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04.09 Bullying and Putting School Discipline on the Agenda

Friday, April 9th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

It's no wonder the tragic events in South Hadley, Mass., where a group of high school students has been charged with bullying a 15-year-old to the point of suicide, have resonated across the nation. Any parent – any person, really -- would be moved by the needless loss of a young woman.

There's been a lot of debate over what schools, society and parents could or should do about bullying. The point that strikes us, however, is that one of the most consistent themes in our public opinion work in education has been the desire of both parents and teachers for safe, disciplined school environments. It's not that this concern doesn't resonate with policymakers at all, but there's no question that it plays a far smaller role in the debate compared to ideas like merit pay, charter schools, or raising academic standards.

But consider this: fewer than one in five high school teachers we surveyed say their students are civil and respectful to each other. Eight in 10 teachers overall say there are persistent troublemakers in their school who should be removed from regular classrooms. Nearly half complain they've been accused of unfairly disciplining a student. Parents and students voice similar concerns.

On the whole, Public Agenda's research suggests that schools do a better job dealing with the most serious problems, like weapons, drugs and actual violence, than with issues like acting out and disrespect.

Whatever the outcome in South Hadley, these questions of school order and discipline trouble both teachers and parents, and potentially interfere with the learning of thousands of students. And that deserves to be addressed.


03.25 New Choicework Discussion Guides

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 | Francie Grace

One of the great things about working in public engagement, in addition to helping different sides come together to craft public policy solutions, is that the work we do in one community often translates into opportunities for people struggling with similar problems in many other parts of the country.

We're happy to report on two such cases from our public engagers in the field, who have written up Choicework Discussion Starter guides based on the public engagement work we did last year supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "A Quality High School Education For All: Addressing the Dropout Challenge in Our Community," draws on our community engagement work with the public school system in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and lays out three potential approaches to the problem:

  • Do more to keep kids out of trouble and on a healthy path;
  • Raise our expectations of young people and send the message that all students can and should graduate; and
  • Improve how we educate young people so they are more likely to stay in school.

Also new in our offerings for communities seeking to use public engagement as a tool to solve problems is the Choicework Discussion Starter guide "A Great Education Starts At Home: Increasing Parent Involvement in Education." Based on lessons learned in our work with community groups in Moss Point, Mississippi, this guide provides three basic ways to approach the issue:

  • Have high expectations of parents and educate them about the most important ways they can help their children succeed in
  • Break down the barriers between schools and parents; and
  • Leave parent involvement to parents so that the schools can concentrate on teaching.

Each Choicework Discussion Starter guide also provides pros and cons for each of the various choices, to empower participants to consider tradeoffs they might make to address various goals. Click here to take a look at some of the other Choicework Discussion guides we offer, on a wide range of issues. And to learn more about on framing issues for discussion, check out our paper, Reframing Framing.


03.25 With Health Care Passed, Where Are We Now?

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Is there anything about health care that hasn't already been said, or that isn't going to be said in the next few months? Maybe not, but a few points are worth repeating.

The health care plan is an enormously important piece of legislation, expanding health coverage to millions more Americans. A Pew survey found half of the public said they had not only followed news reports on health care but had also talked about the bill with friends or family. That's a huge amount of public interest. Yet three-quarters also gave the media fair or poor grades for explaining the details. There are many equally difficult, pressing challenges awaiting us, such as energy and climate, immigration, and our national debt. As a nation, we simply have to do a better job of helping citizens through their learning curve on complex problems.

Our fiscal problems, in particular, can't be solved without engaging the public, because the problems are fundamentally those of choices, priorities and values.The Congressional Budget Office projects that the new health care plan will cut the deficit by $138 billion over the next 10 years, and by another $1 trillion in the decade after that. But a lot of the projection depends on factors that are hard to predict and on what Congress will do in the future.

If the CBO projections are right, we'll be saving $138 billion, but the national debt held by the public will climb from $7.5 trillion to $20.3 trillion by 2020. The furious commentary over the cost of the health care bill tends to gloss over a key point: whether the plan works as advertised or not, the federal budget is still on an unsustainable path. We have lots of options to change that, but all of them require tough choices about what's important to us as a nation. And none of them are going to work unless we start doing a much better job of engaging the public in making those choices.


03.24 Higher Ed: Buffeted By Change, Embracing Reform

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010 | Francie Grace

How can higher education control costs? How does our education system measure up compared to the rest of the world? American Council of Education president Molly Corbett Broad touched on these questions and more in the March installment of the Maxwell School/ Public Agenda Policy Breakfast discussion series.

A former president of the University of North Carolina, Broad talked about issues including national standards for college readiness, student loan legislation, "helicopter" parents, tuition prices and other obstacles to college completion. She also discussed challenges like college costs and spending on athletics, and innovations such as no-frills colleges and three-year degrees. Such fast track programs, said Broad, are helpful only for the tiny proportion of students who arrive on campus already knowing exactly what they need to study, are ready to do college-level work, and won't need to change majors - something she sees as a big part of the learning experience for many college students.

So, are radical changes in the works? Radical, Broad observed, is a relative term for institutions that have been around for centuries, adding that "radical ideas" are nonetheless on the table for reform in higher ed. Colleges who ignore this trend, said Broad, will find that they are losing standing.

Click here to watch the video of the interview with National Public Radio's Robert Siegel. To learn more about these issues, check out our research, especially Can I Get A Little Advice Here?, Squeeze Play 2010, Campus Commons and Convergence and Contradictions in Teachers' Perceptions of Policy Reform Ideas.


03.19 Immigration Reform & Climate Change: Two Hot-Button Issues Intersect

Friday, March 19th, 2010 | Michelle Wucker

Editor's note: Public Agenda occasionally posts guest blogs to offer different perspectives on difficult problems. Readers of this blog know that immigration and the choices we face on energy and climate change are two of the public policy issues we monitor closely here at Public Agenda. Today, we have a guest posting on our blog, from Michele Wucker of the World Policy Institute, who talks about the way that these two issues may intersect – which makes it all the more important that citizens grapple with the options we have in crafting public policy solutions.


Within days of the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince and cost over 200,000 lives, the United States granted temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitian undocumented immigrants living in the United States before January 12, 2010. It was the right thing to do after a natural disaster caused by an act of God. Yet it stood in stark contrast to the failure of the United States to use our migration policy to help Haitians in 2008 after a series of natural disasters that were arguably man-made: a series of storms made increasingly more frequent and violent by rising sea levels and temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Haiti has contributed the tiniest portion of greenhouse gases yet has experienced the brunt of climate-change induced storms. In less than a month in late Summer 2008, a series of storms -- Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike -- decimated Haitian agriculture and killed hundreds of people. It would have made sense to follow the example set after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when the United States granted TPS to Nicaraguans and Hondurans already living here. But immigration policy has long discriminated against Haitians in many ways, so it was not to be.

The number of climate change refugees – as those displaced by environmental disasters caused by greenhouse gas emissions are now called—is projected to rise dramatically around the world in coming years. The number varies wildly, in part due to whether to include temporary or permanent migrants. In some cases, people may only have to leave their homes temporarily; in others, entire families and communities must relocate permanently.

It is increasingly urgent to create a way for countries to carry their fair share of the burden caused by climate-induced natural disasters which displace people from their homes and destroy livelihoods. The countries that have produced the most greenhouse gases, creating the problem, have a moral responsibility to help.

As Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council put it at a recent conference on the ethics of migration at Sofia University in Japan, "The central moral problem surrounding climate change is that the countries least responsible for the problem will suffer the greatest." Even in Japan, with its famously restrictive immigration policy, conference participants were sympathetic to the idea of increasing admissions of climate change migrants. Similarly, a recent German Marshall Fund study of U.S. and European attitudes toward immigration found significant public support for the idea.

With numbers projected in the tens of millions – with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting 150 million environmental refugees by 2050 and the International Organization for Migration even more -- no one country can solve the problem alone. The question of where these people will go is not a small one. Some of the countries that are the biggest emitters, like the United States, already are home to significant numbers of migrants who have come for other reasons. China is a large polluter but also is vulnerable to climate change which generates migration of its own. When possible, migrants are most likely to seek alternatives within their own countries; in countries that also are experiencing ethnic strife, or are overcrowded, that may not always be realistic.

As one of the main carbon emitters, the United States should show leadership in finding answers for climate change refugees through migration and development policies, as well as in working harder to reduce our own emissions.

First, Washington should create a new visa category for migrants from areas vulnerable to climate change. To avoid unmanageable flows, this category should apply to people who migrate before disasters happen, as has been done with TPS. As the disparity between Hurricane Mitch and the 2008 Haitian hurricanes made painfully clear, we also need to create standards for issuing these visas fairly and equitably.

Allocating some of the responsibilities by region makes sense. The United States should focus on potential climate change refugees from Latin America, which include not just those in the path of hurricanes but also those affected by droughts, rising sea levels, changing mountain ecosystems, and falling crop yields.

Major carbon emitters should create a global fund for investing in disaster preparedness, so that when climate-induced incidents happen, the damage is limited. Technical assistance in building codes, disaster response, and sustainable agricultural practices will all be essential.

Countries should contribute to this fund, and offer respective numbers of visas to climate change migrants, in proportion to their own emissions levels. This would be small consolation to those whose homes will be destroyed; but it would be a much needed start.


Michele Wucker is a senior fellow and executive director of the World Policy Institute, a nonpartisan center for global policy analysis and publisher of World Policy Journal. She is the author of books including LOCKOUT: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right and comments frequently on immigration and international economics.

To learn more about these issues and be a part of the process of building public policy solutions to these problems, Public Agenda recommends our report, A Place To Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About America; the Citizen's Survival Kit guide to Immigration; the Citizen's Survival Kit guide to Climate Change; and the Choicework Discussion Starter guide on public policy options for responding to the challenges of climate change.



03.15 Sorry, It's Malignant: Why Scientists Need a New Approach on Climate Change

Monday, March 15th, 2010 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

The world's scientists are struggling with the unsettling feeling that the more they talk about climate change, the less progress they make. In fact, in some opinion surveys they're losing ground. But before we start dumping on the public for its scientific illiteracy or unwillingness to take the long view, consider this scenario:

You're sitting in the doctor's examining room, on one of those absurd benches. The doctor comes in and gives you the worst possible news, that you have cancer.

The doctor takes the time to explain why she thinks you have cancer, and the level of confidence she has in the test results. She explains the biological process of cancer, what's known about how it starts and how it spreads. Don't let your senses deceive you, the doctor warns. You may feel okay now, but this disease will kill you if nothing is done, and we've got to start fighting this right now.

Then she walks out without telling you what your treatment options are.

This is essentially what the scientific community has been doing to the public about climate change. The scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused by humans remains unshaken, but the public consensus is fragile enough that it trembles based on a snowy winter or a set of indiscreet e-mails. Daniel Yankelovich points out, scientists persist in believing that if they just give the public the relevant facts, people will be able to sort them out, think through the policy options, and start making decisions.

In the real world, that's not what happens. Being inundated with information about a problem doesn't help people sort out different ways to address it. The public can and does come to firm, workable decisions, but the process takes a lot more time than most scientists believe. Information matters to the public, certainly, but other things matter too: values, confidence that the people advocating change understand and respect your point of view, a sense of inclusion in the decisions.

All those things aren't part of the classic "scientific" model of knowledge, but they are part and parcel of the way people make decisions about complex, unfamiliar problems.

Or, think of it this way:

You chase the doctor out into the hallway and ask, "But how do we fight this? What treatments are there? What choices do I have?"

The doctor leads you into another room. "Don't worry, the answers are all somewhere in here," she says. "Let me introduce you to the sales representatives of the radiology machine manufacturer and several competing pharmaceutical companies, who will try and sell you their solutions. Those half-dozen people over there are from the insurance industry, and they'll be having a parallel discussion of how much you can afford. We also have a wide selection of promising experimental procedures that will take years to develop. And these folks here are a spiritual healer, who will offer you crystals and a selection of herbs and spices, along with the owner of the largest leach farm in Louisiana. I don't really recommend you listen to either of them, but they'll both be shouting at the top of their voices during the entire process. Plus, they come up first in Google searches."

The scientific community – and the climate skeptics, for that matter – believes this is an information battle, and that with a few more charts and graphs, people will become lay scientists, and everything else will fall into place. That's not the way this is going to work.

So what does the scientific community need to do? We'd suggest three steps:

Connect climate change and the energy crisis. Obviously, these two things are connected, but too few people in the climate science world spell it out. World energy demand is projected to rise 40 percent over the next 20 years, mostly because of rising demand in developing countries like China and India. A billion Chinese buying cars and Ipods has enormous and obvious implications for both oil prices and climate change.

Step up to the plate as a credible, neutral explainer of the choices.This debate comes down to a few practical choices about how we get our energy. What kind of power plants do we build? What do we use to fuel our cars? Those are the choices people can grapple with. They're practical, not theoretical. You can sum up the pros and cons pretty quickly. These are our treatment options. And they're decisions society will have to make. Unfortunately, neither the media not the political leadership has taken on this task. This leaves a void science can fill. The scientific community could serve the nation by helping Americans understand our options for addressing our energy and climate challenges – no spin, no hyperventilating – just lay out the choices with their pros and cons.

Don't ignore economics. Believe us, nobody else is viewing this as a purely scientific debate. "How much will this cost" is a perfectly legitimate part of the discussion. So are the economic benefits of moving to alternative energy, and the potential costs of doing nothing and letting climate change and energy shortages reshape our planet. If there ever was a case for an interdisciplinary approach, this is it.

This all comes back to one of the fundamental roles of the scientist in society: not just to find out the facts, but to explain what they mean to the rest of us. If the world fails to solve this problem, it won't be because we failed to understand the diagnosis. It'll be because we failed to understand our treatment options. We expect doctors to help us understand and weigh those options, and to respect our right to make the final decision. It's only fair to expect climate scientists to do the same.

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson are Public Agenda executives and authors of "Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis."

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03.12 "Climate Deadlock" & The Public's Learning Curve

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

For much of the past two weeks, there's been a major debate over how the world of science should deal with so-called climate deadlock. Political action on the issue seems to have stalled, a new poll shows the public is worrying less about global warming, and climate skeptics are more vocal in the wake of "climategate." Should scientists push back harder, or stick to the data?

A lot of this debate, we think, misses a key point about how the public grapples with complicated problems. Scientists, along with journalists and many other "expert" groups, have an unrealistic view of how the public thinks about problems, says Daniel Yankelovich, Public Agenda's founder and a pioneering social scientist.

The public has a "learning curve" on tough problems, moving from initial consciousness of a problem, to working through the possible solutions, and then finally, resolution about what to do. Establishing the facts is only one part of the challenge.

There are all kinds of other potential barriers to moving forward, such as wishful thinking or denial, a lack of urgency, or a lack of practical choices. Values, options, and how problems are framed are as important here as information. So is time, because people need time to weigh different alternatives.

That's very different from the classic "scientific" way of understanding problems, and it suggests a different approach, based on helping the public move through the various obstacles they face. For more on this, take a look at the presentations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference by Yankelovich and Jean Johnson of Public Agenda, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis. The book is another good resource, along with updates from our Twitter feed, @TheEnergyBook.


03.12 K-12: Do We Need National Standards?

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

What should American students learn? And should they all be learning the same things, from Maine to California?

This is an old argument, but it's been given new and relevant life by the "common core" standards released for comment this week. A joint project of the nation's governors and chief state school officers, the core standards initiative is supposed to set out benchmarks for English and math in K-12 classrooms, and could have a huge impact nationwide. All but two states have been involved in the process to develop the standards. Each state would still have to decide whether or not to adopt the final product, however.

There are both pros and cons to the idea of national standards, but two observations stand out for us. Firstly, Public Agenda's research has consistently found that the public supports the idea of standards, broadly speaking (although we haven't asked about national vs state or local standards recently). The last time we looked at this, we found most parents and other stakeholders say standards are "necessary, but not sufficient" to make progress. Social problems and funding were also major concerns.

The second observation comes from our work in Nebraska, where Public Agenda ran Choicework public engagement forums helping state officials and citizens work through the process of setting statewide school standards. We found most Nebraskans in the forums seemed to think setting standards for basic skills like English and math was a common sense idea - it was in other areas, like history, that this proved to be more controversial.

If you want to weigh in, the Core Standards Initiative is seeking public comment through April 2.


03.12 Your Taxes at Work

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace

Kudos to USA Today for an amazing chart on where our federal taxes go. This one is interactive and tells you exactly what's happening to the federal taxes someone with your income level pays, broken down by the amount that you personally pay for budget items from national defense and health care on down to agriculture and international affairs. It also serves up comparisons to previous years, going all the way back to 1940.


03.12 Deficit Tops the Public's Long-Term Worries, But Are They Ready to Act?

Friday, March 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Jobs are still the top problem facing the country today, according to the latest Gallup survey, but for the first time ever, people say the federal deficit will be the biggest problem 25 years from now.

It's no surprise that jobs and the economy top current worries, as they have for the past couple of years. The question about the most important problem in 25 years provides an interesting window into what the public sees as troubling trends for the future. Besides the deficit, the list includes the economy, environment, health care and energy, and certainly you can make a case for any of them as a disturbing trend for the future. But the deficit has seen a big jump, from under 5 percent to 14 percent in the survey.

The most interesting thing is that difference in urgency. Right now the deficit is No. 5 on the Gallup list of most important current problems, at 8 percent, which is significant but still pretty far back compared to 31 percent for unemployment, 24 percent for the economy overall, 20 percent for health care and 10 percent for general "dissatisfaction with government." Yet it leads the list of long-term problems.

And in this case, the experts would mostly agree. The Committee on the Fiscal Future report warns that action needs to be taken to control the long-term budget problem – but also said the government should hold off another year in order to deal with the current economic crisis. Most budget experts would argue that the current federal deficits, huge as they are, aren't as scary as the long-term projections that show the U.S. public debt becoming larger than our entire economy in a little more than 10 years.

Projections, of course, are a lot like the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens' A Christmas Carol: visions of what might be, not guarantees of what will be. The nation's fiscal problems are completely solvable, and there are a lot of alternatives for solving them. But it will probably require sacrifices, and the sooner we start, the easier it will be.

So the question that the Gallup poll can't answer is what's needed to help Americans make difficult decisions now in order to avoid the problem they worry about most 25 years from now.


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