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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.


11.15 We Must Avoid Austerity on Steroids

Thursday, November 15th, 2012 | JEAN JOHNSON

Originally publishing on November 15, 2012, BILLMOYERS.COM

Going over the fiscal cliff is basically austerity on steroids. It means that taxes will rise suddenly for nearly everyone. It means large, blunt, abrupt cuts in government spending — and some reckless, destructive ones as well. If the situation lasts more than a few months, it will almost certainly trigger a recession in the United States, the second one in five years. It would probably unleash a global recession as well.

The bigger unknown is whether allowing the country to go over the fiscal cliff very briefly — mainly as a negotiating technique — would lead to a modest, temporary wobble in the economy, or whether it could, like the fall of Lehman Brothers, spin out of control in ways we aren’t anticipating.

But here’s my larger question: If the country can’t come to an agreement now, when will the prospects be better? The ingredients for a deal are well known, and there are multiple plans and ideas on the table. The American people are focused on this issue, and so are their leaders. The 2012 election is behind us, and there’s only so much time before politicians start focusing on the next one, with all the posturing and politicking upcoming elections bring with them. Would that be a better environment for negotiating a prudent, fair-minded agreement?

The stakes here are high, and pushing the problem down the road raises them. Suppose the calculation that the economy can withstand a brief plunge over the fiscal cliff turns out to be wrong. Then we’ll have to confront our budget problems in a recessionary economy, not a recovering one. And then, our choices will be even more painful.

So that’s my question: If not now, when?

Jean Johnson is a senior fellow and special adviser for Public Agenda. She has authored several books as well as a series of guides published by Harper Collins designed to help citizens understand complex public policy issues, all written with Public Agenda senior fellow Scott Bittle, including Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis.


11.01 Community Engagement and School Transformation

Thursday, November 1st, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

Closing or turning around a low-performing school is always disruptive, but engaging the community in decision making can help make school transformation less painful and more likely to succeed. Without deep knowledge of the communities that are affected by turnaround and careful attention to engagement and communication practices, even the most earnest leaders hoping to inspire change are likely to see their efforts fail.

Last week, Jyoti Gupta, senior public engagement associate, presented some simple principles for engaging and communicating with the community to nearly 45 of Chicago's education and community leaders. The principles, drawn mainly from Public Agenda's reports "What's Trust Got to Do With It?" and "Community Responses to School Reform in Chicago," help education leaders and the community better work together to transform the most challenging schools into high-performing centers of success. Jyoti's presentation was part of Education Reform Now, Illinois' first annual policy briefing on improving chronically low-performing schools. The forum provided an opportunity for participants to better understand and address school turnaround in Chicago and nationally in a way that is both responsive to community need and solutions oriented.

Both the reports and the presentation help education leaders understand the primary ways communities react to school turnaround efforts and why those efforts can be met with anger and distrust. They also provide actionable steps for working with communities to build trust and plan and implement changes to improve low-performing schools. Some of these steps include:

  • Finding a shared vision: Help the community envision exactly what it looks like when school conditions that empower students and teachers to improve are in place, why those conditions are necessary, and what will be required to get there. Dwelling on negative aspects without giving people a sense of hope can contribute to negative community reactions.
  • Providing information: Community members need the right amount of information at the right time and in an accessible format. They need enough information to be able to understand – and independently judge – the worth and process of a turnaround effort. They need ways to access more information when they want it in a language that makes sense and is useful.
  • Breaking out of the “public hearing” format: While Town Halls or public hearings are familiar to many people, they are often not the most effective way to hear from a diversity of voices, to wrestle with complex issues, or create an environment of problem solving. Instead, engagement in small groups and on a more routine basis can help to build communication and mutual respect, as well as encourage creativity and exchange of multiple viewpoints.

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11.01 Sparking a Conversation to Get the Best Teachers

Thursday, November 1st, 2012 | Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt and Allison Rizzolo

Reprinted from Catalyst-Chicago.Org 11/1/2012

Chicago Public Schools teachers recently took to the streets for the first time in a quarter-century to protest the new teacher evaluation system alongside more traditional bread-and-butter issues. But amidst the polarizing debate as to whether striking was the right thing to do, we lost sight of the big picture. Now more than ever, it is important to take a step back from the chaos this controversy created and ask the more fundamental question of whether we are doing right for our city’s children in providing each and every one the best teachers who can help them succeed in school and beyond.

Strike or no strike, do we have enough excellent teachers? If the new teacher evaluation system that has fueled so much action and so much debate is used as planned to dismiss under-performing teachers, do we have the types of teachers that we want, and that so many Chicago students need, waiting in the wings?

Recent events have shown how questions about fairness—fairness for teachers, fairness for students, and fairness for parents—too often trump the raw economic question of supply and demand in teacher policies. That is, are the salaries and working conditions (inclusive of performance evaluations) in Chicago’s schools sufficiently attractive to talented professional people? Of course they are attractive for some, but are they attracting enough talented teachers to meet our city’s needs?

Do CPS teacher salaries and working conditions entice those excellent teachers already committed to the profession to stay in the classroom for the long-haul, and do they make teaching an attractive career option for talented men and women choosing between many career options available to them? Research conducted by McKinsey & Company on our younger generation of college students suggests that in fact, very few college students from the top-third of their class view teaching as offering them as appealing a career as their alternatives.

If teachers were behaving inappropriately by picketing and partying on Chicago’s streets, what would it take to recruit a more professional, and more highly effective, teacher workforce?

Taking a step back from the chaos of the strike to reconsider whether Chicago as a city is doing its part to secure enough of the kinds of teachers that can get all students reading, writing, and mathematically literate, while also developing their aspirational capacity, requires a comprehensive, systemic human capital approach that strategically addresses not only teacher evaluation but also teacher preparation, recruitment, hiring, induction and mentoring, professional development, working conditions, and compensation.

It’s time to take the bird’s-eye perspective—creating a world-class Chicago teaching force—rather than the worm’s-eye perspective of striking a deal and getting students back in the classroom. At a national convening of state departments of education, Arne Duncan’s teacher quality advisor, Brad Jupp, called for statewide conversations among citizens about what the teaching profession ought to look like and how teacher evaluation reforms can serve as a launching point to help schools and the public to realize that vision.

Chicago researchers at American Institutes for Research, with colleagues from Public Agenda, have created a model and free online resource to help teachers spark these conversations in their schools (see Let’s start this conversation in Chicago—book clubs, community groups, and most importantly educators, should use this historic strike to spark a renewed conversation to shape the future of our teaching force and the future of our city.

The national wave of teacher evaluation reforms are playing out differently across the country, with the New York Times publishing an article on New York City’s “worst teacher,” and a Los Angeles teachers’ suicide even attributed to the outing of his students poor test scores. What mark does Chicago want to have on the nation—the largest strike, or the largest, most collaborative conversation about how to advance this most important of professions?


10.24 The American Dream

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 | Bob McKinnon

Bob McKinnon is the director of the GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity & Progress. This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on October 24, 2012.

In January of this year, Mark Halperin of Time magazine said on the Charlie Rose show that "the 2012 presidential election could come down to a referendum on the American Dream, what it means and how people achieve it."

Unfortunately, to date the referendum has been heavy on sound bites and light on substance.

We've had superficial debates over who "built this," gotcha moments about the 1 percent, the 99 percent and the 47 percent and, most recently, a misguided conversation about Big Bird.

Each of these flash points could have led to a real debate about what each party would like to do to create more opportunities for Americans to pursue their dreams. But instead of leading to principled policy discussion they instead turned into ways to rack up political points.

Last Monday, we released results from our national survey of 2,000 Americans as part of our project The Invisible Dream: Creating a New Conversation About the American Dream, done in conjunction with Public Agenda.

This research offers a glimpse into what Americans think of the American Dream and what it takes to achieve it. And it offers a jumping off point for a more nuanced conversation about what it takes for Americans to get ahead and the role our government and its political leaders can play to help make more of these dreams a reality.

Our research shows that on one hand, Americans do broadly agree on the essential ingredients for achieving the dream. Hard work, strong families and a good education are each seen as essential by more than 75% of Americans (hard work topped the list at almost 90%). These three consensus items raise an important question about whether we are doing enough to ensure that the foundations of character, family and education are being laid in every home, town and city across America.

On the other hand, there were significant political divisions as to what else was essential for achieving the dream after "the big three." We saw percentage swings between self-identified members of the two parties of over 30 points for factors such as basic healthcare or a strong free enterprise system. By asking candidates what they believe is most essential and why, Americans could gain greater insight into a candidates legislative priorities, if elected.

And perhaps most germane to this election, Americans are split right down the middle when asked if the American Dream is "mainly something that people do for themselves" or if "communities and government should take steps so every child has a fair chance achieve the dream."

Two days after our release, the political season moved towards its home stretch with the first of three presidential debates last Wednesday.

Instead of starting a national conversation about the American Dream, we got one on Big Bird.

Ironically, while Americans believe this election will have a profound impact on people's ability to achieve the American Dream by a margin of two to one, it was not mentioned once during this debate.

Beyond not mentioning the term, what was more concerning was that there was little substantive discussion of what either candidate believes is necessary for more Americans to get ahead.

There was no mention of how children can overcome poverty, how families can stay on their feet in an era of stagnant wages and decreased benefits, or how our elders can live securely in their golden years with little to no nest eggs. Nor was there any mention of immigrants, veterans, the health of our cities, or a myriad of other topics relevant to our times and central to a discussion of the American Dream.

If this election were truly framed as a referendum on the American Dream, then Mitt Romney's comment on de-funding PBS would have not just sent twitter a blaze with Big Bird jokes and filled the airwaves with Jimmy Kimmel parodies and opportunistic campaign ads, but could have led a serious conversation on the role Sesame Street has played in helping low-income children be more prepared for kindergarten. (In fact at least five independent studies have confirmed Sesame Street has improved school readiness, test scores, literacy skills and social behavior among viewers -- most demonstrably among low-income children.)

In an event to release our research, a panel that included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream? and moderated by Juan Williams of Fox News provided the kind of serious discussion we need our leaders to have and our citizens to participate in.

"We do need a more nuanced conversation, and we need to get away from this sense that is being created in the political world right now that it's either all being a Horatio Alger story or it's all having government support to help you," said Sawhill during the panel discussion. "It's not either/or, it's both."

The American Dream is powerful in many ways and for many reasons, as more than one person told us in focus groups conducted as part of our project, "without the American Dream, there is no America."

But perhaps its greatest purpose is to help provide focus -- both for individuals who envision something better for themselves, and for our leaders who must see through their macroeconomics and down to the real people inside the numbers.

"There's a tendency to talk about the American economy and its performance in terms of GDP," said Hedrick Smith during the panel. "When you're talking about the American Dream, what's useful, even though it's amorphous to some people, [is focusing] attention on what we're delivering to the individual."

Politics is all about making choices. And before we make our choice in the ballot box, it would be helpful if we better understood how our candidates make theirs.

For example, we asked Americans to tell us which of two 15-year-old children would be more likely to achieve the American Dream: One had a strong family but lacked ambition while the other had a strong work ethic but had an abusive family.

Seventy percent of Americans believe that the child in the abusive family is more likely to achieve the American Dream.

We like to think that in this country -- no matter how bad things are -- with hard work we can overcome anything. But is this wonderful ideal potentially a limiting belief? We often hear impressive stories of people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families. We hold them up as shining examples of what makes America great.

At the same time, we know that the numbers tell us that the most people don't escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families and that while this social mobility is at the heart of the American Dream, it is in decline and we now rank below most other developed countries in class mobility.

Yet this discussion goes missing in an election cycle that will see more than a billion dollars spent trying to get our attention.

Beginning tonight, during the vice presidential debate, wouldn't it be nice to hear more from Vice President Biden on what it takes for a boy from Scranton to rise to national prominence? Wouldn't it be insightful to hear what Paul Ryan would do for other children being raised by a single parent like he was?

And next week, how refreshing would it be if we heard President Obama and Mitt Romney offer less abstract macroeconomic philosophy and more concrete kitchen table solutions?

We call our project The Invisible Dream not because the American Dream is disappearing but because we can't see what it's made of.

Until we can have a deeper and more nuanced conversation about what makes the American Dream not just possible but probable, we will continue to hear mentions of things like Big Bird as political punch lines instead of the teachable moments they could be.


10.18 Deliberative Democracy and Change Management

Thursday, October 18th, 2012 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and Alison Kadlec

Every two years, during the conference for the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, practitioners, researchers and advocates of participatory problem solving gather to share new ideas, explore challenges, and learn from each other, all to improve our practice and efforts in our respective fields. At this year's conference, in Seattle on October 12th through the 14th, we had the pleasure of presenting some of Public Agenda's ideas-in-progress to a large and lively group.

During our session, “Deliberative Democracy and Change Management,” we explored the intersection of these two domains. Both deliberative democracy and change management are designed to help people more thoughtfully navigate complex conditions—solving problems and negotiating change—and forge a better path forward.

We believe that each field has something to offer to and learn from the other. Our purpose in the NCDD session was to explore these possibilities and articulate how our work is being enriched by an investigation of the intersections and divergences between the two fields.

At the most basic level, deliberation is what should occur before a decision has been made and change management is what needs to occur after. This formula, however, only scratches the surface of how the two fields can enrich each other, and as yet there is a dearth of shared knowledge between them.

Deliberative democracy posits that anyone directly affected by an issue—be it, for example, patients, when it comes to health care cost control, or community residents, when it comes to transportation needs—deserves high-quality and meaningful opportunities to learn about and participate in charting a course forward on the issues that affect them. In practice, this work involves people talking together in authentic dialogue and deliberation, usually with facilitators and nonpartisan materials. When done well, deliberative democracy produces better and more sustainable solutions to our most difficult shared problems.

But even well-conceived decisions, derived from authentic dialogue and deliberation, do not implement themselves magically. Deliberation by itself doesn’t result in a map that tells us how to get from making a decision to taking action on that decision. This is where change management, along with the related offshoots of implementation science and improvement science, offer insights and practices that we find exciting and useful.

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10.04 Creating a Better Conversation About the American Dream

Thursday, October 4th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

Candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke a lot during the first presidential debate about opportunity, the middle class and dreams. There has been quite a bit of talk this election season about these themes and about the American Dream specifically—who wants it? Whose responsibility is it to help citizens attain it? We, along with the GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity & Progress, have been exploring the public's thinking on the American Dream over the past year, and some of what we found may surprise you. While campaign rhetoric and media reports often center on a divided electorate, we found a strong consensus of opinion-- across gender, income, race and political lines—on what is "absolutely essential" in achieving the American Dream. Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of our 2000 respondents said that a strong work ethic, values, and a good education were the top three factors contributing to people's ability to achieve the American Dream:

  • Almost 9 in 10 respondents say that a strong work ethic is "absolutely essential" to achieving the Dream (86 percent of Democrats say this; 91 percent of Republicans).
  • Eighty percent identify parents or other adults who teach honesty, responsibility and persistence as "absolutely essential." (83 percent of Democrats say this; 85 percent of Republicans).
  • Seventy-seven percent identify good schools and teachers that ensure that every child has a fair chance to get a good education as "absolutely essential." (89 percent of Democrats say this; 68 percent of Republicans).

On Monday, during an event at the National Press Club, Public Agenda President Will Friedman and Director of Research Carolin Hagelskamp, along with GALEWiLL Center Executive Director Bob McKinnon, presented the survey, which is part of Following the presentation, a panel moderated by Juan Williams at the National Press Club dug deeper into the results. The panelists included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream? While Americans seem to agree on the foundation of the American Dream, it seems as though questions we've seen raised during the campaign—questions over the role of government and the quality of our nation's work ethic—also seem to extend into the American electorate. The findings suggest a stark divide in opinion on the level of government support for those pursuing their idea of the American Dream.

  • Forty-two percent of respondents agreed that "achieving the Dream is mainly something people do for themselves—what government and communities do doesn't matter."
  • Thirty-nine percent agreed with the statement "it's crucial for the government and communities to take steps so every child has a fair chance at the American Dream."
  • Nineteen percent said neither statement reflected their views.

During the panel, Sawhill reconciled the public’s divided view of government assistance in pursuit of the American Dream by eliminating an either/or solution. “You need both. You need to work hard and you need to have values, but we don't live in a Horatio Alger society. Having a helping hand from the government should be part of the equation as well," she said.

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09.05 Health Care Reform: Weighing our Choices

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

We still have many difficult challenges to face when it comes to health care in this country, and a new, nonpartisan resource from Public Agenda helps citizens rise to the challenge.

The U.S. spent nearly 20 percent of its GDP on health care last year, almost twice the amount spent by 30+ other countries, even as instances throughout the country have illustrated that higher costs do not necessarily translate into better quality. Even after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully enacted, up to 30 million individuals will still be without coverage.

These questions of cost, accessibility and quality make the American health care system an incredibly complex problem with no easy solution. Meanwhile, neither presidential candidate has acknowledged the tradeoffs inherent in his health care reform plan.

"Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide," provides voters with a firm understanding of the tradeoffs in order to create a more rational dialogue about health care reform. The guide helps citizens confront the reality of the situation, overcome wishful thinking, and thoughtfully choose the candidate that best reflects their values.

The release of this new voter guide includes an accompanying infographic, which you can download and print here.

It's clear that we still have a lot of hard decisions to make when it comes to fixing our nation's health care system:

  • Employer contributions to health care have doubled in the last decade.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans reported serious financial problems due to family medical bills in 2010.
  • Medicare enrollment will balloon from 47 million to 85 million in the next 25 years.

Going far beyond typical voter guides, "Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" not only helps citizens navigate the complex issues underlying our confusing health care system, it also carefully analyzes three legitimate policy approaches, along with arguments for and against each. This evenhanded analysis empowers voters to carefully weigh the consequences they're willing to accept and approach Election Day having properly examined our health care options.

Are you concerned about the nation’s health care future? We invite you to take some time to absorb a few aspects of the issue in the infographic to the left and share it with others. Let us know what you think. Join the conversation and tweet us at @PublicAgenda.

Download the PDF Version of the Infographic


08.30 Shaping Our Future: A National Dialogue on the Future of Higher Education

Thursday, August 30th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

There's no question that the U.S. is at a crossroads when it comes to the future of higher education, and we've written about, studied and visualized the challenges many times already. Overcoming these challenges could help strengthen our nation's democracy, contributing to America's culture, economy and civic participation.

But to determine the best way to tackle these challenges—overwhelming student debt, poor completion rates, threats to our leadership in science and technology, dismal civic education—we can't restrict the conversation to just leaders in education, politics and business. Everyday citizens—students, faculty, community members and others, including you—have a lot of important input. And it’s crucial for all of us to consider the choices and trade-offs we face in creating the kind of higher education system we want.

To this end, a new initiative from National Issues Forums and the American Commonwealth Partnership aims to bring citizens to the table to discuss how higher education can help us create the society we want.

"Shaping Our Future," launching next week, is a year-long national dialogue on the future of higher education. The initiative, which grew out of an earlier examination about the role of education in democracy, aims to give more Americans the chance to consider the challenges and choices we face in higher education, as well as the distinctive role they play in helping the country advance economically and socially.

The initiative kicks at 9 a.m. ET on September 4th, with a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, featuring, among others:

  • Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education;
  • Muriel Howard, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities;
  • Bernie Ronan, chair, The Democracy Commitment;
  • Kaylesh Ramu, president, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The discussion will be livestreamed, and you can watch it here.

Following the launch, in hundreds of communities around the nation, students, faculty and other citizens will come together over the following year to weigh different approaches to our higher education problems and seek common ground for action. Carleton College, Florida A & M, Franklin Pierce, Morehouse College, San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego, Spelman College, The Citadel, and the University of New Mexico are just a few of the institutions that will be hosting these conversations.

The forums will explore questions such as how higher education can best work to ensure a highly skilled workforce to maintain the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness; promote equity by providing opportunities for all Americans; strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others; and develop skills to seek common ground or work through differences in a civil manner.

A citizen’s discussion guide, video discussion starter, moderator’s guide and other materials can be downloaded free of charge at the National Issues Forums website. Anyone interested in convening a forum should contact NIF president Bill Muse at or Harry Boyte, the national coordinator for ACP at


07.20 #EDFIX: Amplifying Teacher Voice on Education Reform

Friday, July 20th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Far too often, even the most well-intentioned education policies fall short due to a lack of consideration for the views of teachers. Last Thursday, a new platform launched to help amplify teacher voice in education reform. #EdFix, a Twitter-hosted chat, aims to provide a space for teachers to talk about how they can help fix the education system and play a role in addressing the many sticky issues involved in doing so.

Public Agenda has worked to bring teachers (and lots of other stakeholders) to the table on K-12 education issues for decades. Our most recent effort, Everyone at the Table, a collaboration with American Institutes for Research, houses free resources designed specifically to engage teachers on teacher evaluation.

The absence of teacher voice is especially acute in evaluation reform, and we have seen the fall-out in districts across the country, where top-down evaluation plans have faltered due to unrealistic expectations or elements that are ineffectual or even controversial.

In our effort to get teachers to the table on evaluation reform, the kick-off chat for #EdFix focused on the issue. Darren Burris, Boston-based teacher and facilitator for the chat, asked the participating teacher Tweeters to share what worked in their particular evaluation plans and what didn’t, as well as what they wanted to be evaluated on and who they thought should do the evaluation.

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