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06.10 Getting Across the Finish Line in Education

Friday, June 10th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

There's good news this week on getting more young people through high school – and bad news on getting them beyond it.

The "Diplomas Count" report, produced by Education Week and Editorial Projects in Education, found high school graduation rates have increased significantly after two years of decline. The high school graduation rate is 72 percent, a jump of three points in just a year. But 1.2 million students still fail to earn diplomas. And a staggering number of those dropouts, fully one in five, come from just 25 school districts, almost all major urban school systems.

Those diplomas are crucial if students are to get the post-secondary education they increasingly need to get ahead. While that's usually been defined as a four-year college, in fact there are many other options, such as community colleges and trade schools, and the report looks at the challenges facing those students.

One of those challenges, of course, is money. In a separate report, The Education Trust concludes the average low-income family must pay or borrow a much bigger share of its annual income – 72 percent -- to send a child to a four-year college. By contrast, middle-class families only need to contribute 27 percent of their income, and high-income families 14 percent.

Young people who don't complete postsecondary education are more likely to be lower-income – and they're mostly facing the financial burden on their own, according to Public Agenda's With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them study. Nearly 6 in 10 students in our study who left higher education without graduating say they had to pay their own college costs, rather than being able to count on help from their families. About 7 in 10 of those who leave school report that they did not have scholarships or financial aid, compared with about 4 in 10 of those who graduate.

And 3 in 10 of those who didn't graduate said they have college loans, giving them the worst of both worlds: no diploma, but still with loans to pay.

In the end, young people told us the biggest factor in failing to get a diploma is the difficult juggling act they face in handling school, work and family obligations. Frequently, something's got to give, and the thing that often gives is completing school.

Our statistics tell the story, but this tale is something young people can tell themselves. Have a look at this video which Public Agenda produced in partnership with Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Pathways Project:



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06.03 Teachers and the Tests

Friday, June 3rd, 2011 | Scott Bittle

New York and Los Angeles are moving ahead with plans to use standardized testing designed to grade teachers as well as students. In Public Agenda's research, we've found that it isn't so much that teachers don't think tests can play a role in grading teachers – but they do say other ideas are more effective.

The conventional wisdom among many education reformers has been that teachers resist all kinds of evaluation, but in fact they're open to a number of ideas, according to the research we conducted with Learning Point Associates.

Nearly all teachers (92 percent) rated the level of student interest and engagement as an excellent or good indicator of teacher effectiveness. Teachers also gave excellent or good ratings to how much their own students learn compared with other students (72 percent) as well as feedback from principals and administrators (70 percent).

While more than half (56 percent) of the teachers we surveyed said how well students perform on district’s standardized tests is also an excellent or good indicator, the intensity of their support is much lower. Only 12 percent of teachers gave standardized tests the top "excellent" rating, lower than they gave any of the other measures of effectiveness. By contrast, 46 percent say student engagement is an "excellent" indicator. And 75 percent of all teachers said that student test scores are a lot less important than other measures.

And newer teachers are actually less likely to see standardized tests as a good indicator than more experienced educators. Half of those who have been teaching for less than five years say student performance on standardized tests is a fair or poor indicator. Only 32 percent of teachers who have been teaching more than 20 years agree.

None of this settles the question of what really is the best way of grading teachers—it can only suggest what scales teachers would choose for themselves. But the data can tell us which ideas teachers would be receptive to and which they might resist-- and they do resist the idea of test scores as the only indicator, or even the most important indicator, of how a teacher performs.

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05.16 College Presidents Are Too Complacent

Monday, May 16th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The Chronicle of Higher Education is calling its new major survey of the public and college presidents "A Crisis of Confidence," but Public Agenda co-founder Daniel Yankelovich has a different take. He argues that data shows more complacency among college presidents than crisis.

The Chronicle survey, conducted with the Pew Research Center, finds the public's concern about college costs at an all-time high, and that 1 in 3 college presidents say higher education is moving in the wrong direction.

Yankelovich argues that the survey also shows a lot of satisfaction with things as they are -- perhaps too much:

Though some Americans grumble about not getting great value for their money, the vast majority are pretty well satisfied with the performance of higher education. Most Americans who have been exposed to higher education feel that their investment has been a sound one. A majority of college presidents believe that higher education is moving in the right direction. Almost four out of five (76 percent) say they are convinced that our higher-education system is doing a good or an excellent job of providing value for the money spent by students and their families.

That could mean both the public and college leaders are still reacting to the "old normal," and not grappoing with the trends that threaten social mobility, he writes.

From the perspective of the trends that trouble me, this high level of satisfaction signals a lack of awareness of the dangers that lie ahead. The message I get from the survey of college presidents is, "We are doing just fine under difficult circumstances. If you send us more money and better-prepared high-school students, we can do an even better job." Neither the general public nor the presidents of our colleges seem conscious of the seriousness of the threat; they therefore lack the sense of urgency needed to confront it.


You can read Yankelovich's full op-ed at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For more on the challenges facing higher education -- and how both the public and college stakeholders see them, check out Public Agenda's research on higher education.

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05.13 The Optimism Gap: Are Washington and the Public on the Same Track?

Friday, May 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Part of leadership is conveying an air of optimism and confidence. Any management book, any memoir by a general, politician or basketball coach will tell you that. But what does it mean when leaders are more optimistic than the people they're supposed to be leading?

That's the question raised by the latest edition of Public Agenda's survey of Beltway influencers, The Buck Stops Where? What D.C. Influencers Say About The National Debt. About half of the leaders we've surveyed since March 2010 say the country's moving in the right direction (48 percent said this in our most recent round of research, completed in April).

By contrast, 70 percent of the public told the CBS/New York Times survey in April that America is on the wrong track: a more than 20-point gap. What's more, this gap has widened: in February and October 2010, the CBS/Times survey (which uses the same wording as Harris) showed about six in 10 saying the nation's "seriously off on the wrong track."

So what are the implications? Have a look at the full blog post on the subject,available at the Huffington Post.

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05.05 Changing the Debate on Relations with the Muslim World

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The killing of Osama bin Laden is a huge victory for the United States in the struggle against al Qaeda – a measure of justice for 9/11, a display of resolve and skill by our armed forces, and an action greeted with enormous relief by the public. It’s impossible to say what all the implications will be, but perhaps there’s an opportunity to change the debate about one of the biggest challenges facing our nation.

The difficult questions that still surround America’s role in the Muslim world are a prime example of the need to help the public up their “learning curve” on complex issues, write Public Agenda’s co-founder Dan Yankelovich and President Will Friedman in their new book, Toward Wiser Public Judgment. Muslim extremists have always been a small fraction of the Muslim population, most of whom reject violence. But for years, “Muslim extremists have successfully made us scapegoats for the failure of so many Muslim nations to build their own just and prosperous societies,” they write.

Meanwhile, Americans have been wrestling with their views about a religion and culture that many admit they don’t understand. Surveys show the public dissatisfied with the war in Iraq for years, and growing more doubtful about Afghanistan. And surveys also show most Americans think we’ve put too much emphasis on military solutions, rather than diplomatic ones, in dealing with terrorism.

Presenting the public with choices – real value-based alternatives for policy – could be enormously helpful in moving the public forward. Setting options side by side enables the public to weigh options, consider alternatives and come to considered judgment about what strategy the United States should follow.

The good news is that there have been huge changes in the Muslim world over the past year. Even before bin Laden’s death, international surveys showed support plummeting for both him and al Qaeda in Muslim countries. In addition, as many commentators have pointed out, al Qaeda hasn’t been a factor in the protests sweeping countries like Egypt and Libya this year. The “Arab spring” has been driven by citizens tired of aging, authoritarian regimes and ready for change.

That suggests events are outstripping the extremists, and the Muslim world may be turning against them. That’s an opportunity for the United States. Since 9/11, we never really grabbed onto the opportunities to engage Americans in building a better relationship with the Muslim world. Now we may have another chance – if we can seize it.

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05.05 Sober Views on a Future Slipping Away

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

A USAToday/Gallup poll this week reached a milestone, and not a good one: for the first time in nearly 30 years, most Americans say today’s youth won’t be better off than their parents.

The survey found only 44 percent of the general public believe today’s young people will be better off, and there’s even greater doubt among older people (only 36 percent of those aged 50 to 64, for example) and among those who make more than $75,000 a year.

This is an even lower rating than at the height of the Great Recession (59 percent in 2009) or the dark days after 9/11 (71 percent in December 2001).

Our Slip-Sliding Away survey released earlier this year may shed some light on those results. In our survey, we found that four in 10 Americans say they’re struggling “a lot” in the current economy. But the striking thing to us what that even those who are struggling to pay bills in the here and now are more concerned about their long-term security. They’re more worried about being able to retire and pay for their children’s college education than they are about making their current bills.

And when asked what would help struggling people the most, the public leans toward higher education, job training, and preserving Social Security and Medicare – all questions focused on the future.

Based on this, there’s a pervasive worry about permanently sliding down the economic ladder – and this could be reflected in the data about how young people will fare in the future.

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04.25 Video: Tackling the Cutting Edge Issues and Engaging Faculty in Student Success

Monday, April 25th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

One of the big opportunities in turning around the nation's dismal college completion numbers is engaging faculty members in changing institutions. And that means both full-time and adjunct faculty, who bear a lot of the teaching load but who are often overlooked when it comes to attacking this problem.

Public Agenda's new Cutting Edge paper on engaging faculty has been getting a lot of attention, and President Will Friedman participated in a panel discussion on the challenge at the Achieving the Dream Strategy Institute in February. You can see video of the session below (it's in two parts). Or, you can follow these links to Part 1 and Part 2 of the session.

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04.21 The Right Word of Advice, at the Right Time

Thursday, April 21st, 2011 | Scott Bittle

A new survey underlines one of the increasingly important problems surrounding education: are students getting the help they need to make the right decisions?

An AP-Roper survey of 18-to-24 year-olds released this week found that most gave their schools low marks for helping them find the right college, choose a field of study, or come up with ways to pay for their schooling.

Public Agenda research last year, “Can I Get a Little Advice Here?”, found very similar results. Based on a national survey of young adults, ages 22 to 30, we found six in 10 of those who went on to further education gave their high school counselors poor grades for their college advice, and nearly half say they felt like "just a face in the crowd."

What’s more, young people who say they got poor counseling are more likely to say that they would have attended a different school if money were not an issue, by a 46 percent to 35 percent margin. They are also less likely to say that they received a scholarship or financial aid for college; only about 4 in 10 say they got financial help compared with more than half of those who believe that they received better counseling.

There’s a lot of evidence that the nation’s badly overstretched guidance system is a factor in our college completion problem, particularly for students who are the first in their family to go to college and don’t have many other sources of advice. Federal statistics show nearly 6 in 10 public school students are from families where neither parent has completed college. But while there’s consistent feedback from students that the current system isn’t working, more needs to be done to act on that feedback.

Those students’ voices should be heard – and if they’re not, the nation’s efforts to solve the college completion problem could still be derailed.

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04.14 Rising Debt, Rising Skepticism on College?

Thursday, April 14th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Student loan debt is expected to top $1 trillion this year, a new record, and it comes at a time when the public is increasingly concerned that higher education is increasingly necessary – and increasingly out of reach.

The New York Times reported that student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year, and two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt in 2008, compared with fewer than half in 1993.

Public Agenda’s research has found the public is increasingly concerned about student debt, with nearly two-thirds saying “students have to borrow too much money to pay for their college education.” That increased 9 percentage points between 2000 and 2009.

But the debate about student debt occurs in a broader context for the public, a context of colliding trends. The number of Americans who say college is “absolutely necessary” for success has increased more than 20 points, from 31 percent as recently as 2000 to 55 percent. At the same time, there’s been a corresponding drop in those who say the vast majority of qualified students have the opportunity to attend college, from 45 percent to 29 percent.

It’s important to note that the public is still very optimistic about a couple of points. Six in 10 parents say it’s “very likely” their child will go to college. Also, 62 percent of the general public believes “almost anyone can get financial help” to go to college.

But another part of the public’s reaction to these trends has been a growing skepticism about how colleges are run. Some 54 percent say colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education. Six in 10 say colleges are “mostly concerned about the bottom line.”

Those trends – and those doubts – are going to put increasing pressure on colleges to make the most out of what they’ve got.

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04.13 Engaging College Faculty, in 10 Slides

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Getting college faculty engaged in reform -- both full time instructors and adjuncts -- is critical for student success, but also a big challenge. But we've managed to boil it down to 10 slides in this presentation prepared for the American Association of Community Colleges conference.

Of course, there's also the full version, which you can find here in the first of our Cutting Edge series of working papers. This is all part of Public Agenda's work with Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, where we've developed core principles and promising practices for engaging faculty in changing institutions and closing student achievement gaps.

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