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06.27 The Completion Crisis: What Students Have to Say (Infographic)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

We've all heard and read the stats: Only 4 in 10 young Americans earn a higher education credential by the time they are 35. Add to that our unsustainable student debt situation, and higher education in this country just looks bleaker and bleaker.

In the last month alone, headlines from The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic have highlighted our nation's higher education crisis.

These same articles also sought out the view of students, citing Public Agenda's seminal 2009 report, "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," which remains a rare source illuminating students' attitudes on higher education.

Among the statistics these articles cite:

  • Half of college dropouts said work was a major factor in their decision. (Public Agenda, 2009)
  • Just about three out of every ten dropouts left with student loans. (Public Agenda, 2009)

But students don't just talk about the problem; they offer solutions - and we should listen to what they have to say.

Public Agenda has spoken to many of our nation's young adults, both those who graduated (we call them completers) and those who either didn't attend or failed to complete (non-completers), about what would help them overcome barriers to completion. We compiled their voices in an infographic, to start a conversation about solutions to our nation's higher education challenges.

What do you think about what students have to say? Can we incorporate the voice of every stakeholder to end the college completion crisis? Join the conversation: tweet us at @PublicAgenda with your thoughts.

If you would like a printable version of this infographic, you can download a PDF of it here.

View the Infographic


06.21 Real Discussions with Real People: A Conversation about Job Creation

Thursday, June 21st, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

During the economic downturn, 450,000 residents of the New York / New Jersey / Connecticut region lost their jobs. While that's a lot of people out of work, we were still better off than most of the nation. As a region, what strengths can we leverage and how can we collaborate - as citizens, business leaders, students or community members - to support job creation in the tri-state area? And what choices, challenges and tradeoffs will we have to weigh in doing so?

Last month, during "The Jobs Crisis: From Arguments to Solutions," Public Agenda gathered with a group of local stakeholders - from entrepreneurs to retirees, from college presidents to students - to weigh in on our region's priorities and discuss how we can best collaborate and invest our resources to create jobs.

We were also joined by a pair of experts - Chris Jones from the Regional Plan Association, an expert in regional job creation, and Public Agenda's Jean Johnson, an expert on what the jobs crisis means to the public and the author of Where Did the Jobs Go?

While we weren't intending to solve the region's job problem in the space of an hour and a half, we hoped to help participants elaborate on their own thinking. Our public engagement team facilitated table dialogues on one facet of the situation: how to prioritize investments in both human and physical infrastructure - education, transportation, child care and housing - as it relates to job creation.

All of the evening's participants agreed that education - both K-12 and higher ed - was the most important investment that the region can and must make: If you don't have an educated workforce, everything else falls apart, was one table's takeaway. Participants also considered all four choices as both important and interconnected and recognized that the concern of how to pay for this investment looms large. All in all, participants viewed their investment prioritization with a good deal of nuance, and the event provided a means for authentic deliberation around an important issue, instead of just an artificial debate.

We hope, through events such as this one, we can open up the conversation around critical yet divisive issues to embrace a broader level of thinking that transcends a politically polarized and unproductive debate.


06.07 Duncan, King and Walcott: City, State and National Reformers Gather to Discuss the State of Education

Thursday, June 7th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

For the first time ever, Secretary Arne Duncan, Commissioner John King and Chancellor Dennis Walcott gathered together in one room to talk about education reform. During Philanthropy New York's 33rd Annual Meeting, on Monday, June 4th, the three education reformers addressed controversial subjects such as teacher effectiveness, student assessments, Common Core and school turnaround.

During the discussion, moderated by WNYC's Beth Fertig, there was a surprising and encouraging degree of agreement among the education leaders, who represented the city, state and national levels. All three repeatedly returned to a number of basic principles and values.

Giving our children access to a well-rounded education is our utmost priority. With Common Core, which was mapped backward from a lens of college and career success, the education leaders hope the system can move toward a well-rounded model of education. People who know more about the world tend to read better, said Commissioner King.

We need to lift up and strengthen the teaching profession. "When we say teaching doesn't matter, we demean these extraordinary teachers and principals that are making an amazing difference in our students' lives," said Secretary Duncan. All three agreed that it would do no good to simply raise the bar and tell students to meet it; our education system needs to also help our teachers teach more effectively.

We need multiple measurements. Whether we are assessing students, teachers, principals, schools or states, we have to look at multiple measures and avoid situations where reliance on one measure creates perverse incentives that are harmful to students.

"I think we're in a golden age of changing education like never before," said Chancellor Walcott. Yet with our economic reality and fiscal challenges, is this "golden age" sustainable? All three pointed to the importance of philanthropy in helping the education system and third-party organizations, like Public Agenda, which experiment with innovations, integrate technology, build strong leadership and support the courses that contribute to a well-rounded education.

"If you want our children to do better in math, try some music. If you want to our kids to sit and concentrate in class, try some recess," said Secretary Duncan. "We can't let tough budget times be an excuse for perpetuating the status quo that is not working for our young people."

A recording of the panel is available online, and you can read tweets from the event as well. Want to join the discussion? Mention @PublicAgenda on Twitter and use the hashtag #PNYMeet.


04.15 One Degree of Separation (Commentary)

Sunday, April 15th, 2012 | JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from ASCD.ORG - April, 2012

A Public Agenda survey of young adults sheds light on why so many don't finish college.

If you don't have as much education—if you don't have as much training in your area—you find yourself on the outside looking in." That's how one young man in a Washington, D.C., focus group described his employment prospects. He had completed high school and started college, but like roughly 6 in 10 students who begin postsecondary programs (Ruggles et al., 2010), he had never gotten his degree.

The focus group was part of a national research project conducted in 2011 by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. This study explored the attitudes and experiences of young Americans who do not graduate from either two-year or four-year college programs. Its center piece was a national, random-sample survey of 611 young adults ages 26 to 34.1

The Out-of-Reach College Diploma

The young man quoted earlier, who saw himself as being "on the outside looking in" in today's job market, clearly understood that a college degree can be a valuable asset. Yet like so many others whom we interviewed, he faced a trifecta of mutually reinforcing hurdles. Here are the chief findings from the research.

Opportunity Gaps

Most young Americans who don't graduate from college come from low-income, less well-educated families. Without more education, they are likely to continue that pattern and remain financially insecure throughout their lives.

The new Public Agenda research confirms what other studies have shown: Most young people who don't graduate from college were economically and educationally disadvantaged from the get-go. A College Board study (Baum & Ma, 2007) found that fewer than 50 percent of children from the United States' poorest families go on to college, compared with 80 percent of children from the most affluent families. In the 2011 Public Agenda survey, 51 percent of young adults without a college degree (compared with just 28 percent of those with a degree) told us that the highest education credential either of their parents had was a high school diploma. Twenty-two percent of young adults without a college degree reported that when they were younger, their family had "trouble getting by each month," compared with just 8 percent of young adults with a college degree.

Now that they have become adults, the non-college-completing respondents' answers to the survey suggest that many will continue to live economically precarious lives. Just 4 in 10 of those who have not graduated from college see their current job as a career, compared with more than 6 in 10 college graduates. Most (72.percent) work in jobs that pay by the hour, compared with only 33.percent of the college grads. They are much more likely to be low-wage earners: Nearly 3 in 10 earned less than $25,000 in 2009, whereas just 1 in 10 college graduates earned this little. As one young woman in a Fort Wayne, Indiana, focus group said, "My high school diploma is not doing anything for me these days."

Given their circumstances, most are not especially optimistic about the future. Just 36 percent of respondents who have not graduated from college consider it very likely that they will be financially secure in their lifetime. For college grads, the economy seems far more promising—more than half of this group (55 percent) believe it's very likely that their future will be economically secure.

College Awareness Gaps

Most young Americans who haven't graduated from college face a cluster of obstacles to continuing their schooling, including a lack of basic knowledge about the higher education system.

The Gallup Poll has been tracking Americans' views on the importance of college for decades. In 1978, just 36.percent of those polled considered going to college "very important." By 2010, that number had more than doubled to 75 percent (Bushaw & Lopez, 2010). And Public Agenda research shows that nearly all younger Americans, across all major racial and ethnic groups, see strong advantages in getting a college degree (Johnson, Duffett, & Ott, 2005).

Yet despite their interest in higher education, most young people who don't complete college are poorly informed about some of the essential steps. For example, in the 2011 survey, only 3 in 10 of them could identify the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the important federal form that all prospective college students must fill out and submit to gain access to federal, state, or institutional student financial aid (including Pell Grants, federal student loans, and federal work-study programs).

Moreover, multiple Public Agenda studies suggest that many young people are not getting good advice on choosing and entering postsecondary education programs. According to a 2009 Public Agenda survey, most young adults give their high school guidance counselors fair or poor ratings for their advice on getting financial aid for college—and that includes those who successfully graduate along with those who don't (Johnson, Rochkind, Ott, & DuPont, 2009). Most also give high school counselors low marks for their advice on thinking about careers and choosing schools. And without good counseling, the sheer number and variety of postsecondary options can be overwhelming, especially for young people and families who are not familiar with the system.

In Public Agenda focus groups with non-college-completing young adults, participants were given lists of higher education institutions in the immediate vicinity and asked to talk about them. Many were unsure which colleges were public and which were private, which were nonprofit and which were for-profit, and which offered four-year degrees, two-year degrees, or certification programs. When a previous Public Agenda study (Johnson et al., 2009) looked at the experiences of students who had dropped out of college, the results showed that the selection process was often uninformed and reliant on happenstance: 66 percent of the respondents told us that they had chosen their school because it was convenient to where they lived or worked. Among this group, location was the top reason given for selecting a college, outranking such explanations as having affordable tuition or offering a program leading to a specific job.

Economic Gaps

Many young people who haven't graduated worry about borrowing money for college. For them, the risk of being in debt often outweighs the potential reward of having a college diploma.

In the past few decades, the United States has benefited from an implicit social compact. Young people who invest time and money to get a college degree reap long-term rewards, even if they have to borrow money to do so. But results from the 2011 survey carry warning signs that this compact, which has benefited individuals and the economy alike, may be fraying: 9 in 10 young adults (both those with college degrees and those without) say that young people today have to borrow too much money to go to college.

At the same time, many young adults seem to be questioning just how much a typical four-year degree is worth in today's tough job market. The 2011 Public Agenda survey presented respondents with a list of 11 hypothetical people with varying levels of education, asking how likely each person was to enjoy a secure economic future. Young adults overall see only one of the 11 (a person who goes on to graduate school) as having dependably solid prospects. At the opposite end of the spectrum, hardly anyone believes that a person who drops out of high school is very likely to be financially secure (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Does a College Degree Guarantee Financial Security?

Percentage of respondents who say it is "very likely" the following people will be economically secure in their lifetime.

Respondents with a high school diploma only

Respondents with a postsecondary degree

Someone who graduates from college and then goes on to a graduate school like law school or a PhD program



You, personally



Someone who graduates high school and becomes an apprentice in a field such as carpentry or plumbing



Someone who has received an undergraduate college degree from your state college or university



Someone who enlists in the military



Someone whose parents are wealthy but who does not got to college after graduating high school



Someone who gets a one-year certification in information technology (IT) management from a technical school



Someone who receives an associate's degree at a local community college



Someone who graduates from high school and goes right to work but never takes any higher education courses



Someone who starts college at your state university but does not complete the degree



Someone who dropped out of high school



Source: Adapted from One Degree of Separation: How Young Americans Who Don't Finish College See Their Chances for Success (p. 12), by Jean Johnson, Jon Rochkind, & Amber Ott. New York: Public Agenda. Copyright 2011 by Public Agenda. Used by permission.

For the categories in between—people with four-year degrees, two-year degrees, technical certificates, and careers in the trades—the results were far more mixed. Among the group without a college degree, only 35 percent believe it is very likely that someone with a bachelor's degree from a state university will be financially secure in his or her lifetime. Similar numbers predict financial security for someone who doesn't go to college but apprentices in a trade, such as carpentry or plumbing (36 percent) or for someone who enlists in the military (33 percent). And on this topic at least, there is not much difference between the views of those who have graduated from college and those who haven't. Young college grads may be optimistic about their own chances in life (55 percent think it's very likely that they will be financially secure), but only 34 percent say the same about the typical person who has a bachelor's degree.

For young people who didn't graduate from college, however, the need to borrow money to go to school is the real kicker. Many are concerned about the prospect of borrowing money for college and then not earning enough to be able to pay it back. Only 37 percent (compared with 54 percent of the college graduates) strongly agree that even if someone has to take out a loan to go to college, it's worth it.

Because people in the non-college-completing group are more likely to come from low-income families, they often approach the issue of borrowing money for school with fears that students from more affluent families simply don't have. In the focus groups, many spoke about friends or relatives who had seen their homes foreclosed or were jobless for long periods of time. Some had borrowed money to start college, but because they hadn't graduated, they lived in the worst of both worlds, owing money for college loans but with no degree to show for it. Some were bitter about their decision to borrow. Nearly three-quarters of those who took out loans but didn't graduate (73 percent) said that their loans were only a fair or poor investment (compared with 23 percent of those who graduated).

Some young people in the focus groups seemed to be doing explicit calculations in their heads, weighing how much money they could earn (and how quickly) against the problem of having to pay back college loans. The comments of a young woman in Washington, D.C., were typical:

I've been out of school, and … it doesn't feel good to me to have to pay a loan back right now. If I do decide to go back to school, I want to be able to pay for school out-of-pocket, or get a grant, or something like that. I can no longer do another loan, so there's no need for me to look for school until I'm able to afford it.

The red flag for policymakers and educators working to increase college graduation rates is that the current financial aid system, which depends on students and their families seeing college loans as sensible investments, is beginning to seem like a risky bet, especially for young people at the lower end of the income scale. Although they can see the potential upside to taking out a loan for college, they can see genuine and serious downsides as well.

Some Fundamental Questions

Some of the implications of this research are quite specific. For example, it seems obvious that educators and policymakers need to ensure that all high school students and their families understand that they can gain access to many types of financial assistance by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If students don't even know what this form is, they're not likely to take advantage of it.

But the research raises broader questions that call for better analysis and more resourceful policy changes.

Why aren't more young people taking advantage of the financial aid system?

According to Public Agenda studies, those who start college but don't graduate are substantially less likely to take advantage of nearly every form of financial aid—grants, loans, scholarships, and so on. And because they tend to come from low-income backgrounds, their families are less able to help. We need to look carefully at our counseling and college entry systems to figure out what's causing the discrepancy here. Where are the gaps that cause these young people to miss out?

How are we going to fix the broken college counseling system at the high school level?

Most young adults, whether they complete college or not, say their high school counselors didn't give them the kind of advice on college that they needed. Guidance counselors are undeniably overburdened, and student-counselor ratios are far from ideal (Johnson et al., 2009). But we can't let ourselves off the hook on this one. It's time to get creative. The counseling system needs to reevaluate its standard practices and stretch itself beyond the customary half-hour meeting in senior year. We need to find ways for mentors, community groups, local employers, and local higher education institutions to lend a hand in this crucial mission.

How can we help part-time college students?

Public Agenda research among young people who drop out of college shows that many struggle to balance work and school. In fact, surveys show that the inability to maintain this juggling act is a leading cause of dropping out. Most of these young people say they cannot afford to attend school full-time, and having to work and earn an income is the number-one barrier that prevents students who have left college from returning. What actions would help them? Their top suggestions are changing policies to make part-time students eligible for more kinds of financial aid, having more classes on nights and weekends, and offering more child care. Are we working on these issues? What else can we do?

What do we mean by college, and what happens to Americans who don't go?

Finally, the research raises fundamental questions that have been circling beneath the surface for the last several years as the emphasis on college completion has heated up. U.S. policymakers have placed a needed emphasis on getting more people to complete college, and most economists say that achieving this goal is a must for the United States to thrive in the global economy. But we often glide over what we mean by "going to college." Are we just talking about two-year and four-year degrees? What about shorter-term professional certificates and on-the-job programs? Should we be offering more options for non-college-bound students that would help them improve their prospects? And given their real-life situations, what can we do to make new, alternative paths genuinely viable?

The Ball Is in Our Court

It's hardly news that the job prospects are bleak for the millions of young Americans who don't get college degrees, especially in a sluggish economy. But in doing the research, we were often struck by how much resilience and spunk many of the young people we interviewed showed. Whether they had graduated from college or not, most were thinking about ways to improve their economic prospects—promotions they might be eligible for, ways they might be able to go back to school at least part time, and so on. Few were bitter. Hardly any seemed to feel that society owed them something; most accepted their own responsibility for building a better future for themselves and their families.

But in a society that prides itself on giving everyone a chance at the American dream, leaders in education, philanthropy, and government have a responsibility as well. Are we willing to open up a path for all young people to succeed? And what will it take to create such a path?


Baum, S., & Ma, J. (2007). Education pays: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. (Trends in Higher Education Series). Washington, DC: College Board. Retrieved from

Bushaw, W. J., & Lopez, S. J. (2010). A time for change: The 42nd annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 8–26.

Johnson, J., Duffett, A., & Ott, A. (2005). Life after high school: Young people talk about their hopes and prospects. Washington, DC: Public Agenda. Retrieved from

Johnson, J., Rochkind, J., Ott, A., & Dupont, S. (2009). Can I get a little advice here? How an overstretched high school guidance system is undermining students' college aspirations. Washington, DC: Public Agenda. Retrieved from

Ruggles, S., Alexander, J. T., Genedek, K., Goeken, R., Schroeder, M. B., & Sobek, M. (2010). Integrated public use microdata series: Version 5.1. [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor]. Available:


1 A detailed summary of the study One Degree of Separation: How Young Americans Who Don't Finish College See Their Chances for Success (Public Agenda, 2011), including the full questionnaire and complete survey results, is available at The project was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jean Johnson is a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and author of You Can't Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

Copyright © 2012 by Jean Johnson


03.15 On Teacher Evaluations, Teacher's Voices Matter

Thursday, March 15th, 2012 | Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt and Allison Rizzolo

First published in March, 2012 - ImpatientOptimists.Org

We've seen the fallout when teachers are left out of discussions on how they’re evaluated: states and school districts have pushed through top-down methods for measuring teacher effectiveness without input from teachers and principals. While some of these have been successful, we still hear about efforts fraught with controversy, complaints and, at times, failure. These contribute to teacher morale recently hitting a 20-year low.

But this week is about honoring teachers, education leaders, and reformers from around the world as they gather in New York City to celebrate teaching and learning. We join in this celebration, and in recognizing that teachers must have a say in how we run our schools. This is particularly true for discussions around how we determine whether teachers are helping their students succeed.

After all, teachers know what strategies and practices help students learn and succeed, both within and beyond the classroom. Yet, when it comes to designing new ways to evaluate their work and provide them with the feedback they need to improve, teachers are left out of the discussion far too often.

It's not that teachers aren't open to evaluation—research from both of our organizations suggests most teachers embrace stronger methods for assessing, rewarding, and improving their skills. And AFT President Randi Weingarten agrees that teachers would welcome thoughtfully designed, well-rounded, and substantive evaluations.

Everyone at the Table is a set of online resources that will help policymakers bring teachers into the discussion of how to make their evaluations meaningful, reliable, and helpful in their work. We know these conversations can be tricky. There is distrust and uncertainty about how we define what makes a teacher effective, and how to best measure that. Education leaders may fear they will lose credibility if they do not implement the ideas that teachers suggest.

Everyone at the Table helps teachers, as well as school and district leaders, tackle the challenges of moderating these potentially difficult conversations while designing a strategy that includes teacher input in a meaningful way. We encourage you to head to our website to learn more about these processes and ideas.

We believe such efforts are much more likely to lead to evaluation plans that are fair and respectful to teachers—and more effective and sustainable.

Through an appreciation for teachers' experiences, insights, and ideas, and a commitment to genuine collaboration, we hope to strengthen our ideals for education—helping our nation’s students learn and succeed—by bringing everyone to the table on these reforms.


02.26 The Iceman Goeth

Sunday, February 26th, 2012 | Scott Bittle

Reprinted from The Huffington Post - February 26, 2012

As the presidential candidates spout on about jobs and the economy, I sometimes wish I could put my late grandfather on the stage during the debates. Not just because he had a low tolerance for blather, although he did, and I think the politicians would find his comments, let's say, bracing. The real reason is that his experience has more relevance to the jobs debate than most of what the politicians are talking about.

My grandfather had a job that doesn't even exist anymore. In fact, most people may never have heard of it (except via Eugene O'Neill). He was an "iceman," delivering big blocks of ice to homes and businesses in the era before refrigeration. Back then, if you wanted to keep things cold, you kept your food in an insulated icebox (essentially a big cooler). Ice men like my grandfather were daily visitors, just like the milkman or the paper carrier.

Eventually technology came out with something better, but my grandfather knew that wasn't necessarily going to be better for him. As my father used to tell it, the family was once invited to dinner during the 1930s; a dinner that ended with ice cream out of a refrigerator. An electric refrigerator.

My grandfather didn't say anything, but there was no way in hell he was going to eat that demon dessert, no matter how hard my grandmother kicked him under the table. Finally, when the hostess' back was turned, she switched dishes, putting her empty one in front of grandfather and eating the second one herself.

That kind of defiance wasn't going to hold back the refrigerator, any more than John Henry could hold off the steam hammer. By the 1950s, 80 percent of American households had refrigerators, and my grandfather was out of the ice business and back to his farm.

My grandfather was an example of the "creative destruction" of jobs that economists (and lately presidential candidates) embrace. Technology both creates and destroys jobs, usually at the same time, and ideally because a superior product came along. Refrigerators were better than iceboxes. Eventually even my grandfather admitted it. If you look at the overall economy, the loss of ice routes was more than made up by new jobs making refrigerators.

The key word in creative destruction, however, is "creative." Now we're living in another time not unlike the 1930s, with a jobs crisis that's partly a massive failure of financial markets and partly a huge technological shift in the nature of work. There's no question the Great Recession slammed the global economy. But one reason why the jobs market has been so slow to recover is that technology is enabling us to do more work with fewer people -- or with people anywhere around the world.

Ah, but your grandfather was a blue-collar worker, you may say. Those kinds of jobs are begging to be automated. If he'd gone to college, that would have been a different story.

And that's very true: if my grandfather had gone to college he probably wouldn't have been an ice man, or a farmer. But an education isn't the guaranteed haven from technological change it used to be. The working assumption that most people have -- that technology favors the smart, the creative, and the well-educated -- may not hold up any more.

Figure it this way: it's about the difference between repetitive tasks and those that require analysis. If you're working on an assembly line, picking vegetables or handling deposits and withdrawals over a bank counter, a machine might do your job better. If you're in charge of making sure those jobs get done, or marketing them, then a computer may help you, but it can't do the job for you.

Unfortunately, the definition of "repetitive" is going to keep shifting. "E-discovery" software, which can sort through email and documents looking for suspicious patterns, is already taking on a job traditionally done by paralegals and junior associates in law forms. IBM's "Watson" computer, which can respond to questions well enough to play "Jeopardy," is really designed to take over tasks from nurses and doctors, like taking medical histories. But you'll still need a human being to write a brief, argue in court, or conduct your surgery.

The jobs crisis is the first priority for most Americans, and rightly so. If you don't have a decent job in America, your entire life can unravel. Yet in the early stages of a crucial presidential campaign, we're spending far too much time asking the wrong questions: can we "hold onto" the jobs we have? Should we cut taxes? Does a college education pay off?

What we really need to do -- and what our political candidates better start doing -- is talk about what kind of jobs technology is likely to create, and what kind it destroys, and how our national policy can get ahead of that curve. The economy will work these issues out in the long run, but it'll be a lot less ugly if we actually start planning for the changes we know are coming. Anything else is like refusing to eat the ice cream from the refrigerator: a stand that doesn't change a thing.


02.06 12 Myths about America's Jobs Crisis

Monday, February 6th, 2012 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from The Huffington Post - February 6, 2012

When Americans head for the polls this fall, a lot of people will be voting on just one issue: jobs. But so far, much of the political rhetoric sounds like it could be coming from one job that's pretty much obsolete - a carnival barker. It's awash with sweeping generalizations and vast oversimplification.

There's almost no talk of the enormously difficult, long-term challenges we face on jobs. "Elect (or re-elect) me, and everything will be fine," the candidates seem to say. The reality is that the Great Recession destroyed 8.4 million jobs, and technology and a competitive global economy have changed the rules on what it takes to create and keep good ones here in the United States.

In our book--Where Did the Jobs Go--and How Do We Get Them Back? (William Morrow, $16.99)--we examine some of the myths and oversimplifications voters need to watch for. Political campaigns tend to gloss over the details. We'll see the candidates in their jeans or khakis standing in front of factories shaking workers' hands. We'll hear them praise American workers and entrepreneurship. They'll express their concerns about people who've lost jobs or whose businesses have failed. But that doesn't mean they have solid ideas for addressing the problem.

We need to grasp the depth of the challenge and be open to a whole range of old and new ideas for creating jobs. And we need leaders who will be straight with us. We're deep in the hole already and fighting powerful global trends. We're not going to rev up our economy's job creation capacity in just a few years. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something - usually themselves.

So when you hear candidates say things like this, it's time to ask some tough questions.

Myth No. 1: Cutting taxes is a surefire way to create jobs

Most Americans are deeply unhappy with our tax system, and it is true that job creation can stall when taxes are too high. But after the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, U.S. federal income taxes are already at historically low levels. Yet between 2000 and 2010, our economy lost about as many jobs as we created. Taxes matter, and tax reform and specific kinds of tax cuts might well be helpful, but just cutting taxes, in and of itself, is not a foolproof recipe for job creation.

Myth No. 2: Once the economy picks up steam, we'll be fine

Final figures aren't in, but our economy grew an estimated 2.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011--well below growth rates throughout most of the last decade. When growth picks up, unemployment will fall, and job creation will increase. But we're way behind on the jobs front. Not only did we lose millions of jobs in the recession, a growing population means we need to create 100,000 to 150,000 new jobs a month just to keep up. And increasingly, businesses can get their work done with fewer employees. When businesses can reduce costs by using technology or moving jobs overseas--and that's what their competitors worldwide are doing--then those jobs aren't likely to come back just because the economy picks up.

Myth No. 3: Balancing the federal budget will create jobs

In the long run, our rising national debt is one of the most dangerous problems our government has, and we have to tackle it. Unfortunately, what's needed to control deficit spending--cutting federal programs and raising taxes--slows economic growth and job creation in the short run. On the other hand, letting deficit spending mushroom could up-end the entire economy down the road. Sometimes politicians talk like this is a simple problem to fix. It's not. It's going to be very tough. Some argue that we can let the federal red ink flow forever, but the only honest debate is over how quickly to move.

Myth No. 4: Better educated people don't have to worry

There's a fierce debate over whether college is a worthwhile investment, given the high level of student debt. Still, there's no question that, statistically speaking, college graduates earn more and are less likely to be unemployed than those without a degree. The real myth is that being better educated automatically makes your job safer in today's economy. Technology and globalization mean some kinds of high-level professional work can be done anywhere in the world. A study by the National Academies reported that Australian radiologists already read MRIs of American patients, Costa Rican accountants help prepare the tax returns of U.S. businesses, and big companies like GE do much of their R&D overseas.

Myth No. 5: Off-shoring can happen to anyone

There's no question that offshoring has moved beyond manufacturing and call centers. But a study by Princeton economist Alan Blinder found the key factors in whether work moves offshore aren't wages or skills, but whether the job has to be done in a specific location, and whether it requires face-to-face contact. By that standard, the vast majority of U.S. jobs, about 100 million, aren't going abroad. Still, he calculated roughly one-quarter of U.S. jobs could be done elsewhere, or more precisely, anywhere, including computer programmers, graphic designers, welders, and in a nice touch of irony, economists. These jobs won't necessarily go offshore--often its more trouble than it's worth--but they could.

Myth No. 6: We can't compete with low wages overseas

Lots of people argue that low wages in developing countries means we simply can't compete. Federal statistics show that in 2006, the average American production worker made $25.59 per hour, compared to $2.92 in Mexico and an estimated 81 cents in China. But wages aren't the only factor in a company's decision. If workers in another country earn less, but they're also less productive, it's a wash as far as business is concerned. Businesses also need stable governments, reliable business practices, and reasonably honest legal systems. When you factor all those in, the World Economic Forum still ranks the United States fifth in the world for global competitiveness--at least for now.

Myth No. 7: We should fight technology that eliminates jobs

Technology both creates and destroys jobs, usually at the same time. Smartphones are killing land line jobs, but they're producing new jobs that never existed before. Could Alexander Graham Bell have anticipated that someone would earn money creating Angry Birds? Technology tends to eliminate a lot of routine, repetitive work (Ask a typesetter if you can find one). Jobs that require problem-solving or communications skills are another matter. But the key question isn't education anymore; it's the nature of the work. Routine tasks that are now conducted by doctors and lawyers--like taking medical histories or poring over documents in discovery--could be automated soon.

Myth No. 8: Immigration takes jobs away from people already living her

Actually, the best evidence suggests that labor markets adjust and absorb immigrants. In Miami, after the 1981 Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees, unemployment rose briefly when the local workforce swelled by 7 percent. But by 1985, Miami's unemployment was back to normal. Remember, immigrants aren't just workers, they're also consumers. So while they compete with native-born workers for existing jobs, they generate new demand for goods and services--which ends up creating jobs. It's not clear how much native-born and immigrant workers compete directly: a Federal Reserve study found lower-educated native-born workers tend to be in manufacturing or mining, while lower-educated immigrants are in agriculture or personal services.

Myth No. 9: Closing the income gap is the answer

If big incomes at the top automatically boosted job creation, the fact that CEOs now make 263 times what average workers make (compared to 30 times in the 1970s) should deliver amazing job growth. Instead, the private sector only added 1.1 million jobs between 1999 and 2009. And there's persuasive evidence that countries with smaller income gaps have longer periods of economic growth. But will reducing the income gap actually create jobs? That depends. Let's say we raise taxes on wealthier Americans. Should we use the money to modernize airports, bridges, and the electric grid, which creates jobs in the short run? Or should we reduce the deficit which improves the economy over the long haul?

Myth No. 10: Cutting government spending reduces unemployment

Americans say federal government is too big, and most economists agree that if government gets too big, it can eat up money that might be better used elsewhere. Experts in the "dismal science" are currently nuking it out over whether we're at this point or not. Whatever the case, we should be honest that cutting government spending does eliminate jobs--it has to. Roughly 2 million Americans work for the federal government--85 percent of them outside of Washington. Then there are all the people who work for Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, and other companies with big government contracts. Cutting government spending will eliminate some of those jobs. We need to recognize the trade-off.

Myth No. 11: Most jobs come from small businesses

The vast majority of Americans work in the private sector--not in government--and there is one type of business that wins the job creation prize hands down. It's not small businesses, as many people assume. It's new businesses. In fact, nearly two-thirds of new jobs in the U.S. economy are created by businesses less than five years old. That's a big hint on how to rev up the job creation engine. Let's figure out how to encourage the innovation, entrepreneurship, business climate, and sheer guts it takes to start a business. It could be one of the most powerful strategies we have.

Myth No. 12: Presidents create jobs

So you're standing in the voting booth asking yourself which candidate is better for jobs. It's worth thinking momentarily about what the president--any president--can actually do to create jobs. Successful businesses that hire lots of workers need many things--great ideas; skilled, imaginative leaders; trained, conscientious, honest workers; good transportation and communications; a rational, well-functioning legal system, good local government and more. Some of those come from government, and others, businesses have to do on their own. We tend to hold presidents accountable for jobs created or lost on their watch, but realistically, they're usually secondary players. Politicians don't hold all the cards, and frankly, we don't think they should.

Myth No. 12: Presidents create jobs

So you're standing in the voting booth asking yourself which candidate is better for jobs. It's worth thinking momentarily about what the president--any president--can actually do to create jobs. Successful businesses that hire lots of workers need many things--great ideas; skilled, imaginative leaders; trained, conscientious, honest workers; good transportation and communications; a rational, well-functioning legal system, good local government and more. Some of those come from government, and others, businesses have to do on their own. We tend to hold presidents accountable for jobs created or lost on their watch, but realistically, they're usually secondary players. Politicians don't hold all the cards, and frankly, we don't think they should.


02.02 Election Year Follies

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from The Huffington Post - February 2, 2012

You know how sometimes when you repeat a word over and over again, it starts to lose its meaning? If you listen to our current crop of presidential candidates, they're doing their best to do that with the most important word in this election: Jobs.

Unfortunately for voters, the fact that politicians make such comforting pledges on the campaign trail does not mean we're having a serious, coherent debate on the issue. Instead, we're being treated to a morass of slogans and glib promises. Given how crucial this issue is to most Americans, the electorate deserves a lot better.

So what should candidates talk about -- and what should voters watch for? A small dose of realism would be a start. Here's a modest proposal for a franker, productive debate:

  • Let's stipulate that fixing the jobs problem won't be quick and easy. It's probably in the DNA of politicians to promise more than they can deliver, but candidates who claim (or actually believe) that they have a foolproof recipe for creating jobs in this changing world economy are in fantasyland. The Obama Administration certainly didn't do itself any favors when its key economic experts projected that the stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent in 2009. The Republicans lambast the president as a colossal economic failure, but their glib assurances could leave them in exactly the same position some four years hence, should one of them get elected. We need to replace more than 8 million jobs lost in the recession and create millions more to keep up with a growing population. The government estimates we'll need jobs for some 167 million people by 2018, up from about 154 million today. We're way behind.
  • Let's stipulate that brisk economic growth won't be enough. You can't create many jobs if the economy is not growing nicely, but healthy economic growth and a good employment picture are not the same thing. Between 2000 and 2010, the United States had stretches of reasonably good growth, but job creation was lackluster. The country lost about as many jobs as the economy created. Jobs were eliminated by technology; jobs went overseas. The economy grew, but many companies can thrive with fewer workers, and they don't necessarily need for the workers to be here in the United States. This is a seismic economic shift. It's a challenge that will be with us for decades.
  • Let's stipulate that tax policy is not the be all and end all of the debate. Listening to the current political discourse, you could be forgiven for thinking that tax policy is the deciding factor in whether we have robust job creation or not. Tax policy matters, but so do many other things--technology and innovation, research and education, immigration, government spending, regulation, and the legal environment to name just a few. And the truth is that the United States has had historically low taxes since 2003, and the economy's ability to create jobs has pretty much been at a standstill. Economists and politicians will probably debate which tax policies are best for job creation until hell freezes over, but clearly cutting federal taxes and modifying the tax code is not the whole answer.
  • Let's start distinguishing between short-term and long-term solutions. The U.S. economy is still recovering, and the European mess is still very worrisome, so considering some quick fixes to spur job creation is entirely sensible. But we need to be frank about how long these strategies can be sustained and how much they really do to create new jobs. Maybe cutting payroll taxes for another year is a good idea, and analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, for one, suggests that these kinds of tax cuts are among the more effective job creation mechanisms. Workers have more money in their pockets, and plans that reduce the employer's share as well as the worker's can make it cheaper to hire, and that can promote job creation. But if we do this for too long, we jeopardize funding for Social Security, which has financial problems looming already.
  • Let's zero in on how to get new more new businesses started. Economists seem as divided as the rest of America on the best policies for creating more jobs, but there is compelling research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation suggesting that most new jobs come from new enterprises. It's perfectly logical if you think about it. New businesses are starting from scratch--whatever needs doing, they need to hire someone to do it. Existing businesses may expand or diversify--and that's good for jobs too--but when it comes to job creation, getting new businesses up and running is about as close to a killer app as we have.

There's plenty more to talk about--what we're suggesting here is just a nudge in a better, more honest direction. The United States faces a long and difficult transition on jobs. Rhetoric, no matter how compelling, just won't get us there.


02.01 The High Stakes of Stakeholder Engagement: A Plea for Careful Planning from Public Agenda

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

This post was written for the 20 community colleges participating in Completion by Design, a five-year Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative that aims to significantly increase completion rates for low-income students under 26. As a “National Assistance partner” for Completion by Design, Public Agenda provides direct assistance to the colleges to help them build capacity for solutions-oriented dialogue among faculty, staff and administration. Here, Public Agenda's Alison Kadlec discusses best practices for authentic internal stakeholder engagement. While the post is geared toward Completion by Design planning teams, the principles are useful for any authentic engagement process.

Public Agenda is in the midst of finishing a user-friendly Internal Stakeholder Engagement toolkit to support cadres and colleges efforts to more effectively engage key internal stakeholders (faculty, staff, and administration) during the final quarter of the planning year. While the short-term goal of this toolkit is to help the Senior Partners, Managing Partner Directors, cadre team leads, co-leads and trained facilitations engage internal stakeholders to inform the design of the cadres model pathway plans, it is important that cadres also take a broader view of this work and plan accordingly

Authentic engagement of key internal stakeholders is tricky and can backfire if not done carefully and well—and good intentions are not enough to guarantee success. Even in the context of great ideas and the best of intentions, lack of goal clarity, poor issue framing, unskilled facilitation, and inattention to the seemingly mundane details of process can undermine trust and alienate the very people who are and could be the most important change-agents on behalf of student success and completion.

To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that these are mysterious matters that are beyond the capacities of the capable professionals that make up this initiative. We only wish to caution you against moving too quickly, to take the time to plan your engagement activities carefully so they reap the greatest benefits and avoid the pitfalls that hastily-designed efforts can fall into.

As you well know, community college faculty, staff and administrators are some of the hardest working and most dedicated people in this country, and it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the work they do every day (even the ones who drive you crazy). In a climate that combines shrinking resources and greater need than ever, these vital internal stakeholders are stretched thin, weary and wary. Yet their knowledge, expertise, and commitment are critical to meeting the challenges around student success and completion.

Given the tight timeframe and heavy lift involved during the compressed planning year, it is tempting to rush ahead without paying sufficient attention to the core principles, golden rules and red flags of engagement. But the costs of doing so can be steep: with each poorly designed engagement event or activity, you make it harder and harder to win the confidence of the people that you most need as partners in change, the people who you will need to carry out the work with you post-planning year.

The toolkit we are producing for January 23 is designed to support high-quality, solution-oriented dialogue, deliberation, planning and action by diverse actors so they can play a more robust and constructive role in meeting your shared challenges. It will include a number of discrete elements, presented for easy use on short time-lines.

But don’t get us wrong, there definitely is work you can be doing now. Between now and January 23, we recommend that you and your team think carefully and take the time to articulate clearly to one another your views on how better dialogue, deliberation and coordinated action will help you promote greater student success and completion. Ask yourselves the following questions:

  • What are the key challenges you face as you work to more effectively and efficiently support student success and completion?
  • Who are the actors/stakeholders who can best inform your efforts?
  • Who will play a major role in implementing needed change, who can undermine or endanger your efforts if they feel railroaded rather than engaged as partners?

  • What do you hope to accomplish through stakeholder engagement and how will the methods and strategies you employ set you up for success?
  • What is the worst case scenario coming out of a round of stakeholder engagement, and what can you do during the planning, execution and follow-up phase to mitigate the chances of this outcome?
  • What are the best-case outcomes that you are hoping to achieve, and what is the single most important thing you can do to bring that about?

    Once you’ve begun to think these questions through, the materials we will provide in the toolkit can help you develop and implement the most promising strategies and methods for engaging the critical stakeholders who can make or break your efforts to improve, and even transform, how students achieve meaningful degrees and credentials.


01.24 You Can't Do It Alone: A New Guide to Creating Sustainable Change in Education Reform

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Far too often, throughout our work in the education field, we've seen even the most earnest and promising ideas from experts and reformers for improving schools and ramping up student learning met with confusion, anxiety or even anger from teachers, parents, students or community members.

A new book from Jean Johnson provides a resource for education leaders on a variety of reform areas, including evaluating teachers, turning around low-performing schools, and building support for world-class standards. You Can't Do It Alone, from Rowman & Littlefield, summarizes a decade of Public Agenda opinion research among teachers, parents, and the public. It offers tips on what leaders can do to more successfully engage these groups in reform areas and integrates a theory of change and public learning developed by our founder Daniel Yankelovich. It also provides some practical rules of the road for promoting the kind of dialogue that leads to consensus and action.

To propel change-and to sustain it-school leaders need to listen thoughtfully to the community, act in ways that alleviate negative response and engage teachers, parents, students and the broader community in the mission of reform.


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