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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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07.20 #EDFIX: Amplifying Teacher Voice on Education Reform

Friday, July 20th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Far too often, even the most well-intentioned education policies fall short due to a lack of consideration for the views of teachers. Last Thursday, a new platform launched to help amplify teacher voice in education reform. #EdFix, a Twitter-hosted chat, aims to provide a space for teachers to talk about how they can help fix the education system and play a role in addressing the many sticky issues involved in doing so.

Public Agenda has worked to bring teachers (and lots of other stakeholders) to the table on K-12 education issues for decades. Our most recent effort, Everyone at the Table, a collaboration with American Institutes for Research, houses free resources designed specifically to engage teachers on teacher evaluation.

The absence of teacher voice is especially acute in evaluation reform, and we have seen the fall-out in districts across the country, where top-down evaluation plans have faltered due to unrealistic expectations or elements that are ineffectual or even controversial.

In our effort to get teachers to the table on evaluation reform, the kick-off chat for #EdFix focused on the issue. Darren Burris, Boston-based teacher and facilitator for the chat, asked the participating teacher Tweeters to share what worked in their particular evaluation plans and what didn’t, as well as what they wanted to be evaluated on and who they thought should do the evaluation.


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07.19 Are We Ready To Face Our Energy Choices? (Infographic)

Thursday, July 19th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

World energy demand is projected to jump nearly 40% over the next 20 years. How will we meet the need?

Americans know the energy situation is serious, but a gap in understanding our energy options has created a challenge in decision-making. In 2009, a Public Agenda survey found nearly 4 in 10 Americans could not name a fossil fuel and nearly half could not name a renewable energy source.

Regardless of what we know or don’t know, Americans are anxious about our energy situation. Recent public opinion research suggests that about 90 percent are worried about gas prices and half think the U.S. will face a critical energy shortage in the next 5 years.

The good news is that the public doesn’t need to become experts on the matter in order to make informed decisions, though it is important to understand and weigh the tradeoffs.

Public Agenda has released “Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide” to serve as an unbiased resource on the choices we must make in order to build effective energy policies. It provides essential facts about energy with generous consideration for three complex and intertwined elements: cost, energy security and environmental impact.

Are you concerned about the nation’s energy future? Are you ready to make your decision? 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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07.05 Confronting the Challenges on Health Care

Thursday, July 5th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Whatever side of the health care debate you're on, whether you agree with last week's Supreme Court ruling or not, and for whatever reason, it's hard to argue that our nation's status quo on health care was acceptable, either fiscally or socially. While the Affordable Care Act has been ruled constitutional, it remains unclear whether it will be able to successfully address the numerous challenges that our health care system still faces—challenges of cost, access and quality.

We can't let the Supreme Court ruling cloud the fact that we as a nation still need to have important conversations and make important decisions about health care. As Robert Frank recently opined in the Times, now that we’re on the other side of the court case, there is still a great deal of work to do as health care policy continues to “evolve.”

Among all of the ebbs and flows of the health care debate, and as the issue becomes more and more politicized in the media and within the Beltway, it's more urgent than ever that we have a real national dialogue about the values that we think our health care policies should reflect and how, practically speaking, we are going to make the system effective and sustainable.

How do we lower the cost of health care to our nation's citizens while simultaneously increasing access and assuring the quality of that care for all? That’s a hard circle to square, and we’ll have to negotiate many choices along the way. What tradeoffs will we need to confront and accept as we make those choices? Certainly there will be many as we seek to improve the system within the context of an aging population, a changing landscape of work and employment, unsustainable inflation of healthcare costs and unprecedented fiscal challenges.

Each election season, Public Agenda seeks to provide citizens with nonpartisan resources to help them examine the pros, cons and tradeoffs regarding the solutions to our nation's most pressing problems. We are currently hard at work putting together a Citizens' Solutions Guide on health care in time for this election cycle. It will be ready in mid-August, but until then, check out 2008's health care guide. Let us know: what would help you better understand where the candidates stand on health care and make the judgments you need to make as you head to the polls?

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06.28 From PDF 2012: The Internet as a Space to Transcend the Left/Right Divide

Thursday, June 28th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Photo credit: Esty Stein for Personal Democracy Forum. Creative Commons License w/Attribution, Share-AlikeDuring the recent debate around the SOPA and PIPA legislation, the Internet became a topic that both left and right rallied around, united in their shared cause to defeat the legislation. It was a highly unusual, especially in these polarized times, degree of agreement between the two often contentious sides, and led many to wonder about the broader question: Whatever one’s views on SOPA and PIPA, can the Internet itself, not as a topic but as a vibrant democratic space with a level playing field, create a lasting coalition between Republicans and Democrats? Or, at the very least, can it provide us with an arena that allows us to break out of a dichotomous mode of thinking in our politics?

Exploring the intersection of technology and the Internet with democracy and citizenship is central to the mission of Personal Democracy Media. During 2012's Personal Democracy Forum, the organization's annual conference, which took place this year in New York City in early June, leaders from fields including technology, digital media and strategy, journalism, and civic and public engagement convened to explore the power of the Internet in democratic decision making.

Many times in our work we've seen effective engagement help people break through deeply held ideological divisions to find common ground on shared values. The Internet is clearly playing an increasingly central role in politics, citizen engagement and the democratic process in general, but can it also become a facilitation space where the right and left can find common ground and coalesce?

During a breakout discussion session called "The Future of the Left-Right Internet Coalition," conference panelists delved into this question with optimism, regarding the Internet as a sort of sandbox where thoughtful deliberation and innovation can happen and where we can better engage people who typically have low levels of political participation.

"The Internet is a blessing to small-d democratic processes," said David Segal, a former Democratic legislator in Rhode Island and a central figure, with co-panelist Patrick Ruffini, in the fight against SOPA and PIPA.

Ruffini, a Republican, echoed the sentiment of his ally in the anti-PIPA movement, saying that the Internet provides a place where problems can be solved in collaborative and innovative ways, outside of the political system, because that system, as it exists, is ill-equipped for this sort of problem solving.

The Internet provides new opportunities for citizens to collaborate in the democratic decision-making process, and we have explored such opportunities in the past. But the Internet certainly changes fast—what are your favorite ways to incorporate digital technology and the Internet in collaborative decision making? Tweet us with your thoughts and ideas at @PublicAgenda, with the hashtag #techengage. Let's explore together how technology and engagement can intersect to improve our nation's political process.

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06.27 The Completion Crisis: What Students Have to Say (Infographic)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

We've all heard and read the stats: Only 4 in 10 young Americans earn a higher education credential by the time they are 35. Add to that our unsustainable student debt situation, and higher education in this country just looks bleaker and bleaker.

In the last month alone, headlines from The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic have highlighted our nation's higher education crisis.

These same articles also sought out the view of students, citing Public Agenda's seminal 2009 report, "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," which remains a rare source illuminating students' attitudes on higher education.

Among the statistics these articles cite:


  • Half of college dropouts said work was a major factor in their decision. (Public Agenda, 2009)
  • Just about three out of every ten dropouts left with student loans. (Public Agenda, 2009)

But students don't just talk about the problem; they offer solutions - and we should listen to what they have to say.

Public Agenda has spoken to many of our nation's young adults, both those who graduated (we call them completers) and those who either didn't attend or failed to complete (non-completers), about what would help them overcome barriers to completion. We compiled their voices in an infographic, to start a conversation about solutions to our nation's higher education challenges.

What do you think about what students have to say? Can we incorporate the voice of every stakeholder to end the college completion crisis? Join the conversation: tweet us at @PublicAgenda with your thoughts.

If you would like a printable version of this infographic, you can download a PDF of it here.

View the Infographic

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06.21 Real Discussions with Real People: A Conversation about Job Creation

Thursday, June 21st, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

During the economic downturn, 450,000 residents of the New York / New Jersey / Connecticut region lost their jobs. While that's a lot of people out of work, we were still better off than most of the nation. As a region, what strengths can we leverage and how can we collaborate - as citizens, business leaders, students or community members - to support job creation in the tri-state area? And what choices, challenges and tradeoffs will we have to weigh in doing so?

Last month, during "The Jobs Crisis: From Arguments to Solutions," Public Agenda gathered with a group of local stakeholders - from entrepreneurs to retirees, from college presidents to students - to weigh in on our region's priorities and discuss how we can best collaborate and invest our resources to create jobs.

We were also joined by a pair of experts - Chris Jones from the Regional Plan Association, an expert in regional job creation, and Public Agenda's Jean Johnson, an expert on what the jobs crisis means to the public and the author of Where Did the Jobs Go?

While we weren't intending to solve the region's job problem in the space of an hour and a half, we hoped to help participants elaborate on their own thinking. Our public engagement team facilitated table dialogues on one facet of the situation: how to prioritize investments in both human and physical infrastructure - education, transportation, child care and housing - as it relates to job creation.

All of the evening's participants agreed that education - both K-12 and higher ed - was the most important investment that the region can and must make: If you don't have an educated workforce, everything else falls apart, was one table's takeaway. Participants also considered all four choices as both important and interconnected and recognized that the concern of how to pay for this investment looms large. All in all, participants viewed their investment prioritization with a good deal of nuance, and the event provided a means for authentic deliberation around an important issue, instead of just an artificial debate.

We hope, through events such as this one, we can open up the conversation around critical yet divisive issues to embrace a broader level of thinking that transcends a politically polarized and unproductive debate. If you are in the New York region and interested in participating in an event like this in the future, let us know!

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06.07 Duncan, King and Walcott: City, State and National Reformers Gather to Discuss the State of Education

Thursday, June 7th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

For the first time ever, Secretary Arne Duncan, Commissioner John King and Chancellor Dennis Walcott gathered together in one room to talk about education reform. During Philanthropy New York's 33rd Annual Meeting, on Monday, June 4th, the three education reformers addressed controversial subjects such as teacher effectiveness, student assessments, Common Core and school turnaround.

During the discussion, moderated by WNYC's Beth Fertig, there was a surprising and encouraging degree of agreement among the education leaders, who represented the city, state and national levels. All three repeatedly returned to a number of basic principles and values.

Giving our children access to a well-rounded education is our utmost priority. With Common Core, which was mapped backward from a lens of college and career success, the education leaders hope the system can move toward a well-rounded model of education. People who know more about the world tend to read better, said Commissioner King.

We need to lift up and strengthen the teaching profession. "When we say teaching doesn't matter, we demean these extraordinary teachers and principals that are making an amazing difference in our students' lives," said Secretary Duncan. All three agreed that it would do no good to simply raise the bar and tell students to meet it; our education system needs to also help our teachers teach more effectively.

We need multiple measurements. Whether we are assessing students, teachers, principals, schools or states, we have to look at multiple measures and avoid situations where reliance on one measure creates perverse incentives that are harmful to students.

"I think we're in a golden age of changing education like never before," said Chancellor Walcott. Yet with our economic reality and fiscal challenges, is this "golden age" sustainable? All three pointed to the importance of philanthropy in helping the education system and third-party organizations, like Public Agenda, which experiment with innovations, integrate technology, build strong leadership and support the courses that contribute to a well-rounded education.

"If you want our children to do better in math, try some music. If you want to our kids to sit and concentrate in class, try some recess," said Secretary Duncan. "We can't let tough budget times be an excuse for perpetuating the status quo that is not working for our young people."

A recording of the panel is available online, and you can read tweets from the event as well. Want to join the discussion? Mention @PublicAgenda on Twitter and use the hashtag #PNYMeet.

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02.01 The High Stakes of Stakeholder Engagement: A Plea for Careful Planning from Public Agenda

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

This post was written for the 20 community colleges participating in Completion by Design, a five-year Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative that aims to significantly increase completion rates for low-income students under 26. As a “National Assistance partner” for Completion by Design, Public Agenda provides direct assistance to the colleges to help them build capacity for solutions-oriented dialogue among faculty, staff and administration. Here, Public Agenda's Alison Kadlec discusses best practices for authentic internal stakeholder engagement. While the post is geared toward Completion by Design planning teams, the principles are useful for any authentic engagement process.

Public Agenda is in the midst of finishing a user-friendly Internal Stakeholder Engagement toolkit to support cadres and colleges efforts to more effectively engage key internal stakeholders (faculty, staff, and administration) during the final quarter of the planning year. While the short-term goal of this toolkit is to help the Senior Partners, Managing Partner Directors, cadre team leads, co-leads and trained facilitations engage internal stakeholders to inform the design of the cadres model pathway plans, it is important that cadres also take a broader view of this work and plan accordingly

Authentic engagement of key internal stakeholders is tricky and can backfire if not done carefully and well—and good intentions are not enough to guarantee success. Even in the context of great ideas and the best of intentions, lack of goal clarity, poor issue framing, unskilled facilitation, and inattention to the seemingly mundane details of process can undermine trust and alienate the very people who are and could be the most important change-agents on behalf of student success and completion.

To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that these are mysterious matters that are beyond the capacities of the capable professionals that make up this initiative. We only wish to caution you against moving too quickly, to take the time to plan your engagement activities carefully so they reap the greatest benefits and avoid the pitfalls that hastily-designed efforts can fall into.

As you well know, community college faculty, staff and administrators are some of the hardest working and most dedicated people in this country, and it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the work they do every day (even the ones who drive you crazy). In a climate that combines shrinking resources and greater need than ever, these vital internal stakeholders are stretched thin, weary and wary. Yet their knowledge, expertise, and commitment are critical to meeting the challenges around student success and completion.

Given the tight timeframe and heavy lift involved during the compressed planning year, it is tempting to rush ahead without paying sufficient attention to the core principles, golden rules and red flags of engagement. But the costs of doing so can be steep: with each poorly designed engagement event or activity, you make it harder and harder to win the confidence of the people that you most need as partners in change, the people who you will need to carry out the work with you post-planning year.

The toolkit we are producing for January 23 is designed to support high-quality, solution-oriented dialogue, deliberation, planning and action by diverse actors so they can play a more robust and constructive role in meeting your shared challenges. It will include a number of discrete elements, presented for easy use on short time-lines.

But don’t get us wrong, there definitely is work you can be doing now. Between now and January 23, we recommend that you and your team think carefully and take the time to articulate clearly to one another your views on how better dialogue, deliberation and coordinated action will help you promote greater student success and completion. Ask yourselves the following questions:


  • What are the key challenges you face as you work to more effectively and efficiently support student success and completion?
  • Who are the actors/stakeholders who can best inform your efforts?
  • Who will play a major role in implementing needed change, who can undermine or endanger your efforts if they feel railroaded rather than engaged as partners?

  • What do you hope to accomplish through stakeholder engagement and how will the methods and strategies you employ set you up for success?
  • What is the worst case scenario coming out of a round of stakeholder engagement, and what can you do during the planning, execution and follow-up phase to mitigate the chances of this outcome?
  • What are the best-case outcomes that you are hoping to achieve, and what is the single most important thing you can do to bring that about?


    Once you’ve begun to think these questions through, the materials we will provide in the toolkit can help you develop and implement the most promising strategies and methods for engaging the critical stakeholders who can make or break your efforts to improve, and even transform, how students achieve meaningful degrees and credentials.

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01.24 You Can't Do It Alone: A New Guide to Creating Sustainable Change in Education Reform

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Far too often, throughout our work in the education field, we've seen even the most earnest and promising ideas from experts and reformers for improving schools and ramping up student learning met with confusion, anxiety or even anger from teachers, parents, students or community members.

A new book from Jean Johnson provides a resource for education leaders on a variety of reform areas, including evaluating teachers, turning around low-performing schools, and building support for world-class standards. You Can't Do It Alone, from Rowman & Littlefield, summarizes a decade of Public Agenda opinion research among teachers, parents, and the public. It offers tips on what leaders can do to more successfully engage these groups in reform areas and integrates a theory of change and public learning developed by our founder Daniel Yankelovich. It also provides some practical rules of the road for promoting the kind of dialogue that leads to consensus and action.

To propel change-and to sustain it-school leaders need to listen thoughtfully to the community, act in ways that alleviate negative response and engage teachers, parents, students and the broader community in the mission of reform.

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