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09.22 Pathway Redesign: Competency-Based Education?

Monday, September 22nd, 2014 | ALISON KADLEC, PH.D.



This post is written for readers working in higher education reform and was originally published on the Completion by Design blog. Completion by Design is a national initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion and graduation rates. Read more about our work with Completion by Design.


“Competency-based education” (CBE) is one of the most ubiquitous buzz phrases in higher education today. But what it is and what it means for the student success and completion movement remains to be seen. Most simply, “competency-based” is used to describe any model or approach that substitutes the assessment of student learning for seat-time measures when determining a learner’s progress toward a degree or credential. There are a few facts and trends that, when taken together, help account for the incredible rise of interest in CBE in recent years:

Competency-based models aren’t exactly new – some have been around for decades, with first-generation innovators like Excelsior College in existence for more than 40 years. And a new generation of innovators at public institutions, those like Kentucky Community College and Technical System and University of Wisconsin-Extension, have built and launched a new generation of models that they hope will scale to a wide range of learners not well served by traditional models.

But there are real and serious questions to be asked about the conditions under which competency-based models are appropriate and for what types of learners. There are also fundamental questions about what constitutes high-quality when it comes to CBE programs.


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09.08 Parent Involvement in Education - What Really Matters Most?

Monday, September 8th, 2014 | JEAN JOHNSON



Would eating less margarine reduce the divorce rate in Maine? Could we increase the number of graduate engineering degrees by upping mozzarella consumption? Some correlations are ridiculous, which is exactly the point of the very clever web site “Spurious Correlations."

In K-12 education, though, the link between parent involvement and student achievement makes intuitive sense, and it is backed by extensive research. According to Education Week, multiple studies have shown that "students with involved parents” get better grades and test scores and are more likely to go to college.

You don’t need to convince parents that what they do matters. Nearly 8 in 10 say that parents are more important than schools in determining whether children learn. Teachers are on board too. The vast majority say they’d rather work in a school with strong parent support and good student behavior than in one where they could earn more money.


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08.25 Arthur White, Longtime Friend to Public Agenda, Has Passed Away

Monday, August 25th, 2014 | Public Agenda



We were saddened to learn that a long-time friend of Public Agenda, Arthur White, died over the weekend after a long and deeply fruitful life. Arthur was a co-founder of Yankelovich Partners with Dan Yankelovich, Public Agenda’s co-founder.


Arthur White and his wife, Vivien White stand in front of the sculpture screen in Whitey Heist Park in Stamford, Conn. on Wednesday June 29, 2011. (Photo: Kathleen O'Rourke / The Stamford Advocate)

A life-long advocate for equal opportunity, Arthur also founded Jobs for the Future and Reading Is Fundamental. He worked closely with us on a series of studies of young adults’ views on higher education and college completion. And he was a warm and wise presence at Public Agenda events, a valued adviser to the organization, and a wonderful “connector,” always ready to introduce people to one another when mutual benefit and public good could result.

We will miss his insights, his enthusiasm, and his dedication to making our country better.

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08.14 When Curiosity Reigns

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 | Monica Foust, Ph.D.



Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer. The purpose of the project is to improve dialogue, relationships and collaboration between these two communities, often viewed as staunchly divided. This blog is one in a series from our public engagement team, who write to reflect on their experiences moderating the dialogues. Read more about this project here.


Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda.
AAAS/David Buller

As we make the final preparations for the next set of Perceptions Project dialogues, I can’t help but think back to our first dialogues in Pasadena.

We spent considerable time preparing for those conversations, between evangelical pastors and scientists. We worked with our partners on the project, AAAS, thinking about who should participate and how the dialogues might unfold. We anticipated the tensions that might emerge – tensions that could stall conversation between the two communities. And we thoughtfully planned ways to surface areas of common ground and shared understanding.

Yet despite the many hours of planning that led up to the dialogues, I was unable to foresee what it would feel like to be in them. What I hadn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, anticipate was how eager participants would be to talk to one another and ask questions about each others’ experiences. While there was some tension between the groups, the overarching theme was curiosity.


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07.30 Less Divided than We Look

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.



Reprinted from The Huffington Post (The Blog) - July 28, 2014

Are we becoming a more polarized people, as a new and important study from the Pew Research Center seems to demonstrate? In spite of the hype surrounding this new research, I argue that the public is not as polarized as a cursory reading of the Pew study would suggest.

Certainly, this research reflects an important problem, but that problem is less about the public and more about our political system.

The vast majority of participants in the research (about 8 in 10) do not actually fit Pew's definition of ideological polarization. Further, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina explains in an excellent analysis of the research, the methodology used -- forcing respondents to choose between two dichotomies -- leads to a result that can exaggerate the ideological consistency of respondents.

Fiorina also examines the wider body of public opinion toward specific policy issues. He finds that most Americans are not either/or thinkers. Rather, they see merits in various points of view and are open to compromise.

In a related vein, a new public opinion analysis from the organization Voice of the People finds "remarkably little difference between the views of people who live in red (Republican) districts or states, and those who live in blue (Democratic) districts or states on questions about what policies the government should pursue."

Evidence does illustrate that common ground is not only attainable but, on many counts, already exists.

Certainly, there is some evidence in the Pew research of a hardening of positions among the ideologically minded, and we don't deny that there are important disagreements among the American public. Still, this evidence does illustrate that common ground is not only attainable but, on many counts, already exists.

Even among those who take an ideological stance toward Beltway politics, many are much more pragmatic and open to compromise when it comes to local issues.

I say this with the confidence of 20 years facilitating conversations around the country with everyday Americans from across the political spectrum. During these discussions, there will often be a handful of participants who come off, at first, as rigidly partisan, voicing talk-radio-like rhetoric. But this rhetoric is almost always superficial and falls away quickly. When the conversation digs into concrete local issues such as improving schools or making streets safer, these participants become much more flexible and less dogmatic.

The Way Forward

There is indeed a serious problem of political polarization, but its source is not the American public. Rather, political parties have realigned and are much more consistently partisan than they've been in our lifetime. Activists on both ends of the ideological spectrum are much more influential via primaries and campaign donations than are average citizens. And media coverage generally reinforces what is most conflicted about our politics. All of this adds up to a highly polarized and dysfunctional national politics.

How then can we make progress?

Fortunately, there's a lot we can do at the local level - and we don't have to wait for national politics to get its act together to do so. Broad-based public engagement can support and even drive local progress on a host of issues that people care about and are willing to work together on. When it comes to education reform, jobs, climate change, public safety and a host of other concrete challenges, we can and should get on with it locally.

In fact, metropolitan regions are already getting it done, and have become the locus for progress on public policy issues.

On matters of national policy, however, we still have some work to do before we can make real progress on difficult challenges like immigration reform or climate change. First, we need to work through the tricky issues that are making effective problem solving practically impossible.

Unfortunately, we can't expect current office-holders on the national stage to fix things like money in politics or partisan and distorting gerrymandering; they've thrived in the current system and are therefore unlikely to champion needed reform. And in any event, they can't get anything done!

Instead, some form of people power will be necessary to drive reforms that enable us to collaborate and solve national problems rather than fragment, polarize and sink into stalemate.

Citizens must mobilize to demand practical, bipartisan progress on the issues that challenge our future as a nation. Those who fight for such progress must be rewarded at the ballot box and those who undermine it must be punished. Support must build for measures that protect our national politics from interest group and partisan manipulation.

Helping the public come to terms with these prerequisites for national progress is among the central political projects of our time. The Pew study does nothing to dissuade us from this fundamental point. Rather, now more than ever, we should get to work.

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07.29 Is This Really Working for Us? Public Views on Foreign Policy

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 | JEAN JOHNSON



“We, as a country, are just spread way too thin to get involved in anything else . . . “

“I understand the need for world order . . . but it just seems like whenever there is a huge international crisis, the United States is always the first one to run out and open [its] mouth . . . “

“I think we really should focus on this country. We are in such trouble ourselves.”


U.S. Marine Corps via Flickr

This is a sampling of comments from focus groups exploring American attitudes on foreign policy and on the crisis in Ukraine in particular, conducted this spring (before the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17) by the FDR Group and the Kettering Foundation. National polls over the last few years pick up responses similar to those captured above.

According to the Pew Research Center, for example, 8 in 10 say the U.S. should “concentrate more on our own national problems” and “not think so much in international terms.” More than half of Americans want the country to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own .”


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07.16 Defying Expectations

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 | Isaac Rowlett



Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer. The purpose of the project is to improve dialogue, relationships and collaboration between these two communities, often viewed as staunchly divided. This blog is one in a series from our public engagement team, who write to reflect on their experiences moderating the dialogues. Read more about this project here, and for more information, email Allison Rizzolo.


Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda.
AAAS/David Buller

When I told people that I was headed to LA to facilitate a conversation between evangelical pastors and scientists, most reactions fell somewhere between surprise and cynicism. "Why bother," asked a friend, "when they’re never going to agree on anything anyway?"

But a strange thing happens when you get a small group of people together in a room for a facilitated dialogue: they listen to one another. And instead of trying to persuade the group to support their worldviews, the pastors and scientists each respectfully introduced themselves and explained why they do what they do for a living. Similarities emerged right off the bat: curiosity, compassion and an unyielding search for truth.

It wasn’t long before the conversation took on a lighter tone. One participant, a reproductive biologist, acknowledged the tension in the room as he explained his research: "We already covered religion and politics," he said, "so I figured I’d throw sex in there too."

And there were profound moments as well, like when a scientist explained that he wasn’t 100 percent certain of anything, and that all scientific theories exist only until proven false. "What you just said makes me feel safe," a pastor replied, "because many of the scientists I know seem so definite in their beliefs, so I don’t feel comfortable expressing my faith."

Three hours later the group had hammered out areas of common ground and ideas for next steps to foster collaboration between the two communities. But more importantly, the conversations continued well past the end of the formal discussion. Most participants lingered in the room and talked, exchanging contact information and discussing how to keep the conversation going.

As a facilitator, it was humbling to witness a group of people overcome significant differences to explore how to work together to improve their community. Let’s hope that they can continue to defy expectations and set an example for the rest of us.

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06.22 A Divided Nation?

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.



Reprinted from The New York Times - June 22, 2014

To the Editor:

Re “Dangerous Divisiveness,” by Charles M. Blow (column, June 16):

While the uptick in partisanship documented by the Pew Research Center is significant, so is the fact that the vast majority of Americans (almost 8 in every 10) are not ideologically divided.

People become much more willing to compromise when thinking about how to solve real problems in their own communities. There is no reason to panic over an ideological rupture; the sky isn’t falling — yet. Even among Americans who do hold consistently liberal or conservative views, this adherence often falls away quickly.

If our national leaders and the news media continue to emphasize partisan bickering, the upward trend in partisanship could accelerate and harden. This would mean that addressing issues in our communities could become just as difficult as on Capitol Hill.

Those who are working to build common ground among people with political differences should not be dissuaded by this new research. Rather, now more than ever, they should get to work.


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06.10 Most Americans Think Government Should Do More to Fight Obesity - or Do They?

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 | JEAN JOHNSON



Except for kids themselves, just about everyone wants children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Even so, there’s plenty of disagreement about what government can or should do to make that happen.

For First Lady Michelle Obama, federal standards for more nutritious school lunches help “parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and don’t want their efforts undermined during the day at school.” But for critics, these standards are a costly and counterproductive example of government interference. They ask why “the federal government should make these decisions rather than parents, students and local school officials.”

The school lunch dispute is one of several that have emerged when governments -- federal, state, and local -- move beyond their traditional role of providing nutrition education and try to take stronger steps to combat the country’s rising obesity rates.

What’s Government’s Role?


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06.05 Missing the Mark on Big Data in Higher Ed

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo



Word that the federal administration intends to create a grading system for colleges has unnerved college leaders and set off a maelstrom of debate. But all of the arguments cast out by both supporters and naysayers lack a key consideration: for some students, at least, the data behind the proposed grading system just aren't meaningful.


The college grading system ostensibly aims to help prospective students make better choices about where to attend school. Ultimately, grades would be used to allocate federal student loans and grants. The system would be based on factors including how many students graduate from the college, how much debt they accrue, and what alumni earn.

But prospective students we surveyed last year - many of whom are underserved by the traditional college system - did not immediately understand how these sorts of data relate to their own chances for success in college and in the work force. In fact, just about half of the students we surveyed think statistics like a college's graduation rate, loan default rate, or the types of jobs and salaries that average graduates get is "essential" information to know during college searches.




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