Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson
The new documentary "Waiting for Superman" poses the question "Who will become a hero now?" when it comes to fixing American schools.
The movie offers a lot of possibilities, with much of the attention focused on high-profile figures like District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada, leader of the Harlem Children's Zone. But Public Agenda's research suggests the place where more superheroes are needed is several rungs further down the ladder, and much, much closer to the people who need rescuing. The place to start is in the principal's office.
There are lots of jobs in this world where a good boss is the difference between an organization that succeeds and one that fails. That's particularly true of schools, where the principal can be the biggest single factor in whether a school is making progress or not.
And you can see that reflected powerfully in the attitudes of teachers. Public Agenda has surveyed teachers extensively over the years, and it's clear to us that the fear of a bad boss, and the hope of a good one, drives much of the disenchantment and skepticism teachers often show toward top-down school reform. In fact, for teachers, schools can become entirely different places depending on whether they see their principals as effective or not.
For example, two-thirds of teachers who give their principals fair or poor ratings consider "lack of administrative support" a major drawback of teaching, compared with only 16 percent of those who give their principal excellent or good ratings.
That's not surprising. If you have a bad boss, you're more likely to say bad management is a problem with your work, regardless of what kind of work you're doing. What's more surprising is how this pattern continues into teachers' views of almost every other corner of school reform. Teachers who say their principals are unsupportive are more likely to complain about issues like testing, the lack of freedom to be creative, and to say there are too many kids with discipline problems. One Public Agenda study grouped teachers as being "Contented," "Idealistic" or "Disheartened" in their jobs. While healthy majorities of the contented and idealistic teachers gave their principals "excellent" ratings, just 14 percent of disheartened teachers said the same.
Thursday, September 9th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The Gallup poll says more Americans are more dissatisfied with the quality of education than at any point in the past decade – but what, exactly, are they dissatisfied about?
Some 54 percent of the public says they're "completely" or "somewhat" dissatisfied with K-12 education, up from 45 percent in 2004. Parents, however, are a lot happier, with eight in 10 saying they're either somewhat or completely satisfied with the education their child gets.
A lot of this is no surprise, and in fact it's one of the best-established public opinion trends in education. For years, Americans have given their local schools better grades than public schools nationally, and parents have been happier about schools than the general public. When it comes to public education, familiarity breeds confidence, at least to some degree.
When Public Agenda has asked both parents and the public about their perception of the schools in their own community, the similarities are more striking than the differences. And the differences are often a matter of degree, not of basic perceptions.
For example, when we asked parents and the general public about the most pressing problem facing the high schools in their community, both said "social problems and kids who misbehave" was more important than low academic standards. But 63 percent of parents said this, compared with 56 percent of the public.
When asked to rate local schools, parents are more confident than the public that schools are doing a good job preparing students for college level English (55 percent compared to 46 percent), to be successful adults (53 percent vs. 44 percent), for college math (52 percent vs. 45 percent) and college science (50 percent compared to 44 percent).
Yet when it comes to deciding what's important for students to learn, we found parents and the public wanted the same things (especially when it comes to basic skills). And when given options on how to spend extra education money in their community, parents and the public would spend it the same way.
That's worth remembering as the nation continues to debate how to ensure all kids get a good education: conflict makes the news but there's a lot more consensus out there than you think..
Monday, September 6th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
Is college overrated?
The Washington Post opened up a debate when it ran a story last week questioning whether high-priced college degrees actually pay off economically. While the story quoted several critics, this isn't a majority view. Public Agenda's surveys show that most Americans are convinced a college education is necessary to get ahead. And federal statistics show that people with college degrees earn more over their lifetimes.
But if most Americans are so convinced of the value of college, why are we having the argument?
One reason may be how the public is processing two conflicting worries: their conviction that college is necessary is rising, even as they're increasingly worried that a diploma is out of reach financially.
In our Squeeze Play studies, we've found the number of people who think that a higher education is "absolutely necessary" for success has jumped dramatically, up from 31 percent as recently as 2000 to 55 percent in our last two studies, in 2008 and 2009. Yet nearly seven in 10 also say there are many qualified people who don't have access to higher education, up from 47 percent in 2000.
When those trends collide in the public's thinking, one result is skepticism about how colleges operate financially. Six out of 10 Americans in our Squeeze Play survey now say that colleges today operate more like a business, focused more on the bottom line than on the educational experience of students. The number of people who feel this way is up by 8 percentage points since 2007.
Six in ten Americans agree that "colleges could take a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices." Over half (54 percent) say that "colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education."
It's these kind of doubts that the critics of colleges may be tapping into: not so much that there isn't value in college, but that colleges may not be doing everything possible to keep their prices in line. You can believe something is absolutely necessary, and still wonder whether you paid too much for it.
Thursday, September 2nd, 2010 | Francie Grace
Even before the economy hit the wall, community colleges were already a vital part of the American dream, enrolling about half of all college students in this country. High college costs - complicated by declining housing prices and mortgage problems – have put community colleges on the radar for an increasing number of families as policymakers wrestle with issues ranging from scarce resources to green jobs and, in one case, the issue of whether funding should be performance-based.
Here at Public Agenda, access to and success in higher education are a major focus of both our public engagement work and our research. Aiming to improve the current situation, in which fewer than half of all community college students earn degrees, we now have a Boosting Community College Success section on our Web site with resources for educators, students, community leaders and parents.
The resources we offer to boost graduation rates include:
- Choicework Discussion guides and videos to help students, parents, educators and communities sort through the options on College Readiness, 21st Century Careers, and Success in Community College
- Profiles of fieldwork our public engagement team has done on this issue in various communities
- Customized technical assistance and training for holding Community Conversations to tackle problems in a community or school
- Planning guides, workbooks and other tools designed as part of the national Achieving The Dream initiative for community college success, which includes a focus on low-income and minority students
- Public opinion research on access to higher education and education reform, including our series of reports for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on obstacles to college completion: Can I Get A Little Advice Here? and With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them.
Our social networks are also a great resource for talking over the issues, swapping reports, and getting to know the others in the trenches for higher ed. We'll look forward to seeing you there: on Twitter and Facebook.
Thursday, September 2nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle
When databases and disenchantment collide, the results can be explosive – as the debate over "value-added" grading of teachers showed this week.
The Los Angeles Times provoked a furious reaction from teachers this week when it launched a database of 6,000 elementary school teachers analyzing how they've done measured by standardized tests. The stories prompted debate around the nation on the methods used and at least one piece wondering "When Does Holding Teachers Accountable Go Too Far?"
We'd argue that you can't understand the debate over the database without understanding the disenchantment so many teachers feel over their jobs.
Public Agenda's research, conducted with Learning Point Associates, shows a stunning number of K-12 teachers, some 40 percent, appear to be disheartened and disappointed in their jobs. Only 14 percent rate their principals as "excellent" at supporting them as teachers. Nearly three-quarters cite "discipline and behavior issues" in the classroom as a drawback to teaching, and 7 in 10 say that testing is a major drawbacks as well. More than half of these "Disenchanted" teachers (54 percent) work in low-income schools.
By contrast, the 23 percent of teachers who shaped up as "Idealists" and the 37 percent we termed "Contented" were more likely to say their principal was supportive, more likely to say their school was orderly, and more likely to say good teachers can make a difference in student learning. Only 34 percent of the Contented and 45 percent of the Idealists work in low-income schools.
The Teaching for a Living survey can't tell us whether the Disenchanted are bad teachers, or good teachers trapped in bad schools, or whether the Idealists are effective in the classroom or just more cheerful. But the survey does tell us something about what teachers believe their problems are. Regardless of how we try to measure success in the classroom, a better understanding of how teachers feel about their jobs can help explain why some things work and others don't.
Thursday, August 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
There are people who wait until the last minute, and then there are people like high school student Cree Bautista, who holds the honor of being the being the first student in the United States to apply to college this year, a mere three hours and thirty minutes after the "common application" form went online.
Only about a thousand students have followed his lead and submitted applications this year. That's still a fourfold increase over last year, and enough of a jump that some admissions officers are warning that there's no real advantage to getting applications in too early.
The hottest debate in higher education right now isn't about how students start college, it's about how shockingly few students actually finish. But the two are closely connected. And Public Agenda's research shows that those who drift into their college decision are more likely to drift back out again.
This isn't solely about money. In our survey, both young people who graduated from college and those who didn't said tuition and fees were an important factor in their decision. In fact the numbers were essentially identical (57 percent versus 56 percent). They're also neck-and-neck on how big a role scholarships and financial aid played in their decision (41 percent of those who didn't graduate said this was a factor, compared to 38 percent of those who did).
Thursday, August 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The debate over whether an Islamic community center should be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York has become a broader argument over tolerance toward Islam and sensitivity to 9/11. In addition to the fight over the "Ground Zero mosque," there have been reports of protests and counter-protests over plans to build mosques and Islamic community centers in other towns around the country.
We've only seen a couple of surveys about the general public's views (available here and here), and none at all on how Muslim Americans view this unfolding debate. But we can bring you some insight into how Muslim immigrants view their life in America.
In Public Agenda's survey of immigrants conducted last year, A Place to Call Home, we found most immigrants had a strong sense that they'd made the right decision by coming to the United States. If anything,the Muslim immigrants we surveyed are even more likely than other immigrants to say they're here to stay, and that they prefer the United States to their birth country – and that's saying something.
For example, an overwhelming 92 percent of Muslims said the United States would be their permanent home, compared to 69 percent of all other immigrants. Some 68 percent were already U.S. citizens, and three out of four immigrated before 9/11.
What's more, Muslims were more likely to give the United States a higher rating than their birth country on key questions, such as:
- "Having a legal system you can trust": 80 percent of Muslims said the U.S. does a better job here, compared to 69 percent of other immigrants
- "Having a free and independent media": 80 percent of Muslims said the U.S. is better, compared to 54 percent of other immigrants, a 26-point difference
- "Having a good education system": 78 percent of Muslims give the U.S. the edge, compared to 62 percent of other immigrants
- "Having a higher standard of morality": 64 percent of Muslims say the United States, against 48 percent of other immigrants
In no survey question did Muslim immigrants say that their birth country is better than the United States (the topline is available here).
Islamic radicals can certainly exist in the United States. The Times Square bomb attempt and 9/11 itself show that. But if the concern is about how Muslim immigrants fit in to the United States, the survey data shows quite clearly that the vast majority of Muslim immigrants aren't interested in recreating their birth countries here. They're here precisely because the United States is different from where they were born, and because they embrace American life. Whatever happens to the Cordoba House project, that's a point that's worth remembering – and cherishing.
Monday, August 9th, 2010 | Francie Grace
President Obama heads to Austin, Texas, today for a speech in which he is expected to talk about the goal of the U.S. regaining its position as the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates (we're now #12 for citizens aged 25 to 34). For a preview of the speech, see http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/08/09/obama.education/; you can also watch it live at 3 p.m. ET at WhiteHouse.gov/live.
Public Agenda has done a lot of work on this issue. Why are so many Americans having a hard time making it from the first day of college to graduation day? And what can be done about it? To learn more, check out our series of reports on college completion, With Their Whole Lives Ahead Of Them and Can I Get A Little Advice Here?.
Thursday, August 5th, 2010 | Francie Grace
Keeping score on the federal budget is more complicated than it needs to be. Take today's official report on the status of the Medicare and Social Security programs. There's positive news, in that Medicare's financial situation is projected to improve as a result of the new health care plan. There's slightly worse short-term news for Social Security. And there's continuing bad news, in that the long-term outlook of both programs remains troubling.
Understanding the relationship between the federal budget and government policy is difficult even for full-time budget wonks, and for the rest of us, it's almost impossible. The biggest problem isn't that we can't get to the right information, it's just that the information isn't easy to use, and we have a hard time visualizing the context of budget decisions.
Solutions are, however, at hand. Choosing Our Fiscal Future has rolled out a new iPhone app, which delivers news, tweets, video and more about the national debt crisis. And OurFiscalFuture.org now has the U.S. Visual Budget tool, a web-based application which helps the numbers make sense. With this application you can:
- Compare aspects of the budget to one another – from branches of government to functions like energy or international affairs
- Examine changes over time – right now, going back to the Kennedy administration, but soon we'll be able to take you all the way back to George Washington
- See what spending decisions were made in what sort of political climate – by House, Senate, or Presidential party
- See numbers in real dollars, in nominal dollars, or as a percentage of GDP, and print any chart that you create for use elsewhere
Try out the Visual Budget Tool at http://www.ourfiscalfuture.org/visualbudget.html, start thinking about our options, and let us know what you think: it's all of our futures that are at stake.
Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 | Francie Grace
As a kid, I was always in awe of Marie Curie: just imagine, a woman and a world-renowned scientist, wife and mother. Despite that early imprint, I found glasses and microscopes awfully hard to use at the same time, and accordingly focused my talents in the world of words, which brings me here to you today.
Sally Ride was another such role model for many, so it's kind of cool to see America's first woman in space as the name on the door and the guiding force behind the Sally Ride Science Academy. With the National Science Foundation predicting that 80 percent of the next decade's jobs will require math and science skills, Ride was on hand in D.C. last week as a hundred elementary school teachers from across the nation gathered at the Academy to learn more about strategies for getting today's kids excited about science. "When I was growing up ... science was cool," says the 59-year-old Ride. "We need to make science cool again."
A lot of educators are working on this, too – among the notables online are Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (which got a visit from Bill Gates) and many of the reformers active in #edchat discussions on Twitter and elsewhere in social media – but unlike those pathfinders, most of Ride's students are teachers.
The success of such efforts depends very much on public attitudes towards math and science and opinions on the relative importance of the need to nurture the next generation of tech wizards and workers. Public Agenda's been very active in this area, both in research on public attitudes to lay the groundwork for discussion, and in public engagement projects talking to community leaders, parents and students.
Our public opinion study, Are We Beginning To See The Light?, found strong majorities who said there will be more jobs and college opportunities for students with science and math skills. But 52 percent of parents said the math and science education their own children are getting is "fine as is," and few survey participants, including non-parents, said it's essential for students to understand advanced sciences like physics (28 percent) or advanced math like calculus (26 percent).
For more on this subject, see: Getting Ready For 21st Century Careers, our Choicework discussion guide for citizens to consider the issues and take action in their own communities; Opportunity Knocks: Closing the Gaps between Leaders and the Public on Math, Science, & Technology Education; Out Before the Game Begins: Hispanic Leaders Talk About What's Needed to Bring More Hispanic Youngsters Into Science, Technology and Math Professions; and A Time to Learn, A Time to Grow: California Parents Talk About Summertime and Summer Programs.