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05.20 The "Third Rail" Question on College?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

There's been a lot of debate this week over what one New York Times writer calls the "third rail" question of higher education: should everyone go to college?

For people who have been watching this debate nationally, a major Times story on the issue has spurred debate - even becoming an intramural affair at the Times (some bloggers say the critics could have a point, others argue that economics make the case for more education). Here's a roundup of comments on the issue.

A key point is the nation's college completion rate, with only four in 10 students graduating in four years. For some, that's an argument that fewer people should be going to college – that those who drop out lack the commitment and academic qualifications to complete a degree. When Public Agenda surveyed young people about why they did or didn't finish college, however, we found most who dropped out said the juggling act of work, school and family responsibilities became too much for them. Young people who dropped out were more likely to come from low-income families with over half coming from households earning less than $35,000 annually. Nearly six-in-ten of those who dropped said that they were not getting financial help from their parents with their school expenses. In contrast, only 37 percent of those who graduated said the same thing.

Arguably, it’s just a much easier task to complete college when you can go to school full-time and when your family is able to support you financially while you’re studying. Based on our study, many of the young people who drop out of college just don’t have that luxury.

Another question isn't whether all students should go to college, it's whether they can and whether they’ve been encouraged and prepared to do so. The attitudes of public school teachers who get students ready for college or work are critical here. In our Teaching For A Living survey, we found nearly three-quarters of teachers agree with the statement "I believe that all my students, given the right support, can go to college if they choose." But only four in 10 strongly agree, and the intensity of this belief seems to be a major factor in a teachers' attitudes about their work. The teachers we tagged as "idealists" – the most dedicated and motivated – are the most likely to believe this, with 54 percent who strongly agree.


05.06 A Forced Choice On Offshore Oil?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

We talk a lot about making choices at Public Agenda, but frequently options are framed by disaster as much as by deliberate choice. That's certainly true for the debate on energy and offshore oil drilling, which looks like it's going to be fundamentally reshaped by the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The public is following news coverage of the spill closely, which could prove devastating to the environment and the economy. Both pro- and anti-drilling forces are mobilizing, and some observers are predicting that this could derail the energy and climate bill in the Senate, which includes more offshore drilling as a key compromise to gain votes.

At Wild Well Control station, May 5, 2010. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley

Whether we back away from offshore drilling or not, we need to keep a few key things in mind. One is that world energy demand is rising dramatically, as more people in the developing world start making enough money to afford cars and a Western lifestyle. The world needs more energy, even as it needs cleaner energy to cope with the danger of climate change.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has made the tradeoffs of offshore drilling vividly clear. But so is something else: making a choice on offshore drilling doesn't mean we've wrapped up the debate and can now sit back and relax.

Making this choice – whichever way we go – needs to be the precursor to a much broader look at the choices we face for making sure we have enough reliable, safe, and affordable energy for the future.

To learn more about energy, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guided Tour To The Energy Crisis, and join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.


04.30 The Fiscal Future: Is it Serious? Are We Serious?

Friday, April 30th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

It's been a big week for fiscal responsibility – or at least for talking about it. President Obama's commission on the deficit and national debt began its work this week, and between the commission and its critics, a "fiscal summit" convened by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and the spreading Greek debt crisis, the nation got a taste of how difficult the issues is, and what the worst case scenario might be.

The president told the commission that "everything's on the table," even as many critics insist there are things that should be off the table. For conservatives, the "don't do it" is higher taxes; for liberals, the "just say no" options are more likely to be Medicare and Social Security. Yet most budget experts, including those on the committee that prepared the Choosing Our Fiscal Future report, argue that it's going to take both spending cuts and more revenue to get the job done.

In the end, this is a debate about values and priorities: what's important to us as a nation, and how do we afford it. The nation's current strategy has been to avoid making those choices and borrowing to get by, but that can't go on forever – that's why the government's own budget agencies call the federal budget "unsustainable."

The fiscal commission's report can and should look at everything, both taxes and spending, and put the choices on the table. But in the end, the priorities we set for the government, and how we raise the money, are the American people's choices to make. We are, after all, going to have to live with them.

How can you play a role in these choices? You can start by checking out the options laid out at, and by joining the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.


04.30 How to Achieve Profit With Honor

Friday, April 30th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

There's nothing like an 11-hour Senate hearing about Wall Street scandal to put business ethics in the public eye. Senators compared Goldman Sachs executives to bookies, as the investment bankers maintained they'd done nothing wrong. The bitter hearings may well have pushed the Senate to begin debating new financial regulations, and even the mention of "Wall Street" affects the results of surveys.

All this puts us in mind of a point that Public Agenda's founder, Dan Yankelovich, made during the last round of business scandals: obeying the law and "passing the smell test" are only the most basic levels of ethical behavior. To really restore public trust, the business world needs to change its social norms and embrace a new sense of "stewardship ethics," in which both profit and integrity are valued.

You can read his essay on these ideas here, and Yankelovich laid out this theme extensively in his 2006 book, Profit With Honor: The New Stage of Market Capitalism. Drawing on his experience as both a social scientist and corporate director, he examines the state of business ethics that led to scandals like Enron and Worldcom, and how an attitude of "stewardship" could make a difference. Based on this week's news, his analysis is as relevant as ever.


04.29 Three-Quarters Say Bullying Is A Problem In Their Local Schools

Thursday, April 29th, 2010 | Francie Grace

Nearly three-quarters of Americans consider bullying and harassment a serious problem in their local public schools, though not as serious as illegal drugs and lack of respect for teachers, according to an April Public Agenda survey of adults including parents of children under 18.

More than one-third of Americans (35 percent), including 39 percent of parents, say they were bullied themselves when growing up. But only 8 percent of the public and 10 percent of parents say they were bullied "a lot."

The recent tragedy in South Hadley, Mass., where six teenagers currently face criminal charges in connection with bullying that prosecutors say led to the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, reopened the debate over how pervasive bullying is and what can be done about it. And as officials in South Hadley this week drafted a new policy, anti-bullying campaigners kept the pressure on in states which don't yet have anti-bullying statutes, and Massachusetts took steps to join the list of those that do.

Our survey found 74 percent who say bullying and harassment are serious problems in their local schools, with 47 percent calling them "very serious" problems. Roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of the public say illegal drugs and students treating teachers with a lack of respect are serious problems, with 53 percent calling illegal drugs "very serious" and 50 percent saying disrespect for teachers is "very serious."

Adults who say they were bullied in school are more likely to say bullying is a "very serious" problem (49 percent versus 42 percent of those who said they weren't bullied). Men are more likely to say they were bullied (41 percent compared with 30 percent of women), but women are more likely to consider bullying a "very serious" problem (53 percent of women compared with 41 percent of men).

All of our research findings are online here, where you'll also find links for resources to prevent, and respond to, this problem.


04.13 An Engine With No Brakes

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 | Francie Grace

"It's unbelievable how much this debt is going to grow over the next 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And if we don't attack it now, there's going to be no money for those who want to invest it in education, innovation or research so that we can be competitive in a knowledge-based global economy. There'll be no capital for small businesses to grow. We've got to address this deficit, and we've got to do it now." That's the case made this week by Democrat Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the panel created by President Obama to draft, by December, recommendations on how to solve the crisis of the federal budget deficit and national debt.

Bowles commented in a CNN interview in which deficit panel co-chair Alan Simpson, Wyoming Republican, called the deficit "an engine with no brakes" that's going to wipe out "all the things you cherish." Citing his cattle country pedigree, Simpson pledged that all ideas are on the table and added: "We're going to slay every sacred cow in the field."

Bowles, a former chief of staff for President Clinton, also pops up in another interesting news story today, in USA Today, in which he talks about telling his 90-year-old mother about his responsibilities on the deficit commission. Bowles said she was proud of him, but was quick to caution: "Don't mess with my Medicare."


04.09 California, As Policy Leader: Energy Wars

Friday, April 9th, 2010 | Francie Grace

Republicans and Democrats agree on this much: California has been a leader in environmental initiatives. Four years ago, it passed a carbon emissions law, and that's been seen as a model for the energy and climate change legislation that Congress has been trying to craft and approve. So it's not a local matter when California starts arguing about energy, and some of the biggest dogs in those fights aren't even from California.

Three Texas-based oil companies, for example, are providing what the AP describes as "the bulk of" the funding behind a petition drive for a referendum that would delay enforcement of the law until California's 12.5 percent jobless rate drops to 5.5 percent and stays there for a year. They're joined in the campaign by other businesses, taxpayer groups and critics who doubt claims that the law will create 10,000 green jobs and instead worry about unknowns from costs to consumers and businesses, with fears of job losses from cash-strapped employers and others who could move out of state.

Meanwhile in L.A., another battle's raging, this one over a push for a large electricity rate hike justified as needed to finance a shift from coal to generating more power from renewable sources such as wind and sun. Regardless of how either one of these showdowns turns out, the real issue is: most people don't have a clear idea of the benefits and tradeoffs of various energy policies, even those which have already been adopted. So that means any consensus that appears to exist - as when California's emissions law was passed – may be shaky, especially when economic pressure is applied.

A new survey from Gallup underscored that - as for the first time in that survey, energy development pulled ahead of environmental protection as a public priority. Our Energy Learning Curve™ survey found support for a lot of alternatives, as well as a reluctance to force people to either change their ways or pay more for not changing.

The problem is: energy issues - which include availability, economic and national security, climate change and the environment - are not short term issues. We need to match our long-term strategy with some long-term solutions, and those aren't going to take hold unless the public is fully involved in the discussion over what tradeoffs and choices we're willing to make.

This is a problem that everyone can do something about, and the first step is becoming an informed consumer. A good place to start is Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis; we also recommend our Energy & Environment resource list; the Citizen's Survival Kit; and our Choicework Discussion Starter guide to Climate Change.


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.


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