Tuesday, October 29th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.
Today is the year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy here in New York. To remind us of the important work we have done and inspire us to tackle the work we still must do, we are reprinting Will Friedman's commentary on collaboration in post-Sandy New York. This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post.
Photo by Daniel Thornton
Former Mayor Ed Koch once said that "New York is the city where the future comes to rehearse." While he spoke these words in 1986, they have perhaps never been truer than they are today. As the city shapes its future post-Sandy, can it also become a role model for how a community of leaders and citizens can work together to solve complex and potentially volatile public problems?
The city, after fall, faces a steep challenge. New York is living in changed circumstances. Hurricanes, rare in our past, are now a part of our normal weather pattern. Every borough other than the Bronx is, or is part of, an island, and one that's going to become more prone to flooding. Meanwhile, as it's virtually impossible to evacuate the city, what can we do to insure the residents' safety?
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013 | Andy Fluke
Reprinted from the NCDD Community Blog
At the 2012 National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) national conference in Seattle, NCDD member and filmmaker Jeffrey Abelson sat down with over a dozen leaders in our community to ask them about their work and their hopes and concerns for our field and for democratic governance in our country.
Today we’re featuring the interview with Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues and work together to find solutions. A leading organization in our field, Public Agenda is a long-time organizational member and friend of NCDD. Public Agenda sponsored NCDD Seattle at the partner level last year.
Thursday, October 17th, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON
While we have avoided an unprecedented federal default for the time being, the debt ceiling matter hasn’t been resolved. We could be right at the brink again in just a matter of months. Pundits and politicians from both parties lean on recent polls to demonstrate why their perspective is the one that the American public supports. But have a majority of Americans actually made up their minds about the debt ceiling? This is an issue where a single survey finding taken at face value or in isolation can be misleading.
What polling really reveals is that members of the public are still wrestling with the debt ceiling dilemma. Public opinion on this issue is still "mushy" – a term used by Public Agenda’s founder Daniel Yankelovich to describe poll findings that aren’t stable because people are still absorbing new information and ideas, grappling with trade-offs and unsure what they really think. When opinions are still mushy, survey results can fluctuate dramatically. Once people become more realistic and settled in their views, public opinion tends to be remarkably steady over time.
Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.
Reprinted from Independent Sector - October 14, 2013
My organization, Public Agenda, helps diverse citizens and leaders navigate divisive, complex issues and arrive at workable solutions. This difficult charge can feel Herculean within our current political climate, particularly when it comes to national politics. Fortunately, on the local level there are great examples of communities working together to make progress on important challenges.
As moderator of a session at the IS National Conference last week in New York, I had the good fortune to learn about rich opportunities for people to participate in community problem-solving.
The format was a new one for me: a “Pecha Kucha” session in which presenters talk in front of slides of evocative images, with 20 slides appearing for 20 seconds each. The result was a rich, non-stop panorama of some of New York’s most successful efforts to foster inclusion and combat alienation and powerlessness. See the slides here.
For example, young people in juvenile justice centers compose and perform their own music thanks to the efforts of the Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program. Some of the creative work that happens in juvenile justice settings this year will be performed at Carnegie Hall. NGen award winner Sarah Johnson’s slides told the novel story about this program, which also serves people in health care facilities and homeless shelters.
Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women troupe uses dance and movement to commemorate tragedy and help communities heal. Maria Bauman’s slides told the story of how the troupe marked the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls during the height of the civil-and-voting-rights movement.
Each year, a new class of fellows from Coro New York's Immigrant Civic Leadership Program works in diverse communities, at City Hall, and with business leaders to lead change across the five boroughs. As the faces of Coro fellows filled the screen, Scott Millstein explained how they, with support from a strong alumni network, gain a deeper understanding of policy and decision making in the city.
In Brooklyn, the Red Hook Initiative was critical as the community responded to the devastation and strife caused by Hurricane Sandy. Jill Eisenhard brought to life RHI’s history of bringing people together to solve problems and develop common ground. The efforts of RHI help create a neighborhood where all young people can pursue their dreams.
In a number of New York City neighborhoods, through a process called participatory budgeting, diverse community members work together to choose how to spend a portion of taxpayer funds in their neighborhoods. Sondra Youdelman’s grassroots organization, Community Voices Heard, encourages more members of the New York City Council to adopt participatory budgeting in their districts. The result: local citizens are deciding how $1 million is spent in each of nine districts, bringing local democracy alive in the process.
For a native New Yorker, and for the president of an organization that has worked for decades to build a society in which progress triumphs over inertia and where public policy reflects the values and ideas of the people, it was an inspiring session. I hope others will learn from and support the organizations that shared their great work with us that day.>
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.