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09.02 Grading Teachers, Measuring Success

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.

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08.12 Does First Out of the Application Gate Mean Most Likely to Graduate?

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).


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08.12 What Muslim Immigrants Say About America

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.

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08.09 College Completion: Eyes On 2020

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?.

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08.05 Get the Picture: Visual Budget Tool & New iPhone App

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.

Choosing Our Fiscal Future is a partnership between Public Agenda and the National Academy of Public Administration, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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08.04 Sparking Math and Science Dreams In Tomorrow's Leaders

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.


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08.02 Feeling the Pressure In Higher Ed

Monday, August 2nd, 2010 | Francie Grace

"If we don't think we're going to have to reinvent ourselves, we are delusional." That's Liz Grobsmith, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northern Arizona University, in an Inside Higher Ed interview at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities "Re-Imagining Undergraduate Education" conference last week in Chicago.

Two- and 4-year colleges across the country are facing the challenge of super-tight budgets and the need to operate more efficiently while changing the way things are done to meet the needs of today's students. There's also the fast-expanding world of for-profit institutions, which are under increased government scrutiny as they scramble to attract the hard-earned dollars of price-sensitive prospective students, and have been known to use tactics such as hard-hitting advertisements which are less likely to be associated with traditional bastions of higher learning.

Speaking at the AASCU meeting, George Mehaffy, the organization's VP for leadership and change, played a video of one well-known for-profit commercial and then laid it on the line to his audience: college provosts from across the country. This, said Mehaffy, is the time "to get serious about the process of change in American higher education. It is important that we resolve to make substantive changes -- major changes, not changes around the margins -- and that we do so with a fierce sense of urgency."

The AASCU plans a year-long process of working with campus leaders to identify a set of initiatives for institution-wide and possibly proposals for national change. Mehaffy, known for his interest in civic engagement, was effective in sparking debate among the academics on hand (and online – check out the comments on Inside Higher Ed), who he has exhorted to work together for change.

We've been working on that ourselves here at Public Agenda, where we're using the tools of public engagement and public opinion research to improve access to higher education. To learn more about this, check out Changing the Conversation About Productivity: Strategies for Engaging Faculty and Institutional Leaders, a report by our Public Engagement team following up on our earlier report, Campus Commons: What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think About Controlling College Costs. We also recommend Squeeze Play, our study on public opinion about college costs and the college experience; Sharing the Dream, research on efforts to improve outcomes for community college students; and our series of reports on obstacles to college completion, Can I Get A Little Advice Here? and With Their Whole Lives Ahead Of Them.

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07.29 Immigration: Passionate Debate, Everyday Experiences

Thursday, July 29th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The teeth of Arizona's new immigration law were blocked in court this week, but the debate is undoubtedly going to continue. Arizona is already appealing the decision, as other states considering similar laws watch how the case progresses.

Given the passions aroused in the Arizona debate – and the recurring fights about immigration over the last few years – it's fair to wonder about how this plays out in day-to-day interactions. Overall, immigrants themselves paint a picture of a country where they fit in well. In Public Agenda's survey of immigrants, A Place to Call Home, we found most immigrants said they felt comfortable in the United States pretty quickly.

More than three-quarters (77 percent) say that it takes fewer than five years to "feel comfortable here and part of the community," and nearly half (47 percent) said it took fewer than two. Seven in 10 say they'd do it all over again if they had the chance.

Such easy comfort with their adopted home comes despite some formidable obstacles. Just more than three quarters (76 percent) say that they came to the United States with "very little money," and only 20 percent say they had "a good amount of money to get started." Some 45 percent say that they came to this country not speaking any English at all, an increase of 10 points since 2002.

There are some indications, however, that when it comes to being "comfortable" in communities, other immigrants play a critical role. Compared to 2002, more immigrants say that they spend time with people from their birth country and have closer ties there. Half of the immigrants we surveyed (51 percent) say they spend "a lot" of time with people from their birth country, a jump of 14 points from 2002.

And when it comes to discrimination, most immigrants say it exists, but most also say they don't run into it personally. More than six in 10 immigrants say there's some discrimination against immigrants in the United States today, and one in five say there's “a great deal” of discrimination. But only 9 percent of immigrants say that they have personally experienced “a great deal” of discrimination, with another 16 percent reporting that they experienced "some." And while Mexican immigrants are more likely to say there's a great deal of discrimination against immigrants, they're no more likely to say they've experienced it personally.

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07.22 Momentum For Common Standards On Education

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The drive for common core education standards is gaining steam, with 26 states and the District of Columbia already signed up. Public Agenda's research has found Americans like the idea of standards – but low standards are not their most pressing concern about schools.

More states are expected to sign up for the standards in English and math, which are a key part of the Obama administration's "race to the top" program and also have strong backing from the nation's governors and chief school officers. But the idea still causes intense debate among educators and others.

In our research, Public Agenda has consistently found that the public supports the idea of standards, and has for some time. In our most recent look at this, our "Are We Beginning to See the Light?" survey on math and science education, strong majorities of both parents and the public said establishing a national curriculum would help improve math education (about half of both groups) said it would help "a lot."

It's also important to note that curriculum and standards are not what's bothering parents and the public most about schools. When participants in our math and science education survey were asked about the most pressing problem facing local high schools, some 63 percent of parents and 56 percent of the public cited "social problems and kids who misbehave." Only about three in 10 cited "low academic standards and outdated curricula."

National standards may well be a major step forward for improving American schools – but the public sees safe and orderly schools as a pressing concern, and that deserves to be addressed as well.

Editor's note: This post has been edited to correct the number of states that have adopted the common core standards; as of July 23, the count is 26 states and the District of Columbia.

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07.20 Poll Says Public Favors Deficit Over Stimulus: The Key Question is Why

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

For the first time, the Pew Research Center survey reports reducing the deficit is a higher priority than spending to stimulate the economy – but that may say more about public attitudes toward the stimulus than it does about the deficit.

As recently as February, the Pew survey found the public evenly split on reducing the deficit versus spending more to help the economy (47 percent each). Now the deficit comes out ahead, 51 percent to 40 percent.

Reducing the deficit also beats out cutting taxes by a similar margin (51 percent to 41 percent).

Yet as we've noted before, surveys show the economy consistently beats out the deficit (and everything else for that matter) as the public's biggest concern. So what's the deal? We think the answer lies in the other big takeaway in this survey, headlined "Gov't Economic Policies Seen as Boon for Banks and Big Business, Not Middle Class or Poor." As Pew puts it:

The public sees clear winners and losers from the economic policies the government has implemented since the recession of 2008. Most Americans say these policies have helped large banks, large corporations and the wealthy, while providing little or no help for the poor, the middle class or small businesses.


Strong majorities say the government has done a "great deal" or a "fair amount" to help banks (74 percent), large corporations (70 percent) and the wealthy (57 percent). And majorities also say that the government has helped other groups "not too much" or "not at all", like small business (68 percent), middle-class people (68 percent) and poor people (64 percent).

Add to that the fact that relatively few people surveyed by Pew say they've seen direct effects from the stimulus. Two-thirds say it's increased the budget deficit, but only 43 percent say they believe it has led to improvements in roads, bridges and other infrastructure in their area. A mere one-third say the stimulus helped keep unemployment from getting even worse, and 29 percent say it helped state and local governments avoid layoffs and budget cuts.

Economists can and do argue that this isn't an either/or choice; that the nation can both spend more now to push the economy and make progress on its long-term budget problems. Given perceptions like this, however, it's no surprise that the public is skeptical.

If you want to see where the stimulus money is actually going, have a look at the federal government's Recovery.gov site or Stimulus.org from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

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