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06.07 From 'Buy-in' to True Collaboration: Advancing Teacher and Family Engagement in K-12 Reform

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

Earlier in my career, I assisted and observed a highly successful school improvement effort in Kansas City, Kansas. The key to progress there seemed to be that reform moved along two parallel, interconnected tracks, both of which integrated meaningful engagement with educators and families.

Inside the school system, teachers, administrators and staff took part in regular, deliberative discussions about how to improve teaching practices, the curriculum and other aspects of how schools function. Meanwhile, parents and other family members were part of regular, deliberative discussions of school improvement options, what they wanted educators to do and how non-educators could help. Information was shared between the two sets of discussions, partly by people who were involved in both.

Three years into the process, test scores and graduation rates had risen dramatically, disciplinary incidents had fallen, and a wide range of extracurricular programs for students had been created by volunteers and community organizations. (For the full story, click here.)

Engaging teachers and families is critical to the success of school improvement efforts, as the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation admitted recently.

This means more than just getting ‘buy-in’ from teachers and families on changes conceived by education reformers. The people doing the educating and learning should have meaningful roles in assessing how things are going, learning about new reform ideas and deciding whether and how those ideas should be incorporated in the way their schools work. More productive forms of engagement can not only propel innovations, they can have a direct impact on student learning.

Many efforts to engage teachers and families in school improvement unfortunately share a common shortcoming: most have been temporary projects. In engagement efforts in Kansas City, Kansas and elsewhere, meetings and forums were treated as special activities, rather than built into the way that schools and communities function. Meanwhile, most of the regular, official opportunities for engagement in schools – parent-teacher conferences, Parent-Teacher Associations, school board meetings – continue to use the same tired, conventional formats that do not create sufficient deliberation, collaboration or shared learning. (See Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy for a comprehensive assessment of the state of engagement in K-12 education.)

At Public Agenda, we are working with school systems to overcome these challenges, in three main ways:

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06.03 Engaging Ideas - 6/3

Friday, June 3rd, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues including democracy, public engagement, education, health care and urban housing.


Is civic technology the killer app for democracy? (TechCrunch)
The civic disconnect between information convenience and failing public systems is a considerable challenge. Big data might be a huge boost to our economy, but will it help us build a better nation? Hackathons are terrific community-building events, but we can’t code ourselves out of our failing infrastructure. To build the killer civic app, we need to find an ethical framework that connects technology to political leadership, to power.

Participatory Budgeting Reaches Historically Disenfranchised Neighbors (Next City)
“Does anybody know why this process is so important?” asked Councilmember Mark Levine. “The neighbors know best,” replied one constituent, seconded by many nodding heads and murmurs of approval.


Why early career researchers should care about public engagement (Times Higher Education)
Many researchers don’t want to do public engagement. Few consider it part of their core mission, many consider it a waste of their time. As for higher education institutions, they send out a mixed message: yes, please do it, but do it in your own time. The problem is that public engagement is perceived as taking valuable time away from research, which is already compressed by teaching and administration. It also requires a considerable amount of preparation and even training to deliver effectively. In much the same way that interdisciplinary research projects open hitherto unimagined avenues for research, generalist conversations at public events can provide new perspectives and shift your perception of a subject. Talking at literary festivals, appearing in the media and writing blog posts forces you to express your ideas with added clarity. You learn that making a valid point or providing astute criticism does not imply using convoluted sentence structures and deliberately obtuse vocabulary.

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06.01 A Growing Awareness of the Need for Teacher and Community Engagement in K-12 Reform

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

In a recent letter from their CEO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made a bold pronouncement: throughout their K-12 efforts, they admitted to paying too little attention to both teacher and community engagement, a stumble they seem prepared to adjust in the future:

Deep and deliberate engagement is essential to success. Rigorous standards and high expectations are meaningless if teachers aren’t equipped to help students meet them.

We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.

The Foundation has certainly never disregarded teachers. In fact, they have funded a number of organizations dedicated to helping teachers have a voice in policies and practices at the school, district, state and federal level. This includes, full disclosure, Public Agenda. The Gates Foundation funded a survey we conducted with the American Institutes for Research regarding teacher attitudes toward reform proposals affecting their profession. This study led to the development of Everyone at the Table, a set of materials designed to help teachers have a more meaningful voice in education reform.

Still, the Foundation acknowledges past missteps and commits to setting a new course. Many leaders fall into a trap when it comes to engaging populations like educators – populations often ignored during but greatly affected by the decision-making process. Rather than looking to teachers as partners in decision making, they seek buy-in for decisions made by non-teachers.

Unfortunately, attempts to seek after-the-fact buy-in rather than authentic engagement can backfire and lead to distrust. We've seen this fairly often over the years, and we've also learned a lot about how a sincere and robust commitment to meaningful engagement can rebuild trust and relationships between leaders and decision makers and community members and educators. Throughout our 40 years, we have:

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05.27 Engaging Ideas - 5/27

Friday, May 27th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues including democracy, public engagement, education, health care and urban housing.


Democracy and Distrust: A Conversation on Race, Inequality, and Civic Cooperation (Urban Democracy Lab)
NYU Gallatin student Sara Nuta reviews the event, “Democracy and Distrust: A conversation on race, inequality, and civic cooperation,” hosted by the New York Council for the Humanities, as part of its Democracy in Dialogue series, on May 3rd at Federal Hall National Memorial.

In defense of the reasonable Republican (Lori Henson via Medium)
A much-shared article is a conservative cry for mature political discourse.

Why Americans don’t trust government (Wonkblog)
From Larry Summers: We seem to be caught in a dismal cycle of low expectations, poor results and shared cynicism.

Meet the Citizens Who Helped Decide Their City’s Budget—and Got Better Buses, Benches, and Crosswalks (Yes Magazine)
Greensboro, North Carolina, is the first Southern city to give citizens direct control over a slice of public spending.


De-Industrialization and the Displaced Worker (Governing)
The shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a technology- and services-based one hasn’t been kind to the middle and working classes. That won’t change anytime soon.

Neighborhoods Can Shape Success—Down to the Level of a City Block (The Atlantic)
A small but intriguing study done in West Philadelphia points to the importance of what researchers call microenvironments.

K-12 Education

The Push and Pull of Research: Lessons from a Multi-site Study of Research Use in Education Policy (William T. Grant Foundation)
Despite widespread efforts by intermediaries to shape education by conveying research to policymakers, a recent study finds that very few of these policymakers report using research when making decisions. As other studies have found instances where research can shape policy and practice in a variety ways, what explains this contradiction? And what does it mean for efforts to improve the use of research evidence? Chris Lubienski and colleagues share findings from their recent work and outline lessons for the field.

Nashville schools to change how principals are hired (The Tennessean)
Shayne Elementary School needs a new principal for the 2016-17 school year, and Metro Nashville Public Schools is asking the community to have a say in the type of leader the school needs. The process at Shayne Elementary is one the district will duplicate in each of the district's 18 principal hires for next school year— and from now on — after incoming Director of Schools Shawn Joseph made changes to the way the heads of schools are hired. For Shayne Elementary, parents and staff will have the chance to serve on the panel that interviews candidates for the job. Those panels include central office and human resources staff. In the case of a high school hiring, students will also be included in the mix.

Gates on Common Core Rollout (Politico Morning Education)
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "underestimated the level of resources and support required" for public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the Common Core standards, Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the CEO of the foundation, says in a letter posted on the foundation's website. She says the foundation "missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators - particularly teachers - but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning." The foundation is now "doubling down" on efforts to "make sure teachers have what they need" in high-quality learning materials, she said.

What Are Massachusetts Public Schools Doing Right? (The Atlantic)
Widely seen as the best public-school system in the U.S., the Massachusetts school system’s success can offer lessons to other states.

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05.26 Using Data to Improve Participatory Budgeting

Thursday, May 26th, 2016 | REBECCA SILLIMAN

Last Friday a positive buzz of energy reverberated off the walls of the Tobin Community Center as young Bostonians between 12- and 25-years-old gathered around tables filled with paper ballots and voting boxes. People enjoyed pizza and ice cream in between a dance performance and a raffle.

I wasn’t at a school function, community mixer or party. I was at the Participatory Budgeting (PB) Votefest event, and the youth were there to vote on how they wanted to spend $1 million of the city’s capital budget.

Votefest was also the kickoff event for the 4th International Conference on Participatory Budgeting, organized by the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) in partnership with the city of Boston. The Conference occurred on the heels of our release of the first-ever comprehensive analysis of PB in the United States and Canada. It brought together members of the PB community, including evaluators, implementers, elected officials, scholars and activists, who shared their experiences with PB.

Everything about the conference exemplified the enthusiastic PB community and encouraged sharing of information, cultivating new ideas and excitement about possible long term social change outcomes. Conference panels included discussions about best practices for PB implementation, digital tools that have the potential to support the PB process, local PB advocacy and, central to our work in PB, the usefulness of evaluation and research.

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05.24 Equity in Education Through Culturally Responsible Engagement: Lessons from Anchorage, Alaska

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 | NICOLE CABRAL

As in many cities, students and families in Anchorage, Alaska face inequities in the K-12 school system. These inequities are especially acute among Alaska Native students, an issue that a number of community-based initiatives are seeking to address.

On indicators that are often determinates of success later in life, Alaska Native children are not performing on par with their peers of other ethnicities, according to an initiative from the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). These indicators include third grade reading proficiency, eighth grade algebra 1 proficiency, high school graduation rates and attendance rates.

The CITC initiative, called Anchorage Realizing Indigenous Student Excellence (ARISE), is a data-driven, collective impact initiative committed to improving outcomes for Alaska Native students in the Anchorage school district. ARISE is currently working on a school-community engagement effort to address the stark disparities among Alaska Native students.

ARISE’s strategy in the Alaska Native community is forward-thinking because it incorporates the principles of equity, inclusion, long-term sustainability and respect for historical and cultural contexts.

While I was in Anchorage recently for a public engagement project, I met with several CITC staff to learn more about the unique struggles of Alaska Native communities around the preservation of native cultural traditions as well as progress made around equity and social justice. I also participated in a community conversation at the University of Alaska with Jonathan Larson of ARISE. Larson described several principles core to ARISE’s philosophy of advancing equity in K-12 education through culturally responsible school-community engagement.

Six principles in particular stood out in my mind as very much in line with Public Agenda’s philosophy on public engagement, especially when working with historically marginalized communities. The six principles are: 1) actively engage historically marginalized communities and communities of color, 2) continue to engage the community even after the formal engagement process ends, 3) integrate ALL stakeholders into the engagement process, 4) accept that engagement is a long-term process, 5) recognize and respect cultural and historical context and 6) institute cultural competency training.

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05.20 Engaging Ideas - 5/20

Friday, May 20th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues including democracy, public engagement, opportunity, education and health care.


Social Media's Place in Data-Smart Governance (Governing)

Cities can produce great value from social media, but only if they start talking a little bit less about themselves and start listening more to their residents.

What Should Philanthropy's Role Be When Public Systems Fail? Flint As Case Study (Inside Philanthropy)

When weak government leaves a mess, how should philanthropy help clean it up? We dig into that question—which will be coming up more often—as ten foundations band together to help Flint.

One Neighborhood at a Time (The New York Times)

David Brooks writes: “What’s the right level to pursue social repair? The nation may be too large. The individual is too small. The community is the right level, picking a piece of land and giving people a context in which they can do neighborly things — like the dads here who came to the pre-K center and spent six hours building a shed, and with it, invisibly, a wider circle of care for their children.”

K-12 Education

Low-Income High Schoolers to Get Grants for College Courses (Associated Press)

The experimental program allows high school students to apply for federal Pell grant money to pay for college courses. The "dual enrollment" program is designed to help students from lower-income backgrounds. The Education Department says the administration will invest about $20 million in the 2016-17 school year to help about 10,000 students. On Monday, the administration announced 44 colleges that are expected to participate.

Education Inequality: Why There’s an Uproar Over Trying to Increase Funding for Poor Schools (The New York Times)

Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University scholar, has found that many districts spend up to a third less per pupil in poor schools compared with others. This can happen for various reasons: because wealthy parents unduly influence budget allocations, for example. It can also happen because most teachers are paid using collectively bargained salary schedules that reward longevity. Senior teachers tend to cluster in wealthy schools, while schools where many children are poor often churn through large numbers of novice, badly paid teachers. But fixing such funding inequities can be expensive, as well as disruptive to longstanding arrangements of which teachers get to be in which schools. That’s why the unions, districts and state leaders wrote the letter urging Mr. King to “refrain from defining terms and aspects of the new law” — that is, to simply not regulate at all — “especially as it relates to the ‘supplement, not supplant’ provision.”

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05.20 Fixing What Ails Democracy

Friday, May 20th, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

What does it mean, this chaotic, disturbing, unpredictable electoral season? We'll know more after the dust has settled, but we can't afford to wait to make our best guess. We need a working theory to orient ourselves as we seek to minimize damage and prescribe a path that will move our democracy in a healthier direction.

One thesis has been powerfully articulated in an insightful and beautifully written essay by Andrew Sullivan for New York magazine. I agree with practically everything Sullivan had to say in this fascinating read -- with the exception of his central thesis and conclusion!

Sullivan does not bury his lede -- it's all there in the title: "Democracies end when they are too democratic, and right now America is a breeding ground for tyranny." His argument leads, ultimately, to a call for elites to assert themselves and save the people from themselves.

Yet it is the very non-responsiveness of elites to the needs and problems of great swaths of the public that is profoundly frustrating people in the first place. Asking political and economic elites to control rather than engage the public would only exacerbate that frustration.

In an analysis from the Rand Corporation, the factor best predicting support for Donald Trump was agreement with the statement, "people like me don't have any say."

Certainly elites have a role to play in fixing what's broken in our public life, but if they assert themselves by disempowering people, they risk worsening the problem rather than solving it.

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Michael Lind counters Sullivan's thesis, arguing for more democracy, not less. He describes the ways in which decisions that affect people's lives are being made in increasingly distant and unapproachable ways:

Majorities need to be constrained when it comes to essential rights. But removing too many decisions from local to remote governments and from legislators answerable to voters to unelected judges, executive officials and treaty negotiators, is likely to create a democratic deficit that provokes a backlash against the system.

If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy, the answer is not less democracy in America, but more.

In defining "more democracy," Lind focuses squarely on political institutions and legal structures that enable citizens to have more influence on the decisions that affect their lives. Expanding citizen influence is crucially important; it can attenuate the public powerlessness and marginalization that fuel the antagonistic temper of the times. This expansion can emerge not only through traditional political reforms like decentralizing certain decisions and resources to the local level, but also through innovative experiments in community democracy like participatory budgeting.

But Lind's appraisal is also an incomplete prescription in one important respect. Citizens now operate in an environment that inflames rather than informs public opinion.

We have a political culture and fractured media environment saturated with increasingly sophisticated spin, the cult of celebrity, and the conflation of incivility and authenticity.

We have access to more information than ever before, but that information often serves to reinforce our prejudices and assumptions. It's never been easier to avoid alternative views and disconfirming data.

We have more ways of expressing ourselves than ever before, but it's too easy to sound off irresponsibly, even anonymously, and avoid challenge and intellectual accountability.

Rather than a political culture of listening to and engaging people with different views, we have too much of a culture of dismissal, disdain and groupthink. As a result, we end up with a politics full of magic bullets, scapegoats, and focus-group-tested slogans.

To counter these inflammatory forces, we need a democratic culture and set of practices that help people encounter and weigh competing ideas and the choices we need to make as we face the future. Such structures will enable people to transform gut-level opinions and assumptions into what Dan Yankelovich calls "public judgment" -- views that people have won, not received, through the hard work of thinking for themselves and talking with others.

What we truly need, then, is not just more democracy, but better quality democracy, with better resources for public conversation and judgment.

If there's an upside to the current turmoil it's that, despite the demagogic excess, important questions are swirling to the surface.

Why is the economy working so well for a small number of Americans and so poorly for so many? Is the disappearance of middle class jobs, and along with them the American Dream, inevitable or can we do something about it? If so, what? How can we better address our entrenched issues around race and ethnicity, and best adapt to our rapidly changing demographics? How can we work to make gridlock the exception rather than the norm?

We need more robust democratic conversation on questions like these -- not just to "save the people from themselves" but to renew America's democratic promise and set the nation on a better path.


05.17 Tackling Transfer: Why We Must Help More Community College Students Make the Leap

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Improving transfer may not be as emotionally resonant as free community college or reducing student debt. Yet helping more students transfer from community college to a four-year school is among the most critical ways our county can meet its higher education goals.

Every year, millions of students aiming to attain a bachelor’s degree attend community colleges because of their affordability and accessibility. Most of these students will not realize their goals.

While the vast majority report they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, only 14 percent of degree-seeking students achieve that goal within six years. The odds are worse for low-income students, first-generation college students, and students of color—those most likely to start at a community college.

Together with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center (CCRC), we're working to help more community college students meet their attainment goals.

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05.13 Engaging Ideas - 5/13

Friday, May 13th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues including democracy, public engagement, opportunity, education and health care.


Room for Debate: Is Tyranny Around the Corner? (The New York Times)

A Washington Post piece claimed that a sizable number of Americans are supposedly wary about democracy, and Andrew Sullivan has written that Trump’s rise shows that we’re ripe for tyranny. Others have spoken of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as dual demagogues. But are Americans looking for an autocrat to take charge or simply a government that gets things done, works in their interest and truly represents them? Is America tired of democracy, or yearning for more of it?


Interactive: Where the Middle Class Is Shrinking (The Upshot)

Take a look at the 100 metro areas with the sharpest decline in the percentage of people in the middle class. In these areas, the middle class declined by more than 4 percentage points. (The decline in the New York-Newark-Jersey City area was not as steep, falling from 50.7 to 48.1 percent)


The Lessons of Boaty McBoatface (The Atlantic)

The parliamentary inquiry revealed one important way in which the campaign wasn’t a success: NERC and its partners in the British government don’t appear to have sufficiently planned for the day after launching the naming contest. They invited the public to engage with their project, but then didn’t clearly define what level of engagement they were ultimately seeking—and how to proceed if and when people actually engaged en masse. What’s the point of getting people involved if their involvement stops at voting in an online poll?

Report: Nonprofits Integrating Community Engagement Guide (Building Movement Project)

The Nonprofits Integrating Community Engagement (NICE) Guide is designed for organizational development experts, management support organizations, and internal and external consultants to facilitate efforts to integrate the voice of community members and constituents into the daily practice of nonprofit organizations.

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