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03.21 Top Grades in High School May Not Mean an Equal Chance at Success

Thursday, March 21st, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON

For low-income students—even those with top grades and high test scores—the chance to excel in higher education can be derailed from the get-go, before the ink is even dry on their high school diplomas. For these students, outshining your high school classmates still doesn’t mean you’ll end up at a top college, according to new research from Christopher Avery of Harvard and Caroline Hoxby of Stanford. That makes us wonder about the role high school guidance counselors play in helping low-income students apply to college and whether these students are getting the advice and support they deserve. Based on Public Agenda’s work in this area, it seems very likely the guidance system is coming up short.

According to the new study reported in the New York Times, only about a third of high-achieving high school seniors from low-income families enroll in "one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges." It’s not that these highly promising students aren’t admitted—most never even apply. In sharp contrast, more than three-quarters of high-achieving students from affluent families attend one of these top schools.

And these students would seem to be a college admission officer’s dream. The researchers focused on students with an A-minus average or higher who had scored among the top 10% on college admissions exams like the SAT or ACT.

Like most good research, the Avery-Hoxby study raises a challenging set of questions for educators and the public at large. Experts responding to the report mentioned lack of knowledge about financial aid and lack of role models as some reasons why these top-achieving students from poorer homes don’t attend selective colleges.

Public Agenda’s study, "Can I Get a Little Advice Here? How an Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students' College Aspirations spells out some specific problems facing these (and other) students.

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03.21 Reviving Manufacturing, Saving Energy: Can We Do Both?

Thursday, March 21st, 2013 | Scott Bittle

Reprinted from The Energy Collective - March 20, 2013

A lot fewer Americans work in factories these days, and that has a major impact on energy intensity. Graphic: Census Bureau

Sometimes the long term trends are the hardest to see, yet also the most significant.

Take energy efficiency, for example. There’s no question that using energy more efficiently is crucial in both meeting the rising global demand and in minimizing climate change. And the good news is that the United States has been on a long trend of becoming more efficient. One of the best measures is “energy intensity,” or the amount of energy needed to produce one dollar of goods and services. As you can see in this chart from the Energy Information Administration, the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of goods and services has been on a long steady decline since the 1970s.

The long, steady improvement in U.S. energy intensity is expected to continue. Graphic: EIA

On average, American energy intensity has been improving by 2 percent a year for four decades, and it’s projected to continue on that path through 2040. In fact the government’s projections show efficiency improving in every sector: residential, commercial, industrial and transportation.

There are a lot of reasons for that trend: government policy promoting more efficient appliances and cars, greater social awareness, and (sometimes) higher energy prices. It’s no surprise that energy efficiency should improve when prices are high, such as after the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s or the gasoline price spike in 2008. It’s even more encouraging that the trend continued during periods when energy was relatively cheap.

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03.06 On Opinions of Online Education:
Hit Refresh

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi

The face of higher education is changing rapidly, and Public Agenda is working hard to help education leaders, faculty, students, policymakers and employers better navigate these complex changes.

One of the biggest developments in higher ed is online education. While public opinion on online ed is becoming more positive and the sector is growing, our research and other organizations' show that serious questions and uncertainties remain.

As of late last year, almost half of adults (48 percent) say an online degree “provides a similar quality of education as compared to traditional colleges or universities,” according to researchers at Northeastern University. Just a year and a half earlier, less than a third of adults (29 percent) thought the educational value of online courses is equal to that of classroom learning, according to a Pew poll.

This shift comes in light of impressive growth in the percent of all Americans who have taken online courses for credit. In 2011, 16 percent of Americans had taken an online course for credit, up from 6 percent in 2001, according to Pew. Among just those Americans who have at least some college education, more than a quarter (26 percent) have taken online courses for credit—a number that rose 13 percentage points just between 2005 and 2011.

And Pew’s 2011 data confirms what we would suspect: that those who have taken an online course are more likely than those who have not (by 12 points) to say its educational value is equal to that of a classroom class. Furthermore, most chief academic officers agree; more than three quarters say the learning outcomes of online instruction are the same or better than face-to-face instruction, according to a 2012 survey.

But, on the question of quality, some important stakeholders, including higher education faculty and employers, may remain unconvinced. Nearly 60 percent of faculty said they felt "more fear than excitement" about the growth of online education in a 2012 survey.

And employers tend to favor candidates who obtain their degrees in a traditional face-to-face setting over ones who completed a degree online, notes Nikolaos Linardopoulos at Rutgers University in a recent review of literature on the topic. However, employers ultimately consider the format of an applicant’s instruction—whether online or in-person—secondary to factors like the reputation of the institution from which the degree came, according to the author.

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02.27 Can Accountants Succeed on Climate Where Others Have Failed?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013 | Scott Bittle

Reprinted from The Energy Collective - February 21, 2013

The Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s independent auditor and watchdog agency, added climate change to its list of “high-risk” threats to the nation’s fiscal health.

“Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government,” the GAO report said. “The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.”

And for anyone concerned about getting the government to act on climate change, that raises a tantalizing question: Can accountants succeed where scientists and the environmental movement haven’t?

Fiscally speaking, the GAO said there are three major areas where the government is vulnerable:

  • The government is a huge property owner. The government owns thousands of buildings, from post offices to the Pentagon, and many are at risk of being damaged or destroyed by severe weather and other climate changes. Indeed, the GAO said there were at least 30 military bases already at risk from rising sea levels. And that’s not counting the impact on the 650 million acres of federally managed lands.
  • The government is on the hook as an insurance provider. The National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation are already more exposed to weather-related costs than in the past, and could both face significant claims in the future if droughts, floods and severe weather develop as expected.
  • Disaster relief costs could rise. Disaster declarations have increased in recent years, with 98 declarations in 2011 compared to 65 in 2004. In 2004-11, the GAO said FEMA obligated about $80 billion in disaster aid. Superstorm Sandy alone required $60 billion in federal aid.

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02.26 Accountability and Public Schools

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

A Closer Look at How Parents and Teachers Think

Fifteen years ago, federal, state, and local officials started pursuing a broad range of reforms to ensure more accountability in the nation’s public school system. They hope this can improve and restore trust in our nation's public education system.

Yet the public's confidence in public schools is at a historic low. How can this be?

New research from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation suggests that parents and education leaders may think about and define accountability in critically different ways. "Will It Be on the Test?" raises important questions about the trajectory of education reform and whether the way we think and talk about "education" is too narrow.

Most parents – and most Americans generally – applaud the goals of the accountability movement. They say the movement responds to some of their genuine concerns and welcome some of the changes it has instituted, such as raising academic standards and promoting students only when they have mastered needed skills.

Still, they see it as sorely lacking in fundamental ways. To them, accountability provides too few answers to problems they see as pivotal. These problems include too many irresponsible parents, too many unmotivated students, too little community support, and messages from society that undermine learning and education.

Parents also think the accountability movement places too much weight on standardized tests when there are many other factors to consider when judging the effectiveness of schools. And they fear it overlooks the importance of local schools as a community institution.

These competing definitions sometimes clash, especially when districts—in an effort to be more “accountable”—decide to close under-performing schools.

However, one of the most important messages of the research is one that leaders may find encouraging: parents do not believe schools can do it alone.

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02.19 Public Agenda Launches New Website

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

Welcome to Public Agenda's new website!

We hope you find the new site brighter, cleaner, and easier to navigate. Be sure to check out our story, who we are, what we do, where we work, and the services we offer.

Our blog, On the Agenda, also has a new, fresh look.

If you are looking for a specific report or discussion guide, our advanced search page will give you the help you need.

Did you know we've been around for nearly 40 years? That's a lot of time to accumulate a lot of important resources! We offer all of these resources for free. We hope that you'll considering donating to Public Agenda so we can keep up our important work.

It's possible we've overlooked something in the transition. If you are looking for something and cannot find it, let us know. If you are looking for our online issue guides, we have updated a number of them for our Citizens' Solutions Guides. Old issue guides that have not been updated are archived.


01.17 Rebuilding Trust in the Government

Thursday, January 17th, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan

After two full years of largely ineffectual work, the 112th Congress finally ended its unproductive streak with the close of 2012. One grand question for the new Congress is how to help the exhausted American public regain confidence in leadership when they have seen leaders essentially plug their ears and yell, “I can’t hear you.”

The public's trust in government has long been eroding. A healthy democracy requires the participation of the public in decision making. Unfortunately, such participation becomes difficult, if not poisonous, when there is not a foundation of trust between those making policy and those affected by it.

Provided they are interested in maintaining a healthy democracy, how can our nation's leaders mend the minds and hearts of the public so their trust in the government can be rebuilt?

We believe many of our nation's leaders genuinely want to do what’s best for the country. But consistent set-backs erode their optimism and motivation. Wary of pitfalls, politicians have only been moved to inaction. We understand why they may be unmotivated, but there are many practical actions they can take to help rebuild the public's trust and get this country back on track when it comes to solving our nation's problems.

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12.20 Lessons Learned From High-Poverty, High-Achieving Schools

Thursday, December 20th, 2012 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

Reprinted from The Huffington Post, on December 20, 2012

Too often, we fall into a negativity trap when it comes to our country's education system. It's certainly easy to focus on the things we do wrong. But we have a lot to celebrate as well. And leveraging those reasons to celebrate offers an important angle on how to improve our nation's schools.

Schools identified as high-poverty or high-needs often pose the biggest challenge to educators. They can also evoke the most pessimism. How can kids learn, people ask, when they lack adequate food, clothing or safety on the way to class?

Still, some schools are doing it. In fact, nine high-poverty, geographically diverse schools throughout Ohio offer case studies for how such schools can and do achieve remarkable results and become beacons of hope.

This is not to say that these schools answer all of our questions or challenges as we seek to improve educational opportunities for all students. We can't throw considerations like funding, class size, teacher quality and access to technology out the window. But we can look to these nine examples for attributes and practices that schools everywhere can learn from and adopt for improvement from within.

In focus groups and interviews with principals, teachers, students and parents at these schools, certain qualities were mentioned with remarkable consistency. Among the lessons these schools provide:

Leadership matters. The principals at each of these schools earn trust and respect, and they inspire achievement through their attitudes and behavior. They lead with a strong vision, engage teachers in decision-making, take responsibility for their school's continued success and hold teachers and students accountable for the same.

Principals care deeply about the success of their students and their schools. Some even go so far as to call students at home when they're late or to remind them to study for a test.
"He's trained us to be a family," a high school teacher at one school said. "He models that. He shows a very deep respect and deep caring for all of the people that he works with."

Collaboration improves teaching and learning. At each of the schools, principals provide real and diverse opportunities and incentives for teachers to collaborate. For example, they designate regular planning times with set agendas, encourage team teaching, and make sure teacher collaboration is fun and includes downtime.

Collaboration also goes beyond sharing a successful lesson plan. Teachers work together to interpret standards, plan and align instruction, share and analyze data together, and discuss the issues their students are facing.

Teachers say that collaboration and sharing best practices are keys to their effectiveness. "I love the team that I work with... If I have a problem and I'm uncertain, I can turn to anybody here and say, 'I need help,'" said one high school teacher.

Student data has its place. Teachers at the nine schools regard student data as helpful and clarifying. They use it to plan instruction, approach test preparation and design interventions. Data analysis allows them to intervene immediately if a student falls behind.

Principals and teachers hold high expectations. In these schools, all students are expected to achieve academically and behave appropriately. The educators in the building accept no excuses for why a student cannot do work or does not care about grades. Leadership and staff also follow consistent procedures when responding to negative behavior. At some schools, teachers spend time at the beginning of the year practicing with students the type of behavior they expect.

At the same time, administrators, teachers and support staff model this behavior. They do not resort to excuses when their classes do not meet benchmarks or when their students fall behind. They strive to model punctuality, hard work and ambition as well as the collegial, cooperative and respectful behavior they expect from their students.

Caring is just as important as high expectations. Across all of these high-achieving, high-poverty schools, students state that they feel loved, valued and challenged. They are confident that their teachers will help them and be at their side if they hit a rough patch. Many emphasize the personal connection they have with teachers and other staff. They are also encouraged to think of their paths forward, beyond their present school days.

"They can be your friends," said one high school student. "You can go to them for advice. They help you individually, too. If you're having trouble learning something, you can just go to them personally, and they will help you to figure out like what your problem is."

At these nine Ohio schools, the interplay of these and other important practices produces a school environment in which high achievement becomes the norm. Yet what the individuals at each of the schools do is replicable -- it is not magic. They say themselves that their success can be achieved elsewhere.

Hopefully, such high-achieving, high-poverty schools can stimulate a fresh and constructive dialogue on how we can help all kids learn, regardless of the obstacles they face.


12.13 No Easy Way Out: What Leaders Can Learn from Citizens on the National Debt

Thursday, December 13th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

As our nation's leaders continue to struggle to build common ground on the best ways to approach the nation's debt problem, perhaps they can take a cue from the public.

Over the course of last year, everyday citizens from all ages and walks of life gathered around the country to talk about tackling the debt. The forums were hosted by the nonpartisan National Issues Forums (NIF), a longtime partner of Public Agenda. Participants' insights are captured in the new NIF report, "No Easy Way Out: Citizens Talk about Tackling the Debt ," written by Public Agenda's Jean Johnson.

Participants in the forums looked at multiple possibilities for addressing the debt, as well as the pros and cons of these approaches. In many respects, the report contains good news for leaders hoping to find common ground on this difficult topic. Forum participants spoke of a number of common themes, including:

  • They, and other citizens, are ready for serious, civil talks about the debt.
  • They also understand that solving the problem won't be easy and will require broad acceptance of change and sacrifice.
  • Very few participants brought nonnegotiable items to the table. Most understood that moving forward will require at least some changes they may not like personally.

NIF believes, and we agree, that leaders who understand the concerns and questions of these typical Americans will be better prepared to develop solutions accepted as fair and effective by the public at large.
To this end, Jean traveled to DC last week, with colleagues from NIF, to brief national policymakers on the report's findings. She spoke to staff from House Speaker Boehner's office, top officials in the Treasury Department and staff from both the Republican and Democratic Policy Committees.

Policymakers welcomed the report findings and seemed eager for more of this sort of feedback from the public, which they often saw as richer and more nuanced that what they get from standard polling. "I thought there was a genuine hunger among these leaders for the kinds of deliberative insights from the public that emerge in the NIF forums and the engagement work of Public Agenda," said Jean.

The report also found that people need additional opportunities to grapple with the issue of the debt and the need to address the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare in nonpartisan, non-advocacy settings. While the citizen discussion in forums—which typically run about two hours—were remarkable, it’s also true that many of the forum participants themselves wanted to learn more, think more, and continue their deliberations. Unfortunately, there are not many settings like this readily available in today's public arena.

The question then is: How do we take the deliberative model of NIF and Public Agenda and expand it to a broader audience? Are there ways to provide more of these dialogues? Are there trusted, neutral voices that can guide such exchanges?

One way to start is in your own community, school or organization. A discussion guide like Public Agenda's "The Federal Budget: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" (free of charge) or NIF's "A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills?" can provide the framework for a productive dialogue on the choices we face when it comes to our country's economic future.

As "No Easy Way Out" demonstrates, under the right conditions, everyday citizens can build common ground, and practical solutions are within reach. We just have to work to find them.


11.16 Let's Pay for Our Priorities

Friday, November 16th, 2012 | Scott Bittle

Originally publishing on November 16, 2012, BILLMOYERS.COM

Imagining a positive outcome for a strategy as dumb as the fiscal cliff is a challenge. If all the provisions went into force, the cliff would, in fact, do a lot to put the budget on a sustainable course. But the price is potentially another recession, which we can’t afford. Whenever I think about our leaders concocting the cliff idea, it’s hard not to recall the famous justification for bold action in Animal House: “What this situation calls for is a really futile, stupid gesture on somebody’s part–and we’re just the guys to do it!”
But that defines the problem in Washington terms, and I’m convinced those are the wrong terms. Everyone is searching for a budget deal Washington can accept. My ideal outcome would be to use this opportunity to get a deal the public — the vast majority of Americans outside the Beltway — can accept.

Budgets are about choices. They’re about deciding, as a nation, what should be done and what we’re willing to pay to do it. The tradeoffs may get ugly, but that’s precisely why public support is so important. No budget deal is worth anything unless the American people can say, “Yes, this is what needs to be done. I may not like it, but I can live with it.”

Right now the federal government spends two thirds of its money on just five fast-growing items (Social Security, defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest payments). But tax rates are also at historic lows. The public needs to face that conflict. If those are the priorities we want, great. Let’s own them, let’s pay for them. If not, we’d better change them now, while we still can. The fiscal cliff is a great moment for doing that – if we seize it.


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