Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
The argument to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which led to this week’s government shutdown, is partly rooted in the assertion that the public does not support the law. Yet public opinion of the health care law is not as simplistic as some members of Congress (of both parties), and even the media, have painted it. Before we continue basing decisions that have real consequences on opinion regarding the Affordable Care Act, it’s worth taking a deeper look at how the public is really thinking about this issue.
Many of the recent polls, when taken together, suggest that the public is confused and unclear about many aspects of the Affordable Care Act. In the most recent health tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 51 percent of respondents said they don’t have enough information to understand how the law will impact them and their families. When asked to provide, in their own words, the one question they would most like to have answered to help them understand this impact, many focused on very basic information:
“Will the medical insurance be free or will I have to pay?”
“Can you just put it in plain laymen language so we can understand what you’re doing for us?”
“How is my care going to change?”
Furthermore, while most recent polls suggest the public does not support the Affordable Care Act as a whole, when the law is broken down into its respective elements, they support what’s in it. For example, in a 2012 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, majorities viewed individual elements of the law as either very or somewhat favorable:
- Closing the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap (78%)
- Allowing children to stay on parents’ health insurance until 26 (71%)
- Expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income, uninsured adults (66%)
- Prohibiting insurance companies for charging women more for coverage (61%)
- Prohibiting insurance companies from withholding coverage for preexisting conditions (60%)
Many people also don't realize that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are one and the same, and their opinions depend on how the law is referred to. In a CNBC poll from September, 24 percent of respondents said they felt "very negative" about the Affordable Care Act. In the same poll, 35 percent felt very negative about Obamacare.
When people lack basic information about a policy, and when they are unable to clearly understand how the benefits and tradeoffs of a policy will affect their lives, it's very difficult for them to get past impediments like denial and wishful thinking. And people need to resolve these impediments before we can fairly consider their opinion a clear-minded judgment of a policy or approach.
This confusion is a normal part of what happens when people are working through an issue and figuring out where they stand. Politicians are doing their constituents a disservice by playing political football with this issue when the public is still unresolved and in flux. In fact, their game-playing is creating even more hurdles for the public to navigate as they try to develop clear judgment on the issue of health care reform.
Our leaders ought to be helping, not hindering, the public as they grapple with complex issues like health care reform. And there are ways for them to do so. In fact, we have experimented with some approaches to engaging the public on this issue, with encouraging results.
In a forthcoming report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation, we study how citizens think about the challenge of controlling health care costs. In particular, we examine how, when the public has the opportunity to examine choices and think through a few strategic facts – like how our health care spending and outcomes rank against other countries – they feel more confident about the issue. They are able to work through denial and wishful thinking and reach common ground on the sorts of policies they'd support as well as the policies that concern them.
As we wrote in the last Public Agenda Alert, when given the chance and with the right kind of support, citizens want to engage on long-term solutions to health care spending, and they do so with surprisingly productive results. Instead of bludgeoning the public with political spin and consequential brinksmanship, our leaders should provide more resources and opportunities to help citizens better understand the issue and come to a clear judgment on the approaches they support.
Friday, September 20th, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON
Reprinted from The Huffington Post - September 19, 2013
Recently, there's been a flurry of reports detailing which college majors offer the best starting salaries and which offer the worst. The top ten are all various forms of STEM degrees--science, technology, engineering, and math. Newly-minted petroleum engineers can expect to start out at about $100,000 per year. At the other end of the spectrum are students with degrees in social work, elementary education, and child and family studies. Their starting salaries are just over $30,000.
In many respects, these numbers bear out what business and government experts have been telling us for years. The future of the U.S. economy lies in STEM, and we need more young people entering these fields. Impressive starting salaries are just the economy's signal that it wants and needs more STEM talent.
But does that mean that colleges and universities should make STEM education their top priority and de-emphasize less "relevant" subjects? Should today's college students sidestep courses in art history and music and invest all their time and money in STEM courses instead?
Not according to the students, professors, parents, retirees, and others who have been deliberating the future of higher education in citizen meetings convened by the National Issues Forums (NIF). Full disclosure, as journalists say, I sit on NIF's board. It's a network of schools, libraries, community colleges, book clubs, and other local groups that host forums each year where people can talk about alternative ways to address major issues. Last year, participants discussed the national debt. This year, it's higher education. Already, the NIF network has organized well over 100 forums on higher education in venues ranging from college campuses to senior living centers.
It's not that most people coming to the NIF forums don't care about science and technology. Participants repeatedly point out its importance to the economy and its tantalizing potential for helping humanity address all manner of challenges. The country's need for innovators is a continual theme. Yet, most participants also seem to see a danger in students being too narrowly educated. And most see a genuine value in giving students at least some time and space to explore a range of subjects and ideas.
Here's how someone attending a Kansas forum put it: "Innovation is the strength of the United States in science and technology. That means a broadly educated and experienced person. . . . They need to be very good at their technology or science, but [they need more than that] or we're going to be another China. They're very good at technology. They're not very good at innovation. That's why they send their students here."
In fact, advocates trying to get more Americans interested in STEM by showcasing China's (and India's) prowess in graduating engineers may be off-message. The subject of China comes up repeatedly in the NIF forums, often as a cautionary tale about what happens when students focus too much on single field. Ironically, the Chinese are showing a growing interest in the liberal arts themselves. Xiong Qingnian, who directs a research institute on higher education at Fudan University in Shanghai, described the goal: "We want our students to have more varied views on society. That is why Fudan wants to focus on the liberal arts."
For many in the NIF forums, lack of creativity and vision is only one hazard to being too narrowly educated. Many see the U.S. economy as an employment shape shifter, so according to this view, focusing too much on 2013 job skills could be a mistake. In Iowa, one participant commented that "whatever [students are] studying right now is probably not going to be true in five years, two years, maybe. You don't know, maybe next year. You can't learn this box and then use that forever, because that's not the way the world is now." Students in the forums often struggle with the tension between choosing courses that might help them get a job on graduation versus choosing the kind of education that would give them the adaptability and flexibility to remain employable and prosper over the years.
What's most interesting about the forums so far is the high regard most participants have for an education that encourages students to wrestle with new ideas, sample new fields, and meet people from outside their own experiences. For many, this is the very essence of what it means to become an educated person. "Granted," said one woman said, "I'm biased towards the liberal arts, but if you have a higher education background, period, you've had opportunity to be exposed to different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions, different belief systems, and you have a heart that is not -- a heart and a mind that are both opened, and I think that's what education does for you."
In the forums, participants have a chance to weigh three different options concerning the missions for higher education: 1) focusing on science and technology education to help the economy; 2) offering students a rich, broad education that emphasizes integrity and working together; and 3) expanding opportunity by helping more students attend college and graduate. As might be expected, most participants see important values in all three missions.
What many question, however, is the trend of talking about college mainly as career training--whether it's in STEM or something else. Better job training is essential, many say, for high school graduates who want to enter the work force immediately or aren't interested in a more traditional college education. Offering a wider range of post-secondary options was a clear winner in most of the deliberations.
But it is also clear from these forums that the ability to go to college and get a broad and rich education that expands a student's vision and understanding of the world is still important for many Americans. Maybe it's more important than ever.
Monday, September 16th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
In our most recent research, employers and community college students expressed doubt about the quality of online education. Just 17 percent of employers said they'd prefer a graduate from a top-tier college with an online degree over a student from an average college with a traditional degree. Forty-two percent of community college students say they think people learn less online than in-person, and many students who are currently taking online classes say they wish they could take fewer.
Of course, online education is a rapidly evolving issue. The field and its technology will get more sophisticated, and students and employers will gain more experience and exposure. As such, we anticipate their attitudes will evolve as well.
Still, many people are banking on online education as an avenue to increased access and decreased cost. As such, online is increasingly becoming part of the higher ed mainstream. All types of post-secondary institutions are offering various online programs, from universally-accessible MOOCs to online/in-class hybrid programs to online-only degrees.
About a third of all undergrad students today take at least one of their classes online. Past research does suggest that some forms of online education can result in equal or better learning outcomes for students compared to traditional instruction. Plus, online education provides the flexibility many students need to combine school with work and family responsibilities. Online classes can also sometimes be the only way to complete requirements for often oversubscribed or problematically scheduled courses.
At the same time, low-achieving students seem to benefit more from in-class or hybrid instruction over online (for example, see here and here). Those who are already struggling to keep up with their college work are more likely to drop out of online classes than classes taught face-to-face.
Within this rapidly-changing, high-stakes context, the findings from this research raise some very important questions that leaders in higher ed really ought to examine.
It is unclear whether the current trajectory of online education is adequately meeting the diverse needs of community college students. What can colleges do to make sure online education is an effective option for the students who want it or can best benefit from it and keep it from becoming a burden or obstacle for those who don’t?
It also seems employers remain wary of online degrees and continue to prefer candidates with traditional degrees from average institutions over candidates with online degrees from top-tier universities. What do higher ed leaders need to do to ensure that students who have made vast investments in their education are competitive in the workforce? Employers' skepticism may also indicate a general need for better communication between colleges and employers about the knowledge and skills the latter seek in their employees.
Other stakeholders matter in this discussion as well, and we must also take continuous stock of their perspectives. We need to hear from other student groups, of course, but also, and in particular, from faculty, who will of course be key in adopting, improving and expanding online education.
And we can't afford to wait - among the community college students we spoke to, 46 percent said they took at least some of their classes online, and 5 percent said they took all of their classes online. Online education already affects many current students. It behooves us to make sure that online learning is adopted in ways that meet the needs of students and society.
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
Life on campus this fall will be very different from last year, when a forthcoming election enlivened debate from the dining hall to the lecture hall. But in an off year for national politics, how can you build your students' interest in critical public issues?
Engaging students on public issues is not an easy task, and no wonder. It's hard for most to connect with theoretical policy, especially when they see their political system as inept, broken, or otherwise unworthy of trust. For students enmeshed in social lives, academics, a job and, often, family responsibilities, talking about policy can seem even more hopeless. While many students may simply consider such matters as wholly theoretical abstractions far removed from the reality of their daily lives, we know they are not. Policy has the ability to change the answer to questions like: Will I have a job in my field when I graduate? Has technology forever changed the landscape of employment? What does the Affordable Care Act mean for me when I turn 26?
We've found that there are ways to make policy decisions come alive for students (as well as other members of the public). Together with the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda developed the Choicework approach. Rooted in the theories of our co-founder, Dan Yankelovich, Choicework can be truly transformative for a few reasons. In the same way that storytelling can bring a news article, research or cause to life, Choicework roots policy approaches in finite and human choices, using accessible language and grounding the choices in essential values that people really connect with.
Choicework can make policy come to life. The point is not to choose one and only one approach; rather, by emphasizing the inherent choices and stakes in the issue at hand brings policy to life, Choicework helps students connect to it and envision how policy plays out in their own lives and the lives of others, and visualize other approaches and broaden the discussion.
Here's an example of Choicework, from our Citizens' Solutions Guide on Immigration:
In addition to Immigration, Public Agenda has published Citizen Solutions Guides on Jobs & The Economy, Healthcare, Education, The Federal Budget, and Energy. All of our CSG’s include introductory overviews of the topic, key facts, links to online supporting documentation, and illustrative charts and graphs.
Interested in experimenting with this approach in your classroom? Our nonpartisan Citizens' Solutions Guides on some of our nation’s most hotly contested issues make great discussion starters in the lecture hall and are free to download. We’d love to hear your stories putting Choicework to use. Let us know how it works out!
Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
The majority of transfer students from community college (62 percent) will go on to receive a bachelor's degree within 6 years. Students who have already received a two-year credential before transferring have an even better shot, with 72 percent going on to complete a bachelor's in 6 years. This data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a report released last week.
While there is certainly room for improvement, this is hopeful news. For many young Americans, community college represents one of the few remaining pathways to the American Dream, and these colleges serve nearly half of the nation's undergraduate population.
The students tracked for the study had transferred without taking time off, meaning they likely had more momentum than the typical student, according to researchers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Momentum – helping students maintain it and supporting them when it flags—is a critical component of student success. After all, while students in this study had decent success rates, for more than half of the country's community college students, in 6 years, they will not have completed a two-year degree or transferred to a four-year college.
Many students face hurdles in their personal lives that make completion difficult: they work full-time, they're caring for a family, they commute, they attend school part-time. But the ways in which some community colleges operate present many unnecessary barriers that prevent students from reaching their goals.
Most of us tend to think about the path through community college as something like this:
But here's what the community college experience is really like for most students:
Graphics courtesy of Greg Stoup, Rob Johnstone, and Priyadarshini Chaplot of The RP Group.
The complexity of a student’s pathway through an associate’s degree or transfer sheds light on why so few community college students make it to the end of their programs. Yet this flaw in the system is structurally fixable. There are policies and practices that straighten the completion maze and improve and support student momentum.
We've been working with leading, innovative community colleges to identify and implement practices that help students better find their way. We've also spoken to community college students from across the country to hear what they say would help them more easily navigate enrollment, completion and transfer. The ideas they raise include:
- Programs with well-defined pathways and clear goals.
- Advisors, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students’ educational and career goals.
- More inter-departmental collaboration and better channels of communication on campus, so students can better find the information and services they need.
- Exposure to career possibilities.
- Developmental education offered in a way that helps students succeed.
Another thing we heard frequently from students was, "I should have known." The students we have spoken to are quick to blame themselves for not being able to reach the end of the completion maze. Unfortunately, their experiences reinforce the misperception many hear their whole life: that they're not college ready; that college isn't for them.
We owe it to students to fix the flaws in our higher education system. The stories, concerns, and recommendations raised by current and former students serve as useful and powerful points of departure as we explore how to help more students complete a degree.
Friday, August 16th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo and Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt
Reprinted from Education Week - August 16, 2013
In just a couple of months, the Badass Teachers Association, a new teacher-advocacy group dedicated to productive discourse that improves the teaching profession, has made a deep impression on the education reform community and seen its ranks explode. Its members-only Facebook group now numbers more than 20,000. If this isn’t a sign that teachers are aching to have their voices heard, we’re not sure what is. But to truly have an impact on education policy, advocating for a seat at the table is just step one in a long, arduous, yet essential path.
Given their proximity to the issues, teachers should be leading discussions with their colleagues on education reform. They should also be engaging with other key stakeholders, including principals, superintendents, and parents, in robust explorations about possible approaches.
Asserting one’s voice among the powerful elite of advocates, lobbyists, policymakers, foundations, and others may seem like a daunting challenge. Yet getting a seat at the table is not the only challenge teachers will face: Working with colleagues, administrators, parents, and policymakers to address complex, divisive issues like teacher performance and struggling schools will be monumentally hard work.
Many teachers are already engaging their colleagues and informing policy, and they’re doing it very well. In working with those who have forged the way on productive engagement, we’ve witnessed and encountered many of the challenges that arise after gaining entry into the conversation. Anticipating such challenges, and knowing some practices for overcoming them, can facilitate better engagement that results in policies that truly benefit teaching and learning.
First, it’s critical to ensure that the perspectives of all teachers are included. The push to include teachers in policy design and implementation is not new. Teachers’ unions historically have served as (sometimes the only) mouthpiece for teachers in policy. In the past five years, a number of grassroots teacher-voice organizations have sprouted, including Educators 4 Excellence, Teach Plus, and VIVA Teachers. The new Badass Teachers Association casts the net even wider.
Yet for all the talk of “teacher voice,” we must bear in mind that teachers in fact have many different voices, perspectives, and concerns—and these all deserve a place at the table. As the Center for American Progress put it in a report released in June: “Teacher voice is not monolithic.”
Many teachers can probably already think of a few colleagues in their school or district who are ready to jump at the chance to discuss topics like teacher evaluation and common-core implementation. Yet the best, most sustainable policy is designed when all perspectives are included.
Last month at a meeting of state teachers of the year, Philip Bigler, the 1998 national teacher of the year, said: “When I was a regular classroom teacher, nobody wanted my opinion. ... Once I became the national teacher of the year, everyone wanted to speak to me and assumed I was an expert on everything. But even when I was a regular classroom teacher, I still had a lot to say.”
Teacher-leaders and advocates offer huge benefits to the field, but we must be mindful to include the “regular classroom teacher” in the conversation as well.
To achieve diverse, inclusive teacher participation in policy development and implementation, teachers will need to reach out to those among their colleagues who may not have had a stake in the policy debate before and to those who hold opinions different from their own.
Teachers and others must also navigate tough, emotional conversations. Issues like teacher evaluation and preparation, performance-based compensation, instruction, and classroom management are often deeply personal, emotionally fraught, politically heated, and, in some respects, mind-bogglingly complex. Leading conversations around them is a challenging role to embrace, and even participating in them may seem like a bad idea. What’s to prevent the discussion from stagnating into exhausting complaints or unraveling into cynical arguments?
One step to generating productive conversation is first providing space for an honest and frank exchange of views. Some venting can be helpful, though it’s important not to wallow in complaints and to move on to problem-solving as soon as possible. Identify which differences of opinion will weigh significantly when choosing a path forward, mark them to revisit at a later point, then refocus the conversation on solutions and move on.
Using a skilled, trained, and fair-minded moderator can also keep conversation productive and focused. An effective moderator does not allow his or her opinion to interrupt the flow of the conversation and is comfortable with an open dialogue without a predetermined conclusion. Participants should also be confident in their moderator’s lack of bias. Identifying and supporting effective moderators may take some time investment, but participants will in all likelihood end up having a much more productive conversation.
To move forward, all players will need to establish common ground and determine acceptable compromises. Even when a conversation stays on track and is solutions-focused, how can participants identify common ground? How can they navigate those issues which are—and will in all likelihood remain—in contention? How do they actually pinpoint the solutions that seem workable to everyone and the ones that will most likely end up on the cutting-room floor?
One concrete approach that we’ve seen transform endless debate into robust dialogue and solutions is Choicework, a methodology developed by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation and based on theory and research from the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich.
The premise of Choicework is basic: When people are presented with three or four concrete, real-world approaches to a problem, they have an easier time grounding the discussion as they explore the pros and cons of different paths forward. In using such an approach, a few things commonly happen among discussion participants:
- They come to accept that there are no easy answers. Tough problems will require considerable thought and possibly a measure of compromise.
- They begin to empathize with those who hold opposite views. Even if they will never embrace those views themselves, they understand why opponents think the way they do.
- They realize their own preferred approaches often have trade-offs they may not have acknowledged before.
- They overcome denial and wishful thinking and gain a clear sense of what’s worth compromising on and what isn’t.
A face-to-face dialogue moderated by a neutral facilitator is usually best, but the key discussion principles can be used in a variety of situations. Generally, in approaching and designing a discussion, it’s beneficial to focus on helping participants grasp the concrete possible approaches and generating empathy and understanding through dialogue. Such an approach is more likely to yield workable solutions and to reach resolution more quickly than alternative avenues.
Monday, August 5th, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON
Reprinted from The Great Energy Challenge - July 29, 2013
The federal government’s latest international energy projections are out, and there’s no question we’re living in a time of enormous change—and perhaps remarkably little progress.
The International Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration tries to identify the big trends and projections affecting the energy world through 2040. Some of the trends include:
Yet for all that, the EIA projects the world’s overall energy mix won’t change much at all by 2040.
Yes, renewables and nuclear are the fastest-growing sources. But overall, the percent of energy produced by fossil fuels will only drop from 84 percent today to 78 percent in 2040. Renewables only grow from 11 percent to 15 percent, and nuclear rises from 5 percent to 7 percent. Liquid fuels drop by 6 percent, largely because of rising prices. And despite all the debate about the decline of coal and rise of natural gas, the overall percentage of those two fuels barely changes at all. Given that picture, we still be pumping out plenty of greenhouse gases. EIA is predicting a 46 percent increase in global warming emissions during the study’s time frame.
There are important differences in what’s happening in developed nations versus emerging ones. For example, even though the EIA is projecting a small 1 percent drop in the share of coal used by 2040, it expects a dramatic increase in coal consumption between now and 2020, most of it coming from the developing countries that need cheap forms of energy to house and feed their growing populations and to industrialize.
Projections aren’t karmic. They depend on taking current trends and best estimates of what will happen if those trends continue. But it’s a fair question: if there’s so much activity around new energy sources, then why don’t the projections look different? Why don’t the changes have more traction?
The answer may lie in the fact that we haven’t, globally speaking, really reached consensus on the fundamentals: What kind of energy sources should we be using? What economic changes are we willing to make to back up those choices? What are developed nations willing to do to help poorer countries improve their citizens’ lives without depending so heavily on fossil fuels? Those of us living in the developed world have already reaped the benefits of industrialization based on cheap coal. It’s not surprising that developing nations would be tempted to follow the same path—and harder for us to preach to nations that are still building their economies. (See related story: “Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan.”)
The fact is that the changes we’re making on energy are working on the margins, and that’s why the long-term projections only show marginal shifts. If you want big shifts, you have to start making big changes—and that means persuading the public that those changes are worth making. (See related story: “Climate Change Impact on Energy: Five Proposed Safeguards.”)
Friday, July 19th, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON
Reprinted from Huffington Post - July 16, 2013
How do you know when a teacher is doing a good job? Are schools doing enough to insure that we have effective teachers and that we're supporting them? These questions are on the table in school districts nationwide as debates over teacher evaluation policies heat up. Most Americans say they have confidence in public school teachers, but most also think teacher preparation programs need more rigorous entrance requirements, and about half want student test scores counted as part of a teacher's job evaluation.
In fact, studies of parents, teachers, principals, students and the broader public -- research conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Kettering Foundation, Ed Sector and other independent groups -- suggest it's time for a more inclusive and nuanced conversation about what good teaching is and how we judge, nurture and support it.
Nearly everyone has had at least one or two spectacular teachers along the way. Most of us can also think of a teacher or two who was monotonous and uninspiring, maybe even callous and cold-hearted. But the crux of the teacher quality debate today is whether we have a teaching corps that successfully helps students develop the skills and habits of mind to become educated, competent adults -- adults who can build careers and fulfilling lives, adults who will be good neighbors and citizens.
So, what really counts in teaching? What are the best practices? What kind of training and support will actually produce the teaching corps our kids deserve?
Unfortunately, the research isn't as clear as you might think. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Jal Mehta suggests that we don't actually have a well-developed understanding of how to train, evaluate and support effective teaching. He believes the field lacks a "widely agreed-upon knowledge base." Moreover, he points out that " training is brief" compared to other professions, and "the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields."
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation must have reached much the same conclusion when it launched a multi-year project videotaping thousands of classroom teachers in action to "better understand what great teaching looks like, and the types of measures that can provide a fair assessment of teaching aimed at helping every teacher be their best."
Sometimes the political debate seems to center almost exclusively on the idea of judging teachers based on student test scores. Teacher surveys show that most see a place for standardized testing in education, but most also consider student engagement in class a better measure of their own performance. An analysis by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation suggests that most parents see low test scores as a red flag that something is wrong, but many also question whether good test scores by themselves actually show that children are learning and thriving.
What other kinds of questions should we include in teacher effectiveness discussions? Here are some nominees:
So much of today's teacher quality discussion centers on finding reliable ways to measure how effective a teacher is in teaching skills and how to apply those measures to teachers across the board. Given our limited understanding of the art and science of teaching, this is work that needs to be done.
But in our drive to delineate what we mean by "effective" teaching and to hold schools and teachers accountable, we shouldn't overlook the human dimensions of the job. They may not be as easy to measure, but that doesn't mean they don't matter to kids and schools.
Thursday, July 11th, 2013 | Danielle Stouck
With a final vote of 68 to 32, a bipartisan group of Senators passed a groundbreaking immigration reform bill late last month. The bill aims to clear the way for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants to embark on a pathway to citizenship while enforcing tougher border security measures.
The future of the Bill in the House remains to be seen. However, in the Senate, the American people witnessed a rare political moment defined not by familiar stalemates and bickering but by solutions-oriented compromise.
How did immigration reform, a divisive and highly controversial topic, become an example of bipartisanship and collaborative decision-making in the Senate? And can we build on this forward momentum so that Congress can continue moving from arguments to dialogue and solutions that work for the American people?
The country has not seen comprehensive immigration reform in over a decade, even as the American public has called out for it. The legislature has taken up comprehensive immigration reform bills in the past. However, these have never made it to see a president’s signature, often due to partisan bickering.
Then, in January, the “Gang of Eight”—four Democratic and four Republican Senators including Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet and Flake—offered a bipartisan blueprint for immigration reform.
The blueprint begins, “We recognize that our immigration system is broken.” This opening statement does not focus on past legislation or place any blame on any particular branch of government or specific legislative bloc. Rather, it illustrates a commitment to progress. The blueprint goes on to list four basic legislative pillars agreed upon by the bipartisan group, which became the building blocks for the bill.
Bipartisan groups, such as the so-called Super Committee, have tried and failed to effectively address divisive issues such as the debt crisis and the fiscal cliff. What was different about the Gang of Eight?
The eight Senators agreed to focus on four major issues of contention from the beginning, despite an overwhelming 300 proposed amendments (fully 200 of which were actually debated). While we can only speculate on the intentions of the Gang, this narrow focus seems to signal that the Senators understood that practical solutions require restraint and compromise.
Furthermore, each side conceded to the other on at least one main point. The "pathway to citizenship" supported by the Democrats is contingent on an increase in border security and a crackdown on visa overstay, sticking points for Republicans.
In the words of Senator Schumer, “The other seven members of the Gang of Eight, we have come to become friends. We have argued with each other, we have bonded with each other, but most of all we are united in this effort to make our nation better by fixing our broken immigration system.”
Now the immigration reform bill must pass through a skeptical House of Representatives. While many remain pessimistic on this front, we hope this bill can not only help mend our country’s “broken” system but also come to represent civility, bipartisanship and functional governance on Capitol Hill.
Read more about immigration, its affect on jobs and the economy, authorized vs. unauthorized immigration, potential approaches to reform and other complexities in our Citizens' Solutions Guide on the issue. How would you reform our country's immigration system? Let us know on Twitter, or comment below!
Monday, July 1st, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan
Though tech innovations can be helpful in improving communication and engagement, especially when immediacy is necessary, some make the mistake of relying too heavily on technology as a stand in for other communication practices.
Keypads, or “clickers” as they are called in higher education, are certainly no exception to that rule. Using these types of audience response systems alone won’t support better interactions between people, but they do have the potential to immensely improve engagement practices when used appropriately.
"Click to Engage: Using Keypads to Enhance Deliberation," a new paper from Public Agenda's Center for Advances in Public Engagement, supports the work of public engagers seeking to improve their use of keypads in group discussion and engagement.
Here are some ways clickers can complement small group discussion:
- Keypads can reveal who is and who isn’t in the room.
Using keypads to field demographic questions enables discussion participants to understand who is in the room and situate themselves with the group. It also provides an easy way for the discussion facilitators and organizers to look back at the data. Using keypad responses for recording demographics can motivate those hosting the group discussion to improve their recruitment of persons from diverse backgrounds as well.
- Keypads can be conversation starters.
Keypads can be a great way to break the ice among discussion participants. Asking a couple of neutral, even comedic, questions can set a comfortable tone and allow for some low-pressure conversation to begin. Incorporating this sort of ice breaker in the beginning typically generates more inclusive and robust dialogue. Another bonus: such questions help discussion participants get used to the device.
- Keypads can show variance in opinion and illuminate minority views.
With divisive issues, each side may assume it has the strong majority and the opposition is merely an uninformed but vocal minority. Keypads have the power to provide a more accurate count of the splits and give voice to minority views that might not otherwise enter the conversation. This is not fool-proof though, and can have an adverse effect if audience members do not come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Organizers should take care in designing the discussion so that those with minority views do not end up feeling alienated. If a room predominately holds one perspective and only a few disagree, allowing those dissenters to have the floor, if they’re willing, can be a powerful means for exploring divergent viewpoints in a reasonable way.
- Keypads can assist facilitators in allocating remaining time.
Identifying areas of agreement and disagreement through quick polling using the clickers can help a facilitator better allocate precious remaining time. If a topic reveals sharp disagreement, perhaps that topic warrants further, and deeper, discussion. Alternately, participants may not be ready to take on an issue if not enough time remains and the best option is to table it for more research.
The benefits of using a tool like the keypad to engage a diverse room of people far outweigh the drawbacks. Its immediacy and ease of use make it a powerful aide in deeper engagement. But thoughtful preparation, care and attention to design are crucial to using keypads successfully.
For more pointers on how to use this tool, including a breakdown of best practices and strengths and limitations, download our new paper here. For other tips on engagement practices, visit our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. We’d love to hear your successes, words of caution, and other tips regarding the use of keypads send us an email to Michelle Currie at email@example.com.