Thursday, January 17th, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan
The public's trust in government has long been eroding. A healthy democracy requires the participation of the public in decision making. Unfortunately, such participation becomes difficult, if not poisonous, when there is not a foundation of trust between those making policy and those affected by it.
Provided they are interested in maintaining a healthy democracy, how can our nation's leaders mend the minds and hearts of the public so their trust in the government can be rebuilt?
We believe many of our nation's leaders genuinely want to do what’s best for the country. But consistent set-backs erode their optimism and motivation. Wary of pitfalls, politicians have only been moved to inaction. We understand why they may be unmotivated, but there are many practical actions they can take to help rebuild the public's trust and get this country back on track when it comes to solving our nation's problems.
Thursday, December 20th, 2012 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.
Reprinted from The Huffington Post, on December 20, 2012
Too often, we fall into a negativity trap when it comes to our country's education system. It's certainly easy to focus on the things we do wrong. But we have a lot to celebrate as well. And leveraging those reasons to celebrate offers an important angle on how to improve our nation's schools.
Schools identified as high-poverty or high-needs often pose the biggest challenge to educators. They can also evoke the most pessimism. How can kids learn, people ask, when they lack adequate food, clothing or safety on the way to class?
Still, some schools are doing it. In fact, nine high-poverty, geographically diverse schools throughout Ohio offer case studies for how such schools can and do achieve remarkable results and become beacons of hope.
This is not to say that these schools answer all of our questions or challenges as we seek to improve educational opportunities for all students. We can't throw considerations like funding, class size, teacher quality and access to technology out the window. But we can look to these nine examples for attributes and practices that schools everywhere can learn from and adopt for improvement from within.
In focus groups and interviews with principals, teachers, students and parents at these schools, certain qualities were mentioned with remarkable consistency. Among the lessons these schools provide:
Leadership matters. The principals at each of these schools earn trust and respect, and they inspire achievement through their attitudes and behavior. They lead with a strong vision, engage teachers in decision-making, take responsibility for their school's continued success and hold teachers and students accountable for the same.
Principals care deeply about the success of their students and their schools. Some even go so far as to call students at home when they're late or to remind them to study for a test.
"He's trained us to be a family," a high school teacher at one school said. "He models that. He shows a very deep respect and deep caring for all of the people that he works with."
Collaboration improves teaching and learning. At each of the schools, principals provide real and diverse opportunities and incentives for teachers to collaborate. For example, they designate regular planning times with set agendas, encourage team teaching, and make sure teacher collaboration is fun and includes downtime.
Collaboration also goes beyond sharing a successful lesson plan. Teachers work together to interpret standards, plan and align instruction, share and analyze data together, and discuss the issues their students are facing.
Teachers say that collaboration and sharing best practices are keys to their effectiveness. "I love the team that I work with... If I have a problem and I'm uncertain, I can turn to anybody here and say, 'I need help,'" said one high school teacher.
Student data has its place. Teachers at the nine schools regard student data as helpful and clarifying. They use it to plan instruction, approach test preparation and design interventions. Data analysis allows them to intervene immediately if a student falls behind.
Principals and teachers hold high expectations. In these schools, all students are expected to achieve academically and behave appropriately. The educators in the building accept no excuses for why a student cannot do work or does not care about grades. Leadership and staff also follow consistent procedures when responding to negative behavior. At some schools, teachers spend time at the beginning of the year practicing with students the type of behavior they expect.
At the same time, administrators, teachers and support staff model this behavior. They do not resort to excuses when their classes do not meet benchmarks or when their students fall behind. They strive to model punctuality, hard work and ambition as well as the collegial, cooperative and respectful behavior they expect from their students.
Caring is just as important as high expectations. Across all of these high-achieving, high-poverty schools, students state that they feel loved, valued and challenged. They are confident that their teachers will help them and be at their side if they hit a rough patch. Many emphasize the personal connection they have with teachers and other staff. They are also encouraged to think of their paths forward, beyond their present school days.
"They can be your friends," said one high school student. "You can go to them for advice. They help you individually, too. If you're having trouble learning something, you can just go to them personally, and they will help you to figure out like what your problem is."
At these nine Ohio schools, the interplay of these and other important practices produces a school environment in which high achievement becomes the norm. Yet what the individuals at each of the schools do is replicable -- it is not magic. They say themselves that their success can be achieved elsewhere.
Hopefully, such high-achieving, high-poverty schools can stimulate a fresh and constructive dialogue on how we can help all kids learn, regardless of the obstacles they face.
Thursday, December 13th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo
As our nation's leaders continue to struggle to build common ground on the best ways to approach the nation's debt problem, perhaps they can take a cue from the public.
Over the course of last year, everyday citizens from all ages and walks of life gathered around the country to talk about tackling the debt. The forums were hosted by the nonpartisan National Issues Forums (NIF), a longtime partner of Public Agenda. Participants' insights are captured in the new NIF report, "No Easy Way Out: Citizens Talk about Tackling the Debt ," written by Public Agenda's Jean Johnson.
Participants in the forums looked at multiple possibilities for addressing the debt, as well as the pros and cons of these approaches. In many respects, the report contains good news for leaders hoping to find common ground on this difficult topic. Forum participants spoke of a number of common themes, including:
- They, and other citizens, are ready for serious, civil talks about the debt.
- They also understand that solving the problem won't be easy and will require broad acceptance of change and sacrifice.
- Very few participants brought nonnegotiable items to the table. Most understood that moving forward will require at least some changes they may not like personally.
NIF believes, and we agree, that leaders who understand the concerns and questions of these typical Americans will be better prepared to develop solutions accepted as fair and effective by the public at large.
To this end, Jean traveled to DC last week, with colleagues from NIF, to brief national policymakers on the report's findings. She spoke to staff from House Speaker Boehner's office, top officials in the Treasury Department and staff from both the Republican and Democratic Policy Committees.
Policymakers welcomed the report findings and seemed eager for more of this sort of feedback from the public, which they often saw as richer and more nuanced that what they get from standard polling. "I thought there was a genuine hunger among these leaders for the kinds of deliberative insights from the public that emerge in the NIF forums and the engagement work of Public Agenda," said Jean.
The report also found that people need additional opportunities to grapple with the issue of the debt and the need to address the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare in nonpartisan, non-advocacy settings. While the citizen discussion in forums—which typically run about two hours—were remarkable, it’s also true that many of the forum participants themselves wanted to learn more, think more, and continue their deliberations. Unfortunately, there are not many settings like this readily available in today's public arena.
The question then is: How do we take the deliberative model of NIF and Public Agenda and expand it to a broader audience? Are there ways to provide more of these dialogues? Are there trusted, neutral voices that can guide such exchanges?
One way to start is in your own community, school or organization. A discussion guide like Public Agenda's "The Federal Budget: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" (free of charge) or NIF's "A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills?" can provide the framework for a productive dialogue on the choices we face when it comes to our country's economic future.
As "No Easy Way Out" demonstrates, under the right conditions, everyday citizens can build common ground, and practical solutions are within reach. We just have to work to find them.
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.
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.
Thursday, November 1st, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan
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.
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 www.EveryoneAtTheTable.org). 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.
Thursday, October 18th, 2012 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and Alison Kadlec
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.
Thursday, October 4th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan
- 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.