Thursday, December 9th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
So what does a "Sputnik moment" look like? And does it mean the same thing to the public as it does to our leaders?
The usual definition is that it's a moment when the United States has been bested in technological competition – something that gives the American public a kick in the pants to move forward. That's what happened during the original Sputnik moment in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union was first to put a satellite into orbit, and the first American attempt to do the same turned out to be a humiliating, televised, flop.
President Obama and others say the latest international education scores should serve as another Sputnik moment. Students from Shanghai, China, in their first appearance in the standings, came out first in the world in science, while American students improved to the point where their scores are now "average." Leaders in business, science and academia have been beating the drum on science and math education for years now, warning that the U.S. risks losing its edge and falling behind on innovation.
And that may be the heart of the problem. Public Agenda's Are We Beginning to See the Light research, funded by the GE Foundation, found that both parents and the general public think math and science education is important, but they don't share leaders' sense of urgency.
Overwhelming majorities of Americans say that in the future there'll be a lot more jobs requiring advanced math and science skills, and that students with those skills will have a big advantage in getting into college. Majorities are also open to a lot of different ways of improving math and science in schools.
At the same time, few Americans think it is "absolutely essential" for students to understand advanced sciences like physics (28%) and advanced math like calculus (26%). When it comes to their own child, few parents want more emphasis on advanced math and science like physics (42%) and calculus (42%). Additionally, nearly 7 in 10 Americans say science can wait until middle and high school.
And that's on the heels of a long series of reports showing American students falling behind.
So if our Sputnik moments fall flat, how do we get the public engaged in this challenge? In our Opportunity Knocks report, we found one way is to talk about opportunities: ways in which learning more math and science can build better careers and better lives for young people.
It's not as dramatic as a rocket exploding on the launch pad – but it may be more effective. After all, parents may be a lot more concerned about whether their own child has a good career ahead than about whether their child outscores another child half a world away.
Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010 | Francie Grace
Is Washington really ready to act on our fiscal problems? On Nov. 30, The National Academy of Public Administration invites you to a panel discussion on the findings from Public Agenda's latest update to its "The Buck Stops Where?" survey, which measures the attitudes of Washington policymakers and "beltway influencers" on the issue of the national debt.
Panelists include Bill Hoagland, vice president of public policy and government affairs at at CIGNA and former staff director of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee; Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; Ruth Wooden, president of Public Agenda and a member of the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States; and moderator Martha Kumar, professor of the Department of Political Science, Towson University. It's free and you can RSVP at this link.
11.17 Training The Teachers
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
A major new report this week calls for turning teacher-education programs "upside down," inspired by medical schools, to focus more on "clinical" experience in the classroom. Eight states have already agreed to adopt the recommendations from the panel, set up by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.
But what do new teachers themselves think about how well they're prepared for that first day of school? Based on research by Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates, there may be a major gap between the way reformers and teachers see teacher education. Our survey of first-year teachers showed that most feel they're well prepared for the classroom – but there's a significant difference depending on the kind of classroom they face.
In our Lessons Learned series of surveys of new teachers, eight in 10 said they felt "very prepared" (42 percent) or at least "somewhat prepared" for the classroom. Almost all said their coursework included classes on children's development, and roughly half said those courses helped "a lot" in the classroom. Nearly seven in 10 said their training in direct instruction helped "a lot."
Where their training failed them most, however, was in dealing with ethnically and racially diverse classrooms. Only 39 percent of new teachers thought their training helped "a lot" there. (One of the recommendations is more structured training in diverse settings).
There's also a notable difference between elementary and secondary teachers. More than half of high school and middle school teachers (53 percent) say their training was too theoretical, compared to just 4 in 10 elementary teachers. High school and middle school teachers were also less confident their students were responding to their efforts.
So as we overhaul teacher training to focus more on the classroom, there may need to be more dialogue with teachers on the need for change and new approaches and more thinking from experts on how to help teachers be effective in the classroom situations they find most challenging.
Thursday, November 11th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The achievement gap between black and white students is one of the most persistent, troubling problems in American education, with a new report out this week calling it a "national catastrophe." Public Agenda's research shows some insights into what black and Hispanic students see happening in their schools – and how that might impact the gap.
The Council of the Great City Schools report released this week said "young black males are in a state of crisis" on many different educational fronts, including readiness to learn, reading and math skills, and being prepared for college or a career. The group, representing large urban school systems, called for a White House conference on the problem and a national plan of action.
Public Agenda has done a lot of opinion research on education, and one of the most striking findings on this problem came from our series of Reality Check surveys. When we asked parents and students several years ago about their experiences in school, we found black and Hispanic families were more likely than whites to report serious problems in their schools. In fact, if an adult were forced to work under such conditions it might be considered a hostile work environment.
For example, three in 10 black youngsters reported "very serious" levels of disruption and unrest in their schools – not just "somewhat serious," but "very serious." Black students are twice as likely as white students to say that the schools not getting enough money is a very serious problem in their community. Nearly a third of black and Hispanic youngsters say that "only some" or "very few" of their teachers give students extra help when they fall behind, compared with one in five white students.
It isn't just students, either. Minority parents are also more likely to report serious academic and social problems in their schools. Half of black (49%) and Hispanic (52%) parents say that it is a very serious problem that local schools are not getting enough money to do a good job, compared to a third of white parents (33%). Minority parents are also twice as likely as white parents to say fighting and weapons are very serious issues and are more likely to question whether local school district superintendents do enough to ensure that schools are safe and orderly. Teachers in minority schools are more likely to complain about large classes, poor teaching conditions and lack of parental support.
The achievement gap is measured by test scores, but scores aren't the whole story. There are multiple challenges that minority students face as they try to get ahead in life – and we need to work on all of them.
Thursday, November 11th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
So why bother talking about it at all? Because the concrete details of this proposal are spurring an argument that this country needs to have: an argument over what it takes, what it really takes, to keep the federal budget on track and control the national debt. That debate needs to be about making choices and putting values to work in the way we spend our money: What's fair? What's important? Who pays? And what are we willing to do?
A good place to start is Fiscal Future Daily, the new blog launched as part of the nonpartisan Choosing Our Fiscal Future initiative from Public Agenda and the National Academy of Public Administration. We sum up the deficit debate from a wide range of views, put it in context, and focus on moving the debate forward.
Today's edition of Fiscal Future Daily tracks the fierce reaction to the Bowles-Simpson plan, and you can check out our archive of previous editions as well. You can also keep up with the latest with Fiscal Future's mobile phone apps, our Facebook page, @FiscalFuture on Twitter, and at OurFiscalFuture.org.
11.04 One Choice Leads To More
Thursday, November 4th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
Elections are one of the major ways we make choices as a nation, and this week's election results are certainly a big choice by the public, as Republicans take control of the House. But elections aren't the only way choices get made, and the choices between elections are just as important - and just as difficult.
That's particularly true when the choices are about money. The nation is facing both a difficult economy right now and a national debt that simply can't be sustained over the long term. That's a challenge that will stretch over the next two years, but a lot of choices will be put on the table in the next two months. The presidential deficit commission is scheduled to vote Dec. 1 on its final report. And Congress will have to decide whether to keep the Bush tax cuts, let them expire, or craft a compromise.
Dealing with these problems is going to require making choices and weighing tradeoffs: what we want as nation, and what we're willing to pay to get it. And these choices belong to the public.
One of the biggest problems in the debate over our national debt and the federal budget is that no one seems to agree on what a "good" budget is. Does that mean a balanced budget? Or one that's judged by the overall economy: small or no deficits in prosperous times; big deficits to stimulate the economy when times are bad? Is it based on the size of our national debt? Or maybe it's about whether the budget is sustainable in the long run?
Don't worry if the debate is confusing. One reason it's confusing is that economists and policymakers disagree on what should be done. The Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States tried to address that sticking point by coming up with Six Questions To Ask About Any Federal Budget. We think a yardstick like this will be extremely important in the next few months, as crucial decisions are made and plans are put on the table.
And for more on the choices we face, take a look at our slideshow for scoping out the basics, and the Visual Budget Tool for crunching the numbers yourself. You can also keep up with the debate with Fiscal Future's iPhone and Android apps, and join us on Facebook and Twitter.
10.28 The College Cash Crunch
Thursday, October 28th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
College tuition continues to rise, but this year student aid went up as well, according to the latest figures from the College Board. While the extra $10 billion in federal aid will certainly help, no one seems to think this is a shift in the long-term trends - the "squeeze play" feeling many Americans get when it comes to college costs.
There are two colliding trends in public attitudes on college costs: the public feels a college education has become more and more necessary for success in life, even as they believe the cost of college is further and further out of reach.
Those trends may be feeding skepticism among the public that colleges aren't doing all they can to control costs. Public Agenda's most recent "Squeeze Play" survey found 6 in 10 Americans agree that "colleges could take a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices." Over half (54 percent) say that "colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education."
It's also important to remember that many students - particularly the ones who have trouble completing college - are paying their own way and may not even be eligible for aid. Our With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them survey found about 7 in 10 of those who leave school report that they did not have scholarships or financial aid, compared with about 4 in 10 of those who graduate.
These trends make it all the more important for colleges to engage stakeholders in how to address cost and productivity. Engagement is critical to making progress on these challenges, and our report, Changing the Conversation About Productivity, examines ways colleges can bring faculty and other stakeholders together effectively. We also recommend Boosting Community College Success, our web page with tools for public engagement and other resources for educators, communities, parents and students.
Thursday, October 28th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
The federal Department of Education launched a new initiative on bullying this week, sending a "Dear Colleague" letter with advice to schools and colleges, with plans for a White House summit next year.
Prominent people in both political parties are coming together on the issue, including former first lady Laura Bush, who is the latest to endorse the It Gets Better project launched in reaction to a string of tragic deaths involving gays harassed because of their sexual orientation.
Public Agenda's research shows bullying is all too common, and also touches on something deeper in the public's thinking. 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.
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."
That would be reason enough to take the problem seriously, and there are a lot of good resources out there to do it. But the broader desire among parents and the public for safe, orderly schools is one of the most consistent themes we've found in our research over the last few years.
For example, when we asked about the most pressing problem facing high schools in their community, both parents (63 percent) and the public (56 percent) said "social problems and kids who misbehave" was more important than low academic standards. And when we surveyed high school teachers, fewer than one in five said their students are civil and respectful to each other. Eight in 10 teachers overall said there are persistent troublemakers in their schools who should be removed from regular classrooms. Nearly half complain they've been accused of unfairly disciplining a student.
For the public, orderly schools are fundamental to learning. As educators work to address bullying and other discipline problems, that consensus could make a difference.
Thursday, October 21st, 2010 | Scott Bittle
In the fierce debate over immigration, one fact sometimes gets lost: the children of immigrants are actually one of the fastest-growing segments of the population.
Their numbers have doubled over the past two decades, from 8.3 million to about 16.5 million. Put another way, children of immigrants account for three quarters of the growth of America's child population since 1990. But how are they faring in American society, particularly in a time of economic stress? How do their experiences compare with their parents?
Public Agenda and the Urban Institute examined some of these questions at "Children of Immigrants and Their Parents: Two Perspectives on Life in America," a panel discussion broadcast live on C-SPAN. In addition to Public Agenda Research Director Jon Rochkind, the panel included included Ajay Chaudry, senior fellow of the Urban Institute's Center on Labor, Human Services; Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center; and Selcuk Sirin, assistant professor in the NYU Department of Applied Psychology. The panel was moderated by Tara Bahrampour, immigration staff writer for the Washington Post.
Public Agenda looked at many of these questions in our survey, A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Life in America, which found that most immigrants believe they made the right move in coming here, both for themselves and their children.
You can find presentations from the speakers here, or watch the entire discussion on the C-SPAN Web site.
Thursday, October 21st, 2010 | Francie Grace
What does science need to move forward toward unlocking the unknown about HIV, cancer, autoimmune disorders, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, cellular and genetic diseases, and more?
Nobel prize-winning biologist Dr. David Baltimore (left, with NPR's Robert Siegel) says scientists just beginning to dig into what could be a decades-long investigation of an issue need to know early on: Will the financial support be there for me to continue my research? Can I make a stable career of this?
Dr. David Baltimore, who won the Nobel Prize 35 years ago for his research in virology and has had a profound influence on national science policy on such issues as HIV-AIDS and recombinant DNA research, is wary of predictions about exactly how long it will take to develop vaccines and new therapies. "We've always said, about an HIV vaccine, that we're at least 10 years off - and we've always been right," said Dr. Baltimore, at the Maxwell School/Public Agenda Policy Breakfast in New York today.
Dr. Baltimore was, however, quite clear on what he thinks it takes to give science the fuel it needs to get to those breakthrough moments: strong, steady commitments in policy and funding, allowing researchers the freedom to follow whichever trails are the most promising - and not necessarily the ones that looked that way at the time a project was initially funded.
One thing that slowed early research into AIDS, says Dr. Baltimore, was a lack of commitment by the scientific establishment to investigating HIV. He reacted by calling on his colleagues to get involved, and, getting involved himself. "Today, we understand the virus very well," he said, adding that while the search for a vaccine continues, there are also people looking at alternative approaches to the problem.
There are many challenges in research, from cancer - characterized by Dr. Baltimore as "very slippery," with a great ability to adapt and defeat a therapy - to stem cells, a field with funding especially but not uniquely vulnerable to political change. No matter what the area of research, however, scientists diving into what could be many years of study on a problem need to know: Will the financial support be there for me to continue my research? Can I make a stable career of this?
Dr. Baltimore, president emeritus and a biology professor at CalTech, as well as past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is also a longtime member of the board of directors of the biotech giant Amgen, experiences which provide him with multiple perspectives on funding and other issues in research.
One of the major challenges in medical science is the gap between basic research and applying it in clinical practice: the "valley of death," as Dr. Baltimore dryly called it, and a difficult one to cross. Federal funders don't see that as their job, while pharmaceutical companies will do it only when they're sure it'll work. Venture capital has played an important role here, but more is needed. Academics, he suggests, "need to bring in sources of capital - maybe a consortium, like they did in the semiconductor industry."
In some cases, particularly with neurological diseases like Alzheimer's, science still hasn't found the cause, so it can't offer the answer, Dr. Baltimore said. He compared it to understanding the connection between smoking and lung cancer. "Medicine has to get to finding the underlying causes and then devising a lifestyle that avoids the causes," he said.
For more of Dr. Baltimore's observations, click here to watch the video of the entire event.