when they can do it again.

None of those problems would ever cause violence. But every day, in large ways and small, they keep us from solving our shared problems.

We need greater civility, and the fact that so many in public life are re-examining the tone of the debate is a positive thing. We hope it takes root. But civility is only a start in having the dialogue we want – and need – as a nation.

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12.22 Lessons From The Movies, About Making Choices

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Over the past couple of weeks, Washington has been consumed by choices over taxes and spending: first the furor over the deficit commission report, then over the compromise on the Bush tax cuts. And that got us thinking about the 1993 movie ”Dave".

"Dave" has a durable old plot, about a lookalike who takes the place of the president, and is actually better at it than the real one. In one famous scene, Dave stares down the Cabinet over cutting a marketing campaign in order to save funding for a program helping homeless children.


In the real world, however, we're not always faced with such clear choices between what's moral and valuable and what's not. The fact is that despite Americans' skepticism of government, most of the federal government's money goes to programs that people actually support and depend on. The tough part comes when we have to make choices between different things that are all valuable.

Overall, the American political system does a pretty bad job of helping the public work through its options. All of Public Agenda's work shows that the public really can cope with complicated decisions, given the right circumstances. But the public has a "learning curve" on problems, and it takes time for them to "work through" a question and come to solid conclusions.

But there are a lot of potential barriers to that process. Hyperpartisanship, mistrust, wishful thinking and a host of other factors work against people as they try to come to considered judgments.

The federal budget, energy, education: these are just a few of the complicated problems that can't be solved without an engaged public. And to get that engaged public, we've got to get better at considering our options as a nation. Because, unlike in "Dave," not all the choices are going to be easy.

Click here to see the full version of this story at OurFiscalFuture.org, join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and keep up with the latest deficit and national debt proposals and maneuvers with Fiscal Future Daily (on holiday break now, and back in business on January 3).

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12.22 Tackling The Tough Issues – With Your Help

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle

It's been a tumultuous year for the country: economic hardship, political change, and a full slate of pressing problems that seem more intractable than ever. The challenges facing the nation have never been greater, and neither has the need to engage citizens in shaping their own future.

Public Agenda has been working all year to address that need, producing groundbreaking opinion research and citizen engagement programs around major domestic policy issues. Through those initiatives, and on the web and through social media, we've helped to educate and empower citizens by helping them consider the challenges facing our nation, including:

  • Insightful Research on Why Too Many Young People Don't Finish College: With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them and Can I Get A Little Advice Here?, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, probe the reasons behind sometimes-surprising barriers young people face in getting a postsecondary diploma.

  • Engaging Communities to Improve Lagging High School Graduation Rates With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Public Agenda supported the Carlsbad, New Mexico School District in its efforts to engage local parents, students and educators in increasing high school completion rates. We provided technical assistance and training for a local "Graduation Summit."

  • Survey On Math & Science Education in America Our study done with the support of the GE Foundation, in which we asked parents and the general public how well the schools are getting the job done, continues to be cited on a regular basis by educators and others concerned about the U.S. maintaining a competitive position in the world.

  • Bridging the Gap between Leaders and the Public on Climate, Energy and Science Through presentations to scientists, like this one made by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich at the American Association for the Advancement of Science; books, and blog posts, we've encouraged some of the world's most prominent scientists to change the usual - and largely ineffective - model used to engage with the public on issues like climate change.

  • Helping the Public Make Fiscal Choices In the Choosing Our Fiscal Future initiative, in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we work to help citizens think through the options for dealing with our rising national debt.


As a subscriber of Public Agenda's Alert, we hope you will contribute to ensuring that Public Agenda will continue to meet these central goals in 2011. We greatly appreciate contributions of any size from people like you who help make our work possible. To make a secure, online donation, click here.

Or, if you prefer, you can also make a donation by mail: Public Agenda, 6 East 39th St., Floor 9, New York, N.Y. 10016, or by phone: contact Alex Trilling at 212-686-6610 ext. 20.

Thank you for your support of our work.

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