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01.20 A More Civil Debate, But Was It More Helpful?

Thursday, January 20th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

This week's congressional debate on repealing health care reform was significantly more civil than the previous fights on this issue (with at least one notable exception). But was it more helpful to the public?

Certainly the more measured tone, part of the fallout from the Arizona shootings at a congressional event, was a relief after the hyper-partisanship of last year's debate. There's also growing momentum for a symbolic gesture of civility next week, namely having members of the two parties sit mixed together at the State of the Union instead of on opposite sides of the aisle.

Civility is a crucial first step for a more effective debate. At the same time, the House health care debate showed how the current process isn't helpful to the public.

One of the problems with the health care debate of 2009-10 wasn't just that it was angry and partisan – although it certainly was – but that it was also hyper-technical. Health care is a complicated issue, and there was little effort spent on trying to make it easier for the public to understand what their options are, or what the unknowns might be.

This week's debate was a chance to revisit some of these questions. But instead the House and the policy community spent much of their time debating the accuracy of Congressional Budget Office projections on the law's impact on the deficit and the economy. That's important, but it's also a technical argument that the public isn't prepared to judge for themselves – particularly when Republicans and Democrats have such radically different interpretations. (These summaries from on the economic and deficit implications are helpful, as is the Five Things You Need to Know About Health Care and the National Debt from Choosing Our Fiscal Future).

If any health care reform is to succeed, the public needs a sense of what the alternatives really are. If not this plan, what? What are the pros and cons, what are the tradeoffs? How does this health care bill stack up against other ideas – and against a fiscally unsustainable status quo?

These are crucial factors if the public is going to make sound judgments about anything. They didn't get them in the first health care debate, and they didn't get them from this week's debate, either. A more civil tone can help that more sophisticated discussion happen – but it's not enough by itself.


01.13 Tragedy, Civility, and the Public Discourse We Need

Thursday, January 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

We may never completely untangle the reasons behind last weekend's shootings in Arizona. The slayings of six people at a congressional event, including a nine-year-old girl, have prompted a national debate over whether hyperpartisan, overheated political rhetoric pushed the accused gunman over the edge. President Obama himself called for a more civil dialogue at the memorial service yesterday.

But the truth is that our system of political discussion is broken, even if it played no role whatsoever in this horrible event. Part of the evidence for that is the fact that so many in politics and the media immediately thought that inflamed rhetoric could have played a part in the Arizona tragedy. That says as much or more about the state of our debate – and the people who largely shape it -- as it does about the mind of Jared Lee Loughner. So many in public life apparently already suspected that some day, somewhere, someone might snap because of the state of political debate – even, it seems, as they participated in that debate every day.

Life is not a civics lesson. Passion, even anger, are an essential part of public debate. Demonization of your opponents isn't. The calls for greater civility coming from all quarters are entirely right, and we agree.

Yet a harsh tone is only part of what's wrong with our public discourse.

  • Our model of "an informed public" isn't working. We do a reasonably good job of alerting citizens to problems, but we do an appalling job of helping them understand how, realistically, we can solve them.
  • Rather than helping citizens understand issues, much of the news consists of experts talking to each other, scoring points off each other rather than really explaining anything. As a nation, we do very little to help people actually follow the discussion.
  • As more people choose their news sources to match their preconceptions, there aren’t enough venues where typical citizens from different walks of life can exchange their ideas and perspectives. When Public Agenda helps communities organize conversations on important issues, participants routinely tell us how fascinating and important these kinds of discussions are. They want to know when they can do it again.

None of those problems would ever cause violence. But every day, in large ways and small, they keep us from solving our shared problems.

We need greater civility, and the fact that so many in public life are re-examining the tone of the debate is a positive thing. We hope it takes root. But civility is only a start in having the dialogue we want – and need – as a nation.


12.22 Lessons From The Movies, About Making Choices

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Over the past couple of weeks, Washington has been consumed by choices over taxes and spending: first the furor over the deficit commission report, then over the compromise on the Bush tax cuts. And that got us thinking about the 1993 movie ”Dave".

"Dave" has a durable old plot, about a lookalike who takes the place of the president, and is actually better at it than the real one. In one famous scene, Dave stares down the Cabinet over cutting a marketing campaign in order to save funding for a program helping homeless children.

In the real world, however, we're not always faced with such clear choices between what's moral and valuable and what's not. The fact is that despite Americans' skepticism of government, most of the federal government's money goes to programs that people actually support and depend on. The tough part comes when we have to make choices between different things that are all valuable.

Overall, the American political system does a pretty bad job of helping the public work through its options. All of Public Agenda's work shows that the public really can cope with complicated decisions, given the right circumstances. But the public has a "learning curve" on problems, and it takes time for them to "work through" a question and come to solid conclusions.

But there are a lot of potential barriers to that process. Hyperpartisanship, mistrust, wishful thinking and a host of other factors work against people as they try to come to considered judgments.

The federal budget, energy, education: these are just a few of the complicated problems that can't be solved without an engaged public. And to get that engaged public, we've got to get better at considering our options as a nation. Because, unlike in "Dave," not all the choices are going to be easy.

Click here to see the full version of this story at, join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and keep up with the latest deficit and national debt proposals and maneuvers with Fiscal Future Daily (on holiday break now, and back in business on January 3).


12.22 Tackling The Tough Issues – With Your Help

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle

It's been a tumultuous year for the country: economic hardship, political change, and a full slate of pressing problems that seem more intractable than ever. The challenges facing the nation have never been greater, and neither has the need to engage citizens in shaping their own future.

Public Agenda has been working all year to address that need, producing groundbreaking opinion research and citizen engagement programs around major domestic policy issues. Through those initiatives, and on the web and through social media, we've helped to educate and empower citizens by helping them consider the challenges facing our nation, including:

  • Insightful Research on Why Too Many Young People Don't Finish College: With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them and Can I Get A Little Advice Here?, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, probe the reasons behind sometimes-surprising barriers young people face in getting a postsecondary diploma.

  • Engaging Communities to Improve Lagging High School Graduation Rates With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Public Agenda supported the Carlsbad, New Mexico School District in its efforts to engage local parents, students and educators in increasing high school completion rates. We provided technical assistance and training for a local "Graduation Summit."

  • Survey On Math & Science Education in America Our study done with the support of the GE Foundation, in which we asked parents and the general public how well the schools are getting the job done, continues to be cited on a regular basis by educators and others concerned about the U.S. maintaining a competitive position in the world.

  • Bridging the Gap between Leaders and the Public on Climate, Energy and Science Through presentations to scientists, like this one made by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich at the American Association for the Advancement of Science; books, and blog posts, we've encouraged some of the world's most prominent scientists to change the usual - and largely ineffective - model used to engage with the public on issues like climate change.

  • Helping the Public Make Fiscal Choices In the Choosing Our Fiscal Future initiative, in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we work to help citizens think through the options for dealing with our rising national debt.

As a subscriber of Public Agenda's Alert, we hope you will contribute to ensuring that Public Agenda will continue to meet these central goals in 2011. We greatly appreciate contributions of any size from people like you who help make our work possible. To make a secure, online donation, click here.

Or, if you prefer, you can also make a donation by mail: Public Agenda, 6 East 39th St., Floor 9, New York, N.Y. 10016, or by phone: contact Alex Trilling at 212-686-6610 ext. 20.

Thank you for your support of our work.


12.09 Sputnik Moments, And Getting Above Average

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.





11.23 Are the Debt Reduction Stars Aligned?

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.

To learn more about the issues in education reform, check out our studies on the issue and our Education Insights section.


11.11 Zeroing In On The Achievement Gap

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.


11.11 'Starting Point' From Deficit Panel Co-Chairs Ignites Debate

Thursday, November 11th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who are co-chairing President Obama's deficit commission, say the plan they put out yesterday is a "starting point" and they sure did start something, judging from the reaction today. It's important to remember that this isn't the actual deficit commission plan; it's just a basis for discussion for the panel, which is to vote December 1 on its recommendations. So far Bowles and Simpson are speaking for themselves, with no assurance of getting backing from a majority of the other commission members, Congress or the White House.

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


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.


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