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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.


01.13 Democracy in the 21st Century: Engaging Students to be More Civically-Minded

Friday, January 13th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

As Americans nationwide voice concern about the health of our democracy and our ability to work together to solve the problems facing the country, civic learning as a priority in education has plummeted. How can we move it from the periphery of education to the center? What experiences should schools, colleges and universities offer to prepare their students to be productive citizens? How can 21st century learning inspire our nation's young people to be more civically-minded, engaged and ready to lead?

On Tuesday, January 10th, Dr. David Mathews, Public Agenda board member and president of the Kettering Foundation, and Public Agenda's Jean Johnson, who is a board member of the National Issues Forums, traveled to the White House to explore these questions. As participants in "For Democracy's Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission," they joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, other senior Obama Administration officials and higher education, government, business and philanthropy leaders to discuss how to help students take on their roles as citizens and future leaders.

The Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums (NIF), both longtime partners and collaborators of Public Agenda, are doing important and extensive work in the role of higher education in democracy. Kettering is looking at how higher education can prepare young people for their role as citizens, while NIF will publish a citizens’ discussion guide on the mission and future of higher education in the spring. The guide will be used in communities and campuses nationwide as part of the American Commonwealth Project, a co-sponsor of the White House event.

Dr. Mathews, who moderated a panel discussion with a group of students and educators, explored how to define a citizen and what we mean by the word democracy. "We're living in a time when there's a contest over the meaning of democracy," he said. "It's a serious matter, and the key to it… is controlled by the way we understand the role of its citizens."

Ms. Johnson later reported on a breakout session discussing how this moment, one of crisis for the democracy, can also be a moment of opportunity, one where higher education can play an enormous role. But in order to do so, she reported, "we will have to change the expectations we have of higher education, higher education faculty, and students."

Participants in the session came up with a number of recommended capacities and experiences for higher education institutions to foster in order to encourage students to take on their role as citizens and future leaders. Among them:

  • Students and courses should focus more on problem-solving
  • Students should gain the skills and experiences that help them become "agents of change" and learn how to "make an idea happen"
  • Students should "model democratic practices to solve problems," especially in student government
  • Students should have the experience of "participating in dialogue on controversial issues"
  • They should have the skill and experiences that allow them to "form relationships that create imagination"
  • Higher education should develop in students the "hunger to understand how things work so they can weigh in and participate in problem-solving"
  • Students should learn that "listening is as important as having a voice"
  • Higher education can join forces with K-12 education, communities, etc. so that "civic agency becomes a national priority."

"For Democracy's Future" coincided with the release of two reports, one from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, and the other from the Department itself. It also marked the launch of a year of activities to revitalize the democratic purposes and civic mission of American education.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of the Department of Education, and Martha Kanter, Under Secretary of the Department, both spoke at the event. You can listen to their remarks and see other footage from "For Democracy's Future," including panel discussions and breakout session reports, here and here.

How can we, as a nation, make civic and democratic learning for all students a top national priority? Do you have any ideas for how colleges and universities can rise to this challenge? Share them here or on our Facebook wall, or tweet us your ideas.


12.22 Engaging Your Community: Varied Opportunities for Deliberation and Dialogue

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

The materials that we have helped develop to involve instructors in K-12 and higher education reform are flexible and varied, and administrators, educators and others can use them in a variety of contexts. Creating diverse occasions for dialogue is a key to effectively and authentically engaging stakeholders, and is our next core principle for public engagement.

Create multiple, varied opportunities for deliberation and dialogue

People need to go through a variety of stages to come to terms with an issue, decide what approach they are willing to support and figure out how they can make their own contribution.

A strong engagement initiative will be inclusive as well as iterative, giving people multiple and varied opportunities to learn about, talk about, think about and act on the problem at hand. Community conversations, "study circles," online engagement strategies and media partnerships are a few of the possibilities.

This blog post is part of our series on core principles for effective public engagement.

Read earlier principles of public engagement. If you have any questions, just ask, either here, on our Facebook page, via Twitter or email Allison Rizzolo.

We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.

Also be sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter to receive regular updates on what's going on in the world of public opinion research and public engagement.


12.19 Engaging Your Community: Overcoming Wishful Thinking and Other Barriers

Monday, December 19th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

When engaging people on a tough public problem like education reform or a region's transportation needs, obstacles and resistance are bound to creep up. Here are a few tips you can use to help them move beyond pipe dreams, recognize and accept trade-offs, and work through obstacles and resistance.

Help people move beyond wishful thinking

The trade-offs that are embedded in any issue that citizens must confront should be brought to the surface. A strong public engagement initiative will look for diverse ways to achieve realism and seriousness (not to be confused with humorlessness) in the public debate and help people move past knee-jerk reactions and wishful thinking. Challenge leaders who pander to people's wishful thinking and provide corrective information once it's become clear the public is "hung up" on a misperception or lacking vital information.

Expect obstacles and resistances

People are used to doing things in a particular way, and it is hard work to grapple with new possibilities. It may even threaten their identities or interests (or perceived interests) to do so. It therefore takes time, and repeated opportunities, for people to really work through problems, absorb information about the trade-offs of different approaches and build common ground.

Read earlier principles of public engagement. If you have any questions, just ask, either here, on our Facebook page or via Twitter.

We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.

Also be sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter to receive regular updates on what's going on in the world of public opinion research and public engagement.


11.14 Engaging Your Community: Use Information Wisely

Monday, November 14th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

While we were conducting the research for our recent study, Don't Count Us Out, members of the public told us that an abundance of technical information can be jarring and confusing, and that they are actually quite skeptical about the accuracy of statistics and measurements. When providing information for a group of people to help them deliberate an issue, it's crucial to weigh the amount, type and timing of that information:

Provide the right type and amount of information at the right time

It is helpful to provide people with carefully selected, essential, nonpartisan information up front in order to help them deliberate more effectively, but it is equally important to avoid overloading people with a "data dump." Concise and thoughtfully presented information is useful, but too much all at once can result in people feeling overwhelmed. It plays to the experts in the room while disempowering the regular citizens. In fact, too much information may actually erode public trust instead of augment it.

Instead, beyond a few salient essentials, people should themselves determine, through their deliberations, the information that will allow them to move deeper into an issue. Enabling people to better determine their informational needs is one of the most important purposes and outcomes of public engagement.

This blog post is part of our series on core principles for effective public engagement.

Read earlier principles of public engagement. If you have any questions, just ask, either here, on our Facebook page, via Twitter or email Allison Rizzolo.

If you are looking for tools for engagement, including information about our Choicework guides and their corresponding videos, as well as case studies in public engagement, check out the public engagement section of this website.

Also be sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter to receive regular updates on what's going on in the world of public opinion research and public engagement.


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