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04.29 Can "Race to the Top" Work for Energy Innovation?

Monday, April 29th, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON



Reprinted from The Energy Collective - April 27, 2013

by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

Improving the nation's power grid is a huge task. Is "Race to the Top" the right model?

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But is duplicating “Race to the Top” the way to get a new energy grid up and running?

If you don’t keep track of education policy, Race to the Top is the Obama administration’s signature schools initiative, with $4 billion in federal grant money awarded to states in a competition for the best education reform plans. In effect, the plan offers a carrot rather than a stick to states that implement broadly-backed reforms such as “common core standards,” new data systems for measuring progress, and overhauls in how teachers and principals are judged.

Since the Obama administration views Race to the Top as a successful approach, it’s no surprise that the president proposed budget includes $200 million for a similar program to improve the nation’s power grid. Overall, the nation’s electricity grid is aging, and without significant improvements it won’t be able to keep up with current demand, much less make full use of renewable and other new technologies.

So the goal is worthy – but so far the plan is short on specifics. Here, in fact, is everything the president’s budget says on the subject:

Challenges States to Cut Energy Waste and Support Energy Efficiency and Modernize the Grid. Modeled after a successful Administration approach in education reform designed to promote forward-leaning policies at the State level, the Budget includes $200 million in one-time funding for Race to the Top performance based awards to support State governments that implement effective policies to cut energy waste and modernize the grid. Key opportunities for States include: modernizing utility regulations to encourage cost-effective investments in efficiency, including combined heat and power and demand response resources, and in clean distributed generation; enhancing customer access to data; investments that improve the reliability, security and resilience of the grid; and enhancing the sharing of information regarding grid conditions.

Even putting the bureaucratic prose aside, this is obviously going to need to be fleshed out quite a lot before anyone can judge how effective it will be. But here are a few questions based on the education world’s Race to the Top that are worth considering:

Do the states have enough skin in this game? There’s no question that education is a state government responsibility. State and local governments put up the lion’s share of the money for public schools, set the standards, hire the teachers, and face the voters when things go wrong.

The electricity grid, by contrast, isn’t something state governments run directly. It’s something states regulate, with most of the money and the management handled by private utility companies. And it’s more questionable whether voters hold states accountable for the grid. Race to the Top could directly affect decisions made in schools. With the power grid, state policy is one step removed from those actually doing the work. The impact may play out differently.

Is there enough of a consensus on what needs to be done? While Race to the Top could be controversial, generally speaking it promoted ideas that many governors and educators already accepted. States had to implement certain policies even to participate – for example, states couldn’t have any laws preventing them from using test scores to evaluate teachers. Even so, some states, like Texas and Virginia, passed on the federal competition in order to implement their own school plans. And of course, the debate over the state role in health care reform, where many states resisted participating in different elements of “Obamacare,” shows what can happen if states don’t buy into a federal program.

There are certainly models to follow here – the Energy Department’s Strategic Plan for Grid Modernization presents a compelling example. But have governors bought into these plans on what can and should be done about the grid?

Is this enough money to make a difference? In education, Race to the Top dangled a tasty enough carrot in front of state governments to make it worth their while to change policies and develop plans to participate. New York state alone got $700 million in federal money. But $200 million in energy grants spread out over multiple states isn’t going to go very far. The task before us is massive. Some 30 percent of the grid is 40 to 50 years old, in a network that connects more than 15,000 power plants, 220,000 miles of high voltage lines, and another 5 million miles of distribution. Private utilities spend about $5 billion a year on upgrades, and it isn’t enough. New Jersey’s PSE&G alone has proposed spending $3.9 billion over 10 years to strengthen its system after Hurricane Sandy. Overall, the Electric Power Research Institute estimated we need up to $476 billion to modernize the grid nationwide.

Maybe the $200 million could be effective if focused on crucial sticking points in state government policies. But we still need to leverage those changes to encourage the necessary private investment in the grid.

The idea of a “race to the top” for the energy grid is certainly appealing. There’s no question we need new and compelling methods to get states and utilities to the starting line. But it still isn’t clear whether the federal government is envisioning a dash or a marathon – or whether states will want to run the race at all.

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04.19 When Engaging Parents in School Reform, One Size Does Not Fit All

Friday, April 19th, 2013 | Jeremiah Hess



Those of us who operate in the K-12 education arena talk a lot about how important parents are to a child's education and to making schools better. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked last year: "Promoting a community culture, where educational improvement is everyone's responsibility, is our great national mission." And parents can play a key role in promoting and sustaining that culture. But what will it take to tap into parents' full potential as partners in education improvement?

From our past research it seems clear enough that parents want schools to serve their children well and don’t believe those schools can do it alone. Our new survey of parents in Kansas City, summarized in the report “Ready, Willing, and Able,” adds a wrinkle: parents differ (often dramatically) in how they seek to be involved, and school leaders who are serious about making parents partners should be prepared to meet them where they are.

In this new research, we identified three groups of parents, each unique in preference and readiness to get involved:

Potential transformers stand out as the group most likely to brave the bureaucracy of school policymaking.

These parents tell us they are perfectly comfortable to act as advocates for broader school reform. They are ready to contact district officials and the media to discuss local school problems and to represent parents on committees that shape school policies. In our current study, 3 in 10 parents fell in this group.

Still, very few have actually been involved in these ways. Providing real opportunities for them to get more involved—and supporting their efforts to organize themselves—is an important step towards unearthing parents’ power in school improvement.

We think they’d get the support of other parents, too: even though the majority of parents don't feel comfortable getting involved as transformers, two-thirds in our survey believed that parent advocates have the ability to make a difference.

Reaching parents can’t stop there, though.

School helpers are a second group of parents with more to give.

When you need support in more traditional parent roles in a school—help for teachers in the classroom, volunteers for an event, or more support for a PTA—these are the parents to find. Though school helpers leave advocacy and school policy matters to others, all of these parents feel they could be doing more for their school– an obvious call, we think, for leaders to track these parents down.

Even reaching the school helpers doesn’t exhaust a principals’ and teachers’ options.

Help seekers deserve some special attention.

These parents are concerned about their own child’s learning and seem particularly hungry for more support from schools in helping their child do well. They aren’t likely to respond to calls for collective action, and probably won’t have the time or inclination to volunteer more at their school. Yet every single one of these parents told us there was still “work to be done” teaching their child to do their best in school, and teachers and school leaders are likely to make progress with them by supporting those efforts at home.

Utilizing parents as a powerful resource

In total, these three groups (a full 78 percent of parents surveyed) are a valuable yet untapped resource for diverse, powerful and effective parent engagement. To draw on these parents more effectively, leaders must understand that different parents will respond to a different set of appeals. Our report provides some specific strategies for each of the groups the research identified.

Yet, some principles for parent engagement are universal. For example, education leaders should begin engaging parents by listening to them and understanding their needs. Clearly communicating what exactly a school, a district or a particular teacher needs from parents to succeed is also important. As one Kansas City father told us:

"Parents don’t understand that their presence makes a difference. Schools aren’t getting that message out. Even when my school was going through its worst times, they didn’t get the message out that they needed help from the community."

There’s hope, though: parents are by no means hostile to their schools. In fact, parents across the country have told us—for this and other studies in the past—that they don’t think of their child’s school as just a service provider; they value its place in their community, trust their teachers and respect principals who return phone calls. In the Kansas City region, 77 percent of parents felt that their principals and teachers were well-connected to their communities, and just over half said they wouldn’t leave their school “even if money was not an issue”).

In spite of their concerns and complaints, parents want their schools to succeed and are aware that they need to be part of that success. For school leaders, developing relationships at this level is always possible, and it’s an ideal first step towards creating Secretary Duncan’s “community culture.”

But we think that transformers, school helpers, and help seekers can be found in any school, and we hope that the pressures of constant change haven’t made education leaders forget about simply making parents feel welcome. As one mother reminded us:

“I love it when teachers thank me for coming. I love it when the principal says, ‘Glad to see you. Hope to see you again.'”

Leaders should only remember that with parents, just as with students, one size doesn't fit all.

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03.28 The Big Gamble in Health Care: Would Competition Outdo Government in Controlling Costs?

Thursday, March 28th, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON



Reprinted from The Huffington Post - March 28, 2013

The Obama administration recently opened talks with officials in Arkansas and Ohio on plans to allow the states to use federal Medicaid money to buy private health insurance for their low-income residents. Several other states seem ready to follow suit. If this all goes through, it will be an unexpected pairing of progressive and conservative ideas -- one pragmatists may find encouraging.

As a rule, there's a cavernous divide between those who see traditional Medicare and Medicaid as the best way to provide health care coverage to people without it and those arguing for a private market, consumer-driven approach. This gulf reflects differing political visions, but also fundamental issues of trust.

Progressives often view proposals to involve private insurers in Medicare and Medicaid as sneak attacks designed to disembowel programs that work well and enjoy broad public support. Witness the response to Representative Paul Ryan's proposals to "voucherize" Medicare.

Conservatives frequently have an immediate, almost visceral rejection of government, seeing it as inherently more wasteful and less efficient that the private sector. For some, government involvement in health care means "socialized medicine " is just around the corner.

But for those like to consider ideas from both sides, the debate over injecting more market competition into health care raises issues that deserve more than a knee-jerk response.

A first step may be to disentangle two questions that are generally intertwined in debates over "competition" in health care.

Which approach is better at containing costs and serving patients -- traditional government programs or the private insurance market? Wonks and politicians are currently battling over which strategy has been more successful holding the line on costs, and given that Medicare serves an older, sicker, and growing segment of the population, making the comparisons isn't as easy as you might think. An Urban Institute study showed that between 2006 and 2010, per "enrollee" spending in Medicare grew by 4.2 percent compared to 4.5 percent among private insurers. During that period, Medicare enrollment rose while private enrollment declined slightly. Medicaid was most successful, with per enrollee spending increasing by only 2.7 percent, but with worrisome downsides. Since Medicaid pays doctors much less than they would earn from private insurance, fewer accept it, which means patients often have to hunt and wait for care.

Would patients help hold the line on costs if they had more skin in the game? The question here is whether patients will choose more affordable insurance if they have financial incentives to do so. Companies like Sears and Darden Restaurants (The Olive Garden and Red Lobster) are trying this approach, setting up exchanges offering differently-priced plans. The companies pick up the tab for the least costly, while workers themselves pay the difference if they choose more expensive ones. Not surprisingly perhaps, workers are veering toward toward less costly plans, with about 4 in 10 choosing high deductible coverage.

Some worry that people with high deductibles will postpone care to save money. And it's not clear that having people shop for insurance really slows the growth in overall health care costs. Peter Orszag, the former White House budget director, points out that "the vast bulk of health care costs arise from an extremely small share of patients." These are patients with serious, chronic illnesses that would be covered by insurance under nearly any arrangement, so even if many more Americans are shopping carefully for insurance, the overall impact on national health care spending may not be that much. Orszag says the way to reduce costs is to find less expensive ways to care for these seriously-ill patients.

Ironically, both sides sometimes use Switzerland as their case in point. In Switzerland, consumers purchase their health care plans directly, rather than having insurance provided by government or their employer. As Avik Roy describes it in Forbes, the system is universal, purchasing insurance is mandatory, insurance plans are heavily regulated, the Swiss are as healthy as we are, and their doctors are well-paid. His assessment? "In contrast with the United States, whose health care expenditures are the highest percentage of gross domestic product in the world and where more than 40 million citizens are uninsured, the consumer-driven Swiss health care system achieves 30 percent lower per capita health care costs and universal coverage while providing reasonable quality of care."

Paul Krugman sees some positives as well. He believes something like Medicare for everyone -- a single-payer approach -- or a system where a public option is available alongside private insurance plans would deliver better cost containment and patient care. But when Krugman was writing in favor of Obamacare in 2009, he described the President's plan as one that would "Swissify" American health care. This, he said, would be a "vast improvement" on the old system that left millions of Americans without coverage.

The problem with all these interpretations is that there aren't really any good "apples to apples" comparisons in the U.S. health care market -- examples where government health programs and private ones compete head to head. True, the government already accounts for nearly half of all health care spending, but government the private sector are rarely competing for the same people in the same markets. The overall incentives in the health marketplace are also skewed. As many experts have pointed out, we pay providers based on what tasks they perform, not whether their patients get better. And patients often have difficulty figuring out who is paying for what.

The bottom line for us is that there's no reason to believe that private market competition is a magic potion that will cure our health care problems, nor is it necessarily "the Swiss menace," to quote Krugman's wonderful tongue-in-cheek phrasing. Any move toward more competition in health care is an extrapolation from limited results. You can view that as an experiment, or a gamble, depending on your point of view. But you can hardly call the results a certainty -- on either side of the debate.

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03.25 Faculty Voice in College Credit Transfer

Monday, March 25th, 2013 | ALISON KADLEC, PH.D.



A recent piece by Jon Marcus from the Hechinger Report, "Stopping the Clock: Colleges Under Fire Over Transfer Credits That Don't Count," does a great job of drawing attention to a serious problem facing higher education today, especially in the consideration it pays to the insights I have heard from college students during focus groups on the issue. However, my colleagues at Public Agenda and I are troubled by one of the premises of the piece.

While faculty "hubris" and "snobbery" may account for some portion of the problem students face as they seek to transfer credits, it would be a mistake to dismiss faculty concerns in the absence of systematic efforts to improve skillful and thoughtful assessment of learning outcomes.

In nearly every focus group I've conducted with transfer students, some portion of the participants (usually 10-30 percent) tell stories of courses at open-enrollment institutions that should not have been allowed to transfer because they were of such low quality. These students talk about feeling like they're being set up for failure, and one even said to me, "I'm glad that class didn't transfer because I would have definitely failed the next level."

If even 10 percent of community college courses are watered down to the point that transfer students are set up for failure when they seek to continue their education at a more selective (and typically more expensive) institution, then we need to begin having in earnest the conversations about the real tensions between a mission focused on access and one focused on success.

Faculty Face a Multitude of Challenges

Through dozens and dozens of conversations with faculty at community colleges in several states, I've heard their daily struggle to find a way to help catastrophically underprepared students advance to the next level. A majority of these faculty members are adjuncts without a voice in, strong support from or deep ties to their institution.

I've also heard faculty at non-selective four-year institutions describe the "daily compromise" they make as they attempt to balance meeting students where they are while setting expectations to help them get to where they need to be. One memorable faculty member at one of the nation's largest community college systems echoed many others in saying, "I used to teach calculus, but now spend most of my time trying to figure out the best way to teach how to add whole numbers."

The challenges faculty face on the issue of academic transfer go beyond the pressures that come with underprepared students. Transferability of credits across institutions will ultimately depend on the ability of faculty to do something they've never been trained or supported to do before: determine how to effectively assess learning outcomes and then actually do it.

In a focus group last week at a non-selective four-year institution in Ohio, one faculty member brought this challenge into focus when she asked her colleagues at the table, "Do you think part of the problem is our training? I went to a very good Ph.D. program, and I never once heard the word assessment or learning outcomes." For all the training and knowledge that college faculty accrue and possess, they are never formally taught how to be teachers or how to reliably assess what their students should know and be able to do.

It's Time to Change the Conversation

Community colleges and non-selective four-year institutions have hard conversations ahead of them about the relationship between access and success. If simply making it possible for students to enroll is not enough - if institutions have a responsibility to pay attention to who succeeds, who fails and how we know - then it's time for new kinds of conversations that move beyond finger pointing at any one group.

The tendency of experts to caricature faculty as shameless egotists obscures the more serious issues at work, and it ignores the fact that any meaningful and lasting success in higher education reform will require the knowledge, expertise and commitment of faculty.

It's too easy, and even a little lazy, to blame faculty egotism for such a complex and systemic problem, and doing so won't help bring faculty to the table. It's time for the conversation to change so that we can all get down to the real work ahead of us.

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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.

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