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03.06 On Opinions of Online Education:
Hit “Refresh”

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi

The face of higher education is changing rapidly, and Public Agenda is working hard to help education leaders, faculty, students, policymakers and employers better navigate these complex changes.

One of the biggest developments in higher ed is online education. While public opinion on online ed is becoming more positive and the sector is growing, our research and other organizations' show that serious questions and uncertainties remain.

As of late last year, almost half of adults (48 percent) say an online degree “provides a similar quality of education as compared to traditional colleges or universities,” according to researchers at Northeastern University. Just a year and a half earlier, less than a third of adults (29 percent) thought the educational value of online courses is equal to that of classroom learning, according to a Pew poll.

This shift comes in light of impressive growth in the percent of all Americans who have taken online courses for credit. In 2011, 16 percent of Americans had taken an online course for credit, up from 6 percent in 2001, according to Pew. Among just those Americans who have at least some college education, more than a quarter (26 percent) have taken online courses for credit—a number that rose 13 percentage points just between 2005 and 2011.

And Pew’s 2011 data confirms what we would suspect: that those who have taken an online course are more likely than those who have not (by 12 points) to say its educational value is equal to that of a classroom class. Furthermore, most chief academic officers agree; more than three quarters say the learning outcomes of online instruction are the same or better than face-to-face instruction, according to a 2012 survey.

But, on the question of quality, some important stakeholders, including higher education faculty and employers, may remain unconvinced. Nearly 60 percent of faculty said they felt "more fear than excitement" about the growth of online education in a 2012 survey.

And employers tend to favor candidates who obtain their degrees in a traditional face-to-face setting over ones who completed a degree online, notes Nikolaos Linardopoulos at Rutgers University in a recent review of literature on the topic. However, employers ultimately consider the format of an applicant’s instruction—whether online or in-person—secondary to factors like the reputation of the institution from which the degree came, according to the author.


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02.26 Accountability and Public Schools

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

A Closer Look at How Parents and Teachers Think

Fifteen years ago, federal, state, and local officials started pursuing a broad range of reforms to ensure more accountability in the nation’s public school system. They hope this can improve and restore trust in our nation's public education system.

Yet the public's confidence in public schools is at a historic low. How can this be?

New research from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation suggests that parents and education leaders may think about and define accountability in critically different ways. "Will It Be on the Test?" raises important questions about the trajectory of education reform and whether the way we think and talk about "education" is too narrow.

Most parents – and most Americans generally – applaud the goals of the accountability movement. They say the movement responds to some of their genuine concerns and welcome some of the changes it has instituted, such as raising academic standards and promoting students only when they have mastered needed skills.

Still, they see it as sorely lacking in fundamental ways. To them, accountability provides too few answers to problems they see as pivotal. These problems include too many irresponsible parents, too many unmotivated students, too little community support, and messages from society that undermine learning and education.

Parents also think the accountability movement places too much weight on standardized tests when there are many other factors to consider when judging the effectiveness of schools. And they fear it overlooks the importance of local schools as a community institution.

These competing definitions sometimes clash, especially when districts—in an effort to be more “accountable”—decide to close under-performing schools.

However, one of the most important messages of the research is one that leaders may find encouraging: parents do not believe schools can do it alone.


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02.19 Public Agenda Launches New Website

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

Welcome to Public Agenda's new website!

We hope you find the new site brighter, cleaner, and easier to navigate. Be sure to check out our story, who we are, what we do, where we work, and the services we offer.

Our blog, On the Agenda, also has a new, fresh look.

If you are looking for a specific report or discussion guide, our advanced search page will give you the help you need.

Did you know we've been around for nearly 40 years? That's a lot of time to accumulate a lot of important resources! We offer all of these resources for free. We hope that you'll considering donating to Public Agenda so we can keep up our important work.

It's possible we've overlooked something in the transition. If you are looking for something and cannot find it, let us know. If you are looking for our online issue guides, we have updated a number of them for our Citizens' Solutions Guides. Old issue guides that have not been updated are archived.

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01.17 Rebuilding Trust in the Government

Thursday, January 17th, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan

After two full years of largely ineffectual work, the 112th Congress finally ended its unproductive streak with the close of 2012. One grand question for the new Congress is how to help the exhausted American public regain confidence in leadership when they have seen leaders essentially plug their ears and yell, “I can’t hear you.”

The public's trust in government has long been eroding. A healthy democracy requires the participation of the public in decision making. Unfortunately, such participation becomes difficult, if not poisonous, when there is not a foundation of trust between those making policy and those affected by it.

Provided they are interested in maintaining a healthy democracy, how can our nation's leaders mend the minds and hearts of the public so their trust in the government can be rebuilt?

We believe many of our nation's leaders genuinely want to do what’s best for the country. But consistent set-backs erode their optimism and motivation. Wary of pitfalls, politicians have only been moved to inaction. We understand why they may be unmotivated, but there are many practical actions they can take to help rebuild the public's trust and get this country back on track when it comes to solving our nation's problems.


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12.13 No Easy Way Out: What Leaders Can Learn from Citizens on the National Debt

Thursday, December 13th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

As our nation's leaders continue to struggle to build common ground on the best ways to approach the nation's debt problem, perhaps they can take a cue from the public.

Over the course of last year, everyday citizens from all ages and walks of life gathered around the country to talk about tackling the debt. The forums were hosted by the nonpartisan National Issues Forums (NIF), a longtime partner of Public Agenda. Participants' insights are captured in the new NIF report, "No Easy Way Out: Citizens Talk about Tackling the Debt ," written by Public Agenda's Jean Johnson.

Participants in the forums looked at multiple possibilities for addressing the debt, as well as the pros and cons of these approaches. In many respects, the report contains good news for leaders hoping to find common ground on this difficult topic. Forum participants spoke of a number of common themes, including:

  • They, and other citizens, are ready for serious, civil talks about the debt.
  • They also understand that solving the problem won't be easy and will require broad acceptance of change and sacrifice.
  • Very few participants brought nonnegotiable items to the table. Most understood that moving forward will require at least some changes they may not like personally.

NIF believes, and we agree, that leaders who understand the concerns and questions of these typical Americans will be better prepared to develop solutions accepted as fair and effective by the public at large.
To this end, Jean traveled to DC last week, with colleagues from NIF, to brief national policymakers on the report's findings. She spoke to staff from House Speaker Boehner's office, top officials in the Treasury Department and staff from both the Republican and Democratic Policy Committees.

Policymakers welcomed the report findings and seemed eager for more of this sort of feedback from the public, which they often saw as richer and more nuanced that what they get from standard polling. "I thought there was a genuine hunger among these leaders for the kinds of deliberative insights from the public that emerge in the NIF forums and the engagement work of Public Agenda," said Jean.

The report also found that people need additional opportunities to grapple with the issue of the debt and the need to address the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare in nonpartisan, non-advocacy settings. While the citizen discussion in forums—which typically run about two hours—were remarkable, it’s also true that many of the forum participants themselves wanted to learn more, think more, and continue their deliberations. Unfortunately, there are not many settings like this readily available in today's public arena.

The question then is: How do we take the deliberative model of NIF and Public Agenda and expand it to a broader audience? Are there ways to provide more of these dialogues? Are there trusted, neutral voices that can guide such exchanges?

One way to start is in your own community, school or organization. A discussion guide like Public Agenda's "The Federal Budget: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" (free of charge) or NIF's "A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills?" can provide the framework for a productive dialogue on the choices we face when it comes to our country's economic future.

As "No Easy Way Out" demonstrates, under the right conditions, everyday citizens can build common ground, and practical solutions are within reach. We just have to work to find them.

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11.01 Community Engagement and School Transformation

Thursday, November 1st, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

Closing or turning around a low-performing school is always disruptive, but engaging the community in decision making can help make school transformation less painful and more likely to succeed. Without deep knowledge of the communities that are affected by turnaround and careful attention to engagement and communication practices, even the most earnest leaders hoping to inspire change are likely to see their efforts fail.

Last week, Jyoti Gupta, senior public engagement associate, presented some simple principles for engaging and communicating with the community to nearly 45 of Chicago's education and community leaders. The principles, drawn mainly from Public Agenda's reports "What's Trust Got to Do With It?" and "Community Responses to School Reform in Chicago," help education leaders and the community better work together to transform the most challenging schools into high-performing centers of success. Jyoti's presentation was part of Education Reform Now, Illinois' first annual policy briefing on improving chronically low-performing schools. The forum provided an opportunity for participants to better understand and address school turnaround in Chicago and nationally in a way that is both responsive to community need and solutions oriented.

Both the reports and the presentation help education leaders understand the primary ways communities react to school turnaround efforts and why those efforts can be met with anger and distrust. They also provide actionable steps for working with communities to build trust and plan and implement changes to improve low-performing schools. Some of these steps include:

  • Finding a shared vision: Help the community envision exactly what it looks like when school conditions that empower students and teachers to improve are in place, why those conditions are necessary, and what will be required to get there. Dwelling on negative aspects without giving people a sense of hope can contribute to negative community reactions.
  • Providing information: Community members need the right amount of information at the right time and in an accessible format. They need enough information to be able to understand – and independently judge – the worth and process of a turnaround effort. They need ways to access more information when they want it in a language that makes sense and is useful.
  • Breaking out of the “public hearing” format: While Town Halls or public hearings are familiar to many people, they are often not the most effective way to hear from a diversity of voices, to wrestle with complex issues, or create an environment of problem solving. Instead, engagement in small groups and on a more routine basis can help to build communication and mutual respect, as well as encourage creativity and exchange of multiple viewpoints.



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10.18 Deliberative Democracy and Change Management

Thursday, October 18th, 2012 | Will Friedman, Ph.D. and Alison Kadlec

Every two years, during the conference for the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, practitioners, researchers and advocates of participatory problem solving gather to share new ideas, explore challenges, and learn from each other, all to improve our practice and efforts in our respective fields. At this year's conference, in Seattle on October 12th through the 14th, we had the pleasure of presenting some of Public Agenda's ideas-in-progress to a large and lively group.

During our session, “Deliberative Democracy and Change Management,” we explored the intersection of these two domains. Both deliberative democracy and change management are designed to help people more thoughtfully navigate complex conditions—solving problems and negotiating change—and forge a better path forward.

We believe that each field has something to offer to and learn from the other. Our purpose in the NCDD session was to explore these possibilities and articulate how our work is being enriched by an investigation of the intersections and divergences between the two fields.

At the most basic level, deliberation is what should occur before a decision has been made and change management is what needs to occur after. This formula, however, only scratches the surface of how the two fields can enrich each other, and as yet there is a dearth of shared knowledge between them.

Deliberative democracy posits that anyone directly affected by an issue—be it, for example, patients, when it comes to health care cost control, or community residents, when it comes to transportation needs—deserves high-quality and meaningful opportunities to learn about and participate in charting a course forward on the issues that affect them. In practice, this work involves people talking together in authentic dialogue and deliberation, usually with facilitators and nonpartisan materials. When done well, deliberative democracy produces better and more sustainable solutions to our most difficult shared problems.

But even well-conceived decisions, derived from authentic dialogue and deliberation, do not implement themselves magically. Deliberation by itself doesn’t result in a map that tells us how to get from making a decision to taking action on that decision. This is where change management, along with the related offshoots of implementation science and improvement science, offer insights and practices that we find exciting and useful.


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10.04 Creating a Better Conversation About the American Dream

Thursday, October 4th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

Candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke a lot during the first presidential debate about opportunity, the middle class and dreams. There has been quite a bit of talk this election season about these themes and about the American Dream specifically—who wants it? Whose responsibility is it to help citizens attain it? We, along with the GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity & Progress, have been exploring the public's thinking on the American Dream over the past year, and some of what we found may surprise you.

While campaign rhetoric and media reports often center on a divided electorate, we found a strong consensus of opinion-- across gender, income, race and political lines—on what is "absolutely essential" in achieving the American Dream.

Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of our 2000 respondents said that a strong work ethic, values, and a good education were the top three factors contributing to people's ability to achieve the American Dream:


  • Almost 9 in 10 respondents say that a strong work ethic is "absolutely essential" to achieving the Dream (86 percent of Democrats say this; 91 percent of Republicans).
  • Eighty percent identify parents or other adults who teach honesty, responsibility and persistence as "absolutely essential." (83 percent of Democrats say this; 85 percent of Republicans).
  • Seventy-seven percent identify good schools and teachers that ensure that every child has a fair chance to get a good education as "absolutely essential." (89 percent of Democrats say this; 68 percent of Republicans).


On Monday, during an event at the National Press Club, Public Agenda President Will Friedman and Director of Research Carolin Hagelskamp, along with GALEWiLL Center Executive Director Bob McKinnon, presented the survey, which is part of The Invisible Dream: Creating a New Conversation about the American Dream and What It Takes to Achieve It. Following the presentation, a panel moderated by Juan Williams at the National Press Club dug deeper into the results. The panelists included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream?

While Americans seem to agree on the foundation of the American Dream, it seems as though questions we've seen raised during the campaign—questions over the role of government and the quality of our nation's work ethic—also seem to extend into the American electorate. The findings suggest a stark divide in opinion on the level of government support for those pursuing their idea of the American Dream.


  • Forty-two percent of respondents agreed that "achieving the Dream is mainly something people do for themselves—what government and communities do doesn't matter."
  • Thirty-nine percent agreed with the statement "it's crucial for the government and communities to take steps so every child has a fair chance at the American Dream."
  • Nineteen percent said neither statement reflected their views.


During the panel, Sawhill reconciled the public’s divided view of government assistance in pursuit of the American Dream by eliminating an either/or solution. “You need both. You need to work hard and you need to have values, but we don't live in a Horatio Alger society. Having a helping hand from the government should be part of the equation as well," she said.


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09.05 Health Care Reform: Weighing our Choices

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

We still have many difficult challenges to face when it comes to health care in this country, and a new, nonpartisan resource from Public Agenda helps citizens rise to the challenge.

The U.S. spent nearly 20 percent of its GDP on health care last year, almost twice the amount spent by 30+ other countries, even as instances throughout the country have illustrated that higher costs do not necessarily translate into better quality. Even after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully enacted, up to 30 million individuals will still be without coverage.

These questions of cost, accessibility and quality make the American health care system an incredibly complex problem with no easy solution. Meanwhile, neither presidential candidate has acknowledged the tradeoffs inherent in his health care reform plan.

"Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide," provides voters with a firm understanding of the tradeoffs in order to create a more rational dialogue about health care reform. The guide helps citizens confront the reality of the situation, overcome wishful thinking, and thoughtfully choose the candidate that best reflects their values.

The release of this new voter guide includes an accompanying infographic, which you can download and print here.

It's clear that we still have a lot of hard decisions to make when it comes to fixing our nation's health care system:


  • Employer contributions to health care have doubled in the last decade.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans reported serious financial problems due to family medical bills in 2010.
  • Medicare enrollment will balloon from 47 million to 85 million in the next 25 years.


Going far beyond typical voter guides, "Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" not only helps citizens navigate the complex issues underlying our confusing health care system, it also carefully analyzes three legitimate policy approaches, along with arguments for and against each. This evenhanded analysis empowers voters to carefully weigh the consequences they're willing to accept and approach Election Day having properly examined our health care options.

Are you concerned about the nation’s health care future? We invite you to take some time to absorb a few aspects of the issue in the infographic to the left and share it with others. Let us know what you think. Join the conversation and tweet us at @PublicAgenda.

Download the PDF Version of the Infographic

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08.30 Shaping Our Future: A National Dialogue on the Future of Higher Education

Thursday, August 30th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

There's no question that the U.S. is at a crossroads when it comes to the future of higher education, and we've written about, studied and visualized the challenges many times already. Overcoming these challenges could help strengthen our nation's democracy, contributing to America's culture, economy and civic participation.

But to determine the best way to tackle these challenges—overwhelming student debt, poor completion rates, threats to our leadership in science and technology, dismal civic education—we can't restrict the conversation to just leaders in education, politics and business. Everyday citizens—students, faculty, community members and others, including you—have a lot of important input. And it’s crucial for all of us to consider the choices and trade-offs we face in creating the kind of higher education system we want.

To this end, a new initiative from National Issues Forums and the American Commonwealth Partnership aims to bring citizens to the table to discuss how higher education can help us create the society we want.

"Shaping Our Future," launching next week, is a year-long national dialogue on the future of higher education. The initiative, which grew out of an earlier examination about the role of education in democracy, aims to give more Americans the chance to consider the challenges and choices we face in higher education, as well as the distinctive role they play in helping the country advance economically and socially.

The initiative kicks at 9 a.m. ET on September 4th, with a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, featuring, among others:


  • Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education;
  • Muriel Howard, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities;
  • Bernie Ronan, chair, The Democracy Commitment;
  • Kaylesh Ramu, president, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County.


The discussion will be livestreamed, and you can watch it here.

Following the launch, in hundreds of communities around the nation, students, faculty and other citizens will come together over the following year to weigh different approaches to our higher education problems and seek common ground for action. Carleton College, Florida A & M, Franklin Pierce, Morehouse College, San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego, Spelman College, The Citadel, and the University of New Mexico are just a few of the institutions that will be hosting these conversations.

The forums will explore questions such as how higher education can best work to ensure a highly skilled workforce to maintain the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness; promote equity by providing opportunities for all Americans; strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others; and develop skills to seek common ground or work through differences in a civil manner.

A citizen’s discussion guide, video discussion starter, moderator’s guide and other materials can be downloaded free of charge at the National Issues Forums website. Anyone interested in convening a forum should contact NIF president Bill Muse at bmuse@nifi.org or Harry Boyte, the national coordinator for ACP at boyte001@umn.edu.

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