Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 | Megan Rose Donovan
Back in February, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who serves as the Chairman of the Senate Education panel, expressed some confusion over a basic characteristic of charter schools. During an event at the Brookings Institute, Sen. Alexander asked, "there are some private charter schools, are there not?"
If one of our top education policymakers — someone leading the effort to overhaul the nation’s main federal education law – is confused about charter schools, it’s easy to understand why parents, voters, educators and others also have significant gaps in knowledge.
Despite not knowing all that much about charter schools, we remain eager to comment on them. Yet our conversations about charter schools and how these schools should fit into the larger picture of education reform are often unproductive. In partnership with the Spencer Foundation, we’re trying to change that dynamic, with a new effort called Charter Schools In Perspective.
Charter Schools In Perspective is a set of resources that can help anyone – parents, voters, educators, policymakers – get past the clatter, focus on practical questions and have a better conversation about charters and school reform.
You can go to the website to explore all of the resources we’ve developed. But we also want to share a little of what we’ve learned and observed as we worked on this project.
Research on charter schools can be the subject of vigorous debate. Some of this debate obviously stems from ideological differences or biased studies. Yet we also found that, even among non-ideological, academic studies, there are a number of contradictions and complexities in the research. We bring these out in our synthesis of existing case studies, surveys, and student data related to charter schools. There are many questions that warrant further study and topics that need more clarification. Furthermore, there is no established definition of certain terms, like innovation, which make comparison or generalization between studies impossible.
There is a lot of variation between charter schools (and traditional public schools) in regards to student achievement, teacher workforce, diversity, governance and a number of other topics. We worked to shed light on that variation, examining why some states laws are more flexible than others and how those laws affect outcomes, what a charter operator does and how different operators perform, and how charter schools affect the finances of traditional public schools in different and sometimes unexpected ways.
Data on charter schools can be really hard to find, inaccessible, or nonexistent. Many studies about charter schools are behind paywalls or require the knowledge and language of a researcher, academic or statistician to translate. We’ve summarized a lot of the existing research so that things like academic journal paywalls or jargon don’t keep information seekers out.
Data and information alone will not improve the conversation. Research demonstrates that, when we’re confronted with new facts counter to deeply held beliefs, we tend to become even more rigid in our original beliefs. The most informative research in the world may not improve our conversations on divisive issues. From our own work, we know that engaging in dialogue with others who hold different perspectives can break down divisions so that people can talk practically about solutions, regardless of their differences. To that end, we also developed discussion material for In Perspective, so that voters, parents, schools, communities and others can have constructive discussions about whether introducing, expanding, limiting or closing charter schools in a school district would benefit education.
Charter debates will continue, and both sides will have their points, some well-founded and others not. A lot is riding on these decisions of expansion and closure – too much to not be willing to weigh and discuss all sides of the matter.
We encourage you to host an open dialogue at your dinner table, in your local library, or at a town hall meeting. Our research guide and discussion starter can help keep things in perspective and the conversation on a non-ideological, pragmatic track.
Thursday, July 16th, 2015 | Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.
With word that a federal college ratings system is off the table, the U.S. Department of Education seems to have recognized what many experts have long said: comparing colleges and rating them against each other in a way that most people can agree on is very difficult, if not impossible. The Department’s decision to let go of its rating system is a major reversal of Obama’s college accountability push. It is also perhaps a wise one.
Giving up on its attempts to rate and compare colleges, the Department is now essentially saying "we leave it up to the consumer." At the end of the summer, a new, revised, web-based tool will launch. This tool will not include college ratings. Instead, a dozen or so updated metrics on college performance, from graduation rates to students’ earning outcomes, will be made public for prospective students to use and make informed decisions about colleges.
These metrics are important. They are increasing much needed and valued transparency in the higher education market. And yes, students and families should have all the information possible as they are making college choices.
But what are we really expecting students and families to do with these metrics, when the higher education experts in this country have just decided that it is impossible to make fair comparisons?
Will the new tool really be relevant? Can it seriously change the way Americans make decisions about college?
Thursday, May 21st, 2015 | Allison Rizzolo
Earlier this month, for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges officially declared bankruptcy, after having gradually closed its campuses over the past year. The high-profile failure of Corinthian – once a Wall Street darling – has cast a shadow on the for-profit college industry.
As the collapse of Corinthian dominates headlines, we worry that narratives that underscore controversy or oversimplify the higher education system may harm efforts to foster a healthier, more inclusive conversation.
For-profits may be a top concern for some of our legislators and education leaders. However, our research suggests that expert-level policy conversations about these schools are not meaningful to students and employers, two groups directly affected by the success or failure of for-profit schools.
For example, nearly half of undergraduate students currently attending a for-profit school and 41 percent of for-profit alumni are not familiar with the term "for-profit college."
Tuesday, March 31st, 2015 | Public Agenda
J.J. Baskin, 1966 - 2015
We're saddened to share the news that Public Agenda Board Member JJ Baskin passed away last week. With JJ's passing, the country has lost a great man and a force for good. JJ's deep commitment to improving education was matched by his boundless energy, and that energy stayed with him to the end.
We first met JJ two years ago down in Austin, Texas -- his home state. JJ's energy, dedication and optimism inspired us, and we invited him to join the Public Agenda board soon after.
JJ had so much faith in the Public Agenda mission and team. He was constantly working to advance our mission by contributing ideas and cultivating relationships. As JJ's obituary points out, he was a world-class connector who took enormous joy in serving others.
While we didn't know him long, it was long enough to know he was one of the finest people we'd ever meet. His dedication to good work and his fellow humans was a genuine inspiration, and we were lucky to experience his creativity and kindness firsthand. We at Public Agenda hope we can honor JJ's memory by capturing and channeling a little bit of his spirit, goodness and commitment to making the world a better place.
When JJ was first diagnosed with cancer, not even a year ago, he formed JJ's Fight Club. He called it a "team of optimists" and asked its members to "inspire us and remind us of what we are fighting for."
We may have lost JJ, but he will continue to inspire and remind us of what we are fighting for.
Wednesday, February 11th, 2015 | Allison Rizzolo
In late January, the Obama administration announced a plan to drastically change the way Medicare reimburses doctors and hospitals for health care services.
Traditionally, Medicare has paid providers using a fee-for-service model. In this model, doctors and hospitals receive payment based on the number of services they provide – surgeries performed or tests administered, for example.
The White House is proposing a move toward a performance-based model in which doctors and hospitals are paid based on the quality of their service. In short, they will be paid more if patients get healthier and less if patients stay sick.
This experiment may encourage other payers to change the way they reimburse providers as well. As Jason Millman noted on Wonkblog, "Because Medicare is such a huge part of health care spending, the hope is that these changes will trickle out to doctors' offices and hospitals across the country."
In health policy wonk circles, changing the way doctors and hospitals are paid is called payment reform. It's one of several approaches experts have proposed to help bring down the cost of our country's health care system. (Costs are soaring: we paid an average of $8,917 per person for health care in 2010, up from $4,878 just a decade earlier.)
It's clear we need to do something, but any approach to bringing down costs, including payment reform, raises many complex and difficult questions. In the case of performance-based payment reform, the most important is: How do we measure quality in health care?
This is a difficult question to answer in any sector, and policy and decision makers have certainly stumbled on measuring quality before. Take teacher quality, for example, an issue close to my own heart. When re-vamping teacher evaluation systems, states and districts often did not include the educators and administrators on the ground in decisions. Now, many states and districts not only have to go back to the drawing board, they also have to rebuild frayed relationships and trust.
Engaging hospitals and doctors is crucial to making payment reform work for Medicare, and to proving to private insurers that it can work for them too. It's to policymakers' advantage to include patients in the conversation about payment reform as well. This is particularly important now, as the public is, for better or worse, taking on more and more responsibility as consumers of health care.
Thursday, December 4th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo
Our local public officials are thirsty for better and deeper ways to engage the people they serve. This is a sentiment I heard again and again during last month's National League of Cities Congress of Cities in Austin.
Public officials brainstorm hypothetical projects during a mock participatory budgeting exercise at the NLC's Congress of Cities.
The sentiment was cast in sharp relief during a workshop on participatory budgeting that I attended as part of the conference. Our partners at the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP for short) presented to a variety of elected and appointed officials from cities across the country.
Participatory budgeting is a process through which residents are active partners in local budget decisions. We are partnering with PBP on research and evaluation of participatory budgeting processes in communities across the country.
During the workshop in Austin, PBP's Josh Lerner and Maria Hadden provided participants with practical tools and training to launch participatory budgeting in their communities and better engage their constituents in local budget decisions.
Josh and Maria opened the workshop by asking participants about the barriers to constituent engagement that they face in their communities. Participants also talked about what they were hoping to get out of the conference to address those challenges. This conversation revealed a number of difficulties that local officials share when it comes to engaging their constituents in better and deeper ways, regardless of the size or demographics of their city, town or county.
Friday, November 7th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo
Public Agenda's President Will Friedman and NYPR's President and CEO Laura Walker discuss the inaugural Wadsworth Fund project.
Public Agenda is pleased to announce a new partnership with WNYC – New York’s premier public radio broadcaster and producer – on the inaugural project for the Deborah Wadsworth Fund. This first project will provide an unprecedented look into what's really on the minds of residents of New York City and the tri-state region.
"Public Agenda's mission and the mission of public media are so much in sync," said Laura Walker, president and CEO of New York Public Radio, in a conversation with Public Agenda President Will Friedman during the launch of the partnership.
The collaboration was announced on November 5th, at a celebration of the Deborah Wadsworth Fund, a new initiative from Public Agenda that honors our former president and board member. Donations to the Fund will enable Public Agenda to help New York area residents have a greater voice in the public issues they care about most. (You can learn more about the Fund here and support it here.)
Former Senator Bill Bradley and Public Agenda Board Member Betty Sue Flowers greet Teal Arcadi and Janet Fernandez of Public Agenda.
The first Deborah Wadsworth Fund project will consist of focus groups and a major survey with residents of the New York region. Through this research, Public Agenda and WNYC will illuminate the concerns, priorities and aspirations of local residents when it comes to the public policy issues our region faces. This research will provide a basis for WNYC programming and ensure that subsequent Deborah Wadsworth Fund projects address issues that area residents are concerned with.
Thursday, October 16th, 2014 | Katie Barth
Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer and fall. The purpose of the project is to improve dialogue, relationships and collaboration between these two communities, often viewed as staunchly divided. This blog is one in a series from our public engagement team, who write to reflect on their experiences moderating the dialogues. Read more about this project here and here, and download the discussion guide used during these conversations here. For more information, email Allison Rizzolo.
Katie Barth takes notes during a Perceptions Project dialogue.
AAAS/ Christine A. Scheller
A few weeks ago in Atlanta, I found myself in a room surrounded by church pastors, evolutionary biologists, theology professors, mathematicians and a former Vietnam veteran turned evangelical Christian. I was there for the third dialogue in the Perceptions Project, which brings together individuals who self-identify as belonging to the evangelical Christian community or (though in some cases “and” is more appropriate) the scientific community.
Many of the participants seemed nervous at the start of the dialogue. Though I served as a co-facilitator and was not technically a participant, I admit that I too approached the conversation with a hint of reticence. Before boarding my plane to Atlanta, a friend told me to “watch myself” since he claimed that there was “no way those two groups could manage to be civil toward one another, especially down in the Bible belt.”
What I found, however, was quite the opposite of that presupposition.
Wednesday, September 24th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo
Back when I taught high school Spanish, September was a time ripe with anxiety. I was worried about maintaining strict discipline during the crucial first month, navigating curricula and textbooks for new classes, and setting up my classroom so I could keep a semblance of organization throughout the year (I've never quite figured that last part out).
I had it easy. These days, teachers have a lot more on their minds, especially with the trifecta of new teacher evaluation systems, new Common Core learning standards, and new assessments that often have high stakes attached to them.
Isaac Rowlett leads a discussion on focus group facilitation with Hope Street Group teacher fellows.
It is our belief at Public Agenda that education policy – as with any policy – is stronger, more sustainable, and better aligned with over-arching goals when those affected by policy are key partners in its design and implementation. For this reason, we joined forces a few years ago with the American Institutes for Research to develop Everyone at the Table (EATT), an initiative devoted to boosting teacher agency in education reform.
EATT pursues this mission by providing clear methods and strategies, practical materials and tailored trainings to help teachers engage their colleagues in productive, solutions-oriented dialogue about teacher evaluation and other education reform issues. We provide these resources and trainings directly to educators, schools, districts and education leaders. We also partner with other organizations and associations dedicated to improving teacher practice or boosting teacher voice in policy. (We also wrote a book about the project that explores the theory and methodology behind teacher and other stakeholder engagement in depth.)
Monday, September 22nd, 2014 | Alison Kadlec, Ph.D.
This post is written for readers working in higher education reform and was originally published on the Completion by Design blog. Completion by Design is a national initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion and graduation rates. Read more about our work with Completion by Design.
“Competency-based education” (CBE) is one of the most ubiquitous buzz phrases in higher education today. But what it is and what it means for the student success and completion movement remains to be seen. Most simply, “competency-based” is used to describe any model or approach that substitutes the assessment of student learning for seat-time measures when determining a learner’s progress toward a degree or credential. There are a few facts and trends that, when taken together, help account for the incredible rise of interest in CBE in recent years:
- The basic “currency” of higher education, the credit hour, was invented to solve an administrative problem and was never intended to serve as a proxy for student learning. Yet here we are today with 60 credit hours and 120 credit hours generally defining the boundaries of an associates and bachelors degree respectively.
- The amount of student-loan debt has passed $1.2 trillion (with $1 trillion of that debt in the form of federal loans), but the amount of learning remains unclear.
- 34 million Americans (more that 20% of the working-age population) have some college credits but no degree.
- Colleges and universities supplement the credit hour with grades as a way to connect time and learning, yet a majority of employers are dissatisfied with the quality of recent graduates and research suggests that student learning outcomes are questionable.
- The tremendous difficulties students face as they try to transfer credits between institutions only demonstrates that colleges and universities themselves don’t believe that the credit hours can be used as a proxy for student learning. If institutions had confidence that earning credits equal learning, then seamless transfer would be the norm.
Competency-based models aren’t exactly new – some have been around for decades, with first-generation innovators like Excelsior College in existence for more than 40 years. And a new generation of innovators at public institutions, those like Kentucky Community College and Technical System and University of Wisconsin-Extension, have built and launched a new generation of models that they hope will scale to a wide range of learners not well served by traditional models.
But there are real and serious questions to be asked about the conditions under which competency-based models are appropriate and for what types of learners. There are also fundamental questions about what constitutes high-quality when it comes to CBE programs.