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07.16 Defying Expectations

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 | Isaac Rowlett

Public Agenda is partnering with AAAS to facilitate a series of dialogues between scientists and evangelical Christian pastors throughout the summer. 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. For more information about the project, email Allison Rizzolo.


Small group discussion moderated by Public Agenda.
AAAS/David Buller

When I told people that I was headed to LA to facilitate a conversation between evangelical pastors and scientists, most reactions fell somewhere between surprise and cynicism. "Why bother," asked a friend, "when they’re never going to agree on anything anyway?"

But a strange thing happens when you get a small group of people together in a room for a facilitated dialogue: they listen to one another. And instead of trying to persuade the group to support their worldviews, the pastors and scientists each respectfully introduced themselves and explained why they do what they do for a living. Similarities emerged right off the bat: curiosity, compassion and an unyielding search for truth.

It wasn’t long before the conversation took on a lighter tone. One participant, a reproductive biologist, acknowledged the tension in the room as he explained his research: "We already covered religion and politics," he said, "so I figured I’d throw sex in there too."

And there were profound moments as well, like when a scientist explained that he wasn’t 100 percent certain of anything, and that all scientific theories exist only until proven false. "What you just said makes me feel safe," a pastor replied, "because many of the scientists I know seem so definite in their beliefs, so I don’t feel comfortable expressing my faith."

Three hours later the group had hammered out areas of common ground and ideas for next steps to foster collaboration between the two communities. But more importantly, the conversations continued well past the end of the formal discussion. Most participants lingered in the room and talked, exchanging contact information and discussing how to keep the conversation going.

As a facilitator, it was humbling to witness a group of people overcome significant differences to explore how to work together to improve their community. Let’s hope that they can continue to defy expectations and set an example for the rest of us.

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06.10 Most Americans Think Government Should Do More to Fight Obesity – or Do They?

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 | Jean Johnson

Except for kids themselves, just about everyone wants children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Even so, there’s plenty of disagreement about what government can or should do to make that happen.

For First Lady Michelle Obama, federal standards for more nutritious school lunches help “parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and don’t want their efforts undermined during the day at school.” But for critics, these standards are a costly and counterproductive example of government interference. They ask why “the federal government should make these decisions rather than parents, students and local school officials.”

The school lunch dispute is one of several that have emerged when governments -- federal, state, and local -- move beyond their traditional role of providing nutrition education and try to take stronger steps to combat the country’s rising obesity rates.

What’s Government’s Role?


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06.05 Missing the Mark on Big Data in Higher Ed

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

Word that the federal administration intends to create a grading system for colleges has unnerved college leaders and set off a maelstrom of debate. But all of the arguments cast out by both supporters and naysayers lack a key consideration: for some students, at least, the data behind the proposed grading system just aren't meaningful.


The college grading system ostensibly aims to help prospective students make better choices about where to attend school. Ultimately, grades would be used to allocate federal student loans and grants. The system would be based on factors including how many students graduate from the college, how much debt they accrue, and what alumni earn.

But prospective students we surveyed last year - many of whom are underserved by the traditional college system - did not immediately understand how these sorts of data relate to their own chances for success in college and in the work force. In fact, just about half of the students we surveyed think statistics like a college's graduation rate, loan default rate, or the types of jobs and salaries that average graduates get is "essential" information to know during college searches.




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05.15 Student Perspectives on For-Profit Colleges

Thursday, May 15th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

In an effort to limit predatory behavior and poor performance among career colleges, the federal government is seeking to enact new regulations on the sector. The regulations, known as the gainful employment rule, would affect a large number of for-profit colleges.


With the public comment period on gainful employment due to close on May 26th, we're hearing a lot from advocates - including students - on either side of the issue.

This is typical when it comes to public debate on divisive policy - the strongest, most passionate voices are the ones we hear from most. This tends to paint a very black-and-white, polarized picture. Outside of the influence of advocacy and persuasion, what do average students of for-profit colleges have to say about their schools?


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04.24 The Need For Public Engagement On Health Care

Thursday, April 24th, 2014 | Megan Rose Donovan

How much do average Americans care about public issues like health care?

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s index, less than half of Americans were closely following news coverage of Affordable Care Act enrollment - a surprising figure given its headline dominance.

That number looks even starker compared to the more than three-quarters of Americans that said they "very" or "fairly closely" followed coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

These numbers alone don't reveal why so many of us seem disinterested in following health care policy, though in many ways the disinterest is understandable. At the same time, we believe there is immense potential to ignite meaningful public conversation about solutions on out-of-control health care spending.

One reason for the public's lack of interest may be our lack of agency when it comes to health care policy. As our co-founder Daniel Yankelovich wrote, “From the perspective of experts, the public has nothing to contribute to strategic policy thinking and has been effectively left out of the conversation.”


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04.17 The Common Core – Why Isn't Public Support More Robust?

Thursday, April 17th, 2014 | Jean Johnson

Bill Gates and the U.S. Army back it, along with a whole slew of educational associations, business leaders and think tanks. And despite the partisanship we often see in politics today, the development and adoption of the new, voluntary Common Core learning standards in literacy and math got off to an amazing start. Set in motion in 2009 by an alliance of Republican and Democratic governors, Common Core standards were quickly adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.


Cyrus McCrimmon/ Denver Post/ Getty Images

So how did an idea that started off with such impressive support become so controversial?

A wide range of critics, including some parents, teachers, education experts, Tea Party activists and liberal groups have begun pushing back against the Common Core — or at least the way it’s being implemented. One state, Indiana, has already dropped the standards, and other states are considering doing so as well.

In surveys, most people seem open to the general idea of national standards and guidelines for learning. A 2010 study from Public Agenda showed that about 8 in 10 parents see having national standards in math and science as helpful. A new survey from the education reform group Achieve shows that 69 percent of voters support implementation of Common Core when presented with a description of it. And support is even stronger among African-Americans, Hispanics, and "public school moms."

But the Achieve study also exposes a fault line. Just 16 percent of voters have read or heard "a lot" about the Common Core; and, among those who have, about 4 in 10 oppose it. Analysts at Achieve say the growing controversy is "leaving a more negative 'impression' among voters." Surveys from Education Next-Harvard PEPG showed that the percent of people opposed to the Core nearly doubled between 2012 and 2013.

A closer look at public and parent thinking suggests some additional reasons why the Common Core hasn’t been attracting more robust support. Consider:


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04.07 How Dialogue is Helping Transfer Students

Monday, April 7th, 2014 | Megan Rose Donovan

Earlier this semester, a group of transfer students gathered in room 3-190 at Baruch College to read and discuss approaches to creating, consuming and conserving energy sources. First, students read through a Choicework discussion guide, which outlined the debates about energy production and consumption. Then, they immediately dove into a lively conversation about their visions to address energy issues in the future.

These group discussions are part of a semester-long seminar to help transfer students acclimate to student life at Baruch. Over the course of ten weeks, students come together to discuss their transition and receive support and advice on the many facets of college life. They also spend six sessions sharing their perspectives with fellow students about three social issues that may hit close to home: jobs and the economy, immigration and energy. Their discussions are framed with tailored versions of our Citizens' Solutions Guides.

We've heard about and been troubled by the hurdles college students face when continuing their education at a new institution. The sessions at Baruch are part of an effort to see how group dialogue on politicized social issues can help transfer students build community while also conveying the mission of their new institution. What we’ve seen so far is more than just acclimatization – it’s collaborative problem solving and community building.


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04.01 Research Team Expands at Public Agenda

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

We'd like to extend a warm welcome to the newest, and cutest, member of the Public Agenda team: Franka Valentina Gastelo. Franka is the first child for Carolin Hagelskamp, our director of research, and her husband Francisco. Weighing in at 8 pounds, Franka was born February 24th.

Carolin, Francisco and Franka are all healthy and happy. Congratulations to all!

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03.19 For Better Internet Discourse, "Respect" This

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

With the arrival of spring, we're trying a fresh approach to the way you can interact with our online content.

We believe that engaging with fair-minded perspectives that we may not agree with is good for democracy. This practice helps us break out of a simplistic "for or against" framework toward an issue and come to a rounder comprehension of the issue and approaches to resolving it.

Unfortunately, the civil exchange of opposing perspectives is hard to find on the Internet, where interaction feels like the Wild West. Inherent anonymity doesn't help, and neither does the click-bait game. Conflict, after all, is newsworthy. (This is something we certainly struggle with here!) All of this animosity on the Internet could actually be doing some real damage.


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03.18 What's Missing When We Talk About Regulating Higher Ed

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

Ask a college president or a higher ed policy wonk what they think about for-profit colleges, and they'll likely have a strong opinion. But ask the same of a student who's attending a for-profit college and you'll probably receive a blank stare.

For-profit colleges dominate headlines - not only in education media, but also in mainstream press. One of the reasons for-profits are so newsworthy is because they're controversial.

Not all for-profits are the same. Many innovate quickly, offer skills and training directly applicable to the workforce, and provide the flexibility modern students need. At the same time, many are unscrupulous, leaving students saddled with debt and without a legitimate credential.

The federal government is trying to crack down on these less-scrupulous institutions. Via what's known as the gainful-employment rule, the government will withhold federal financial aid from any career education program (for-profit or not-for-profit) that fails to meet certain criteria. For example, average loan payments should not eat up 8 percent or more of a typical graduate's total earnings.

The gainful-employment conversation is mainly relegated to experts, and is relatively meaningless to many students who remain ignorant about for-profit higher education. Forty-seven percent of current undergraduates at a for-profit college say "nothing comes to mind" when they hear the term "for-profit college." Students at community colleges are also unfamiliar with the term, as are adults without degrees who anticipate returning to college. Furthermore, 65 percent of students enrolled in a for-profit college are unsure if their school is for-profit or not.


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