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03.04 Open Government, Healthier Communities?

Friday, March 4th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

A new study suggests a more transparent government may lead to a more engaged community. In Public Agenda's experience, there's no question that an open government is crucial to civic engagement – but more information alone won't do the job.

In an intriguing study of three cities (San Jose, Philadelphia and Macon, Ga.,) the Pew Internet and American Life project found that people who believe their local government is open with them are more likely to feel good about the state of their community overall. In fact, they're more likely to feel empowered, and those who feel more empowered are more likely to be civically active, Pew concluded.

The conclusions make sense on many levels. Certainly, you can't have an engaged public without an open government. People don't engage with a cipher, or rush out to offer their services to a brick wall.

But it's important not to fall into one of the most common misconceptions about public opinion – that more information, all by itself, will help the public make better decisions.

In their book Toward Wiser Public Judgment, Public Agenda's Dan Yankelovich and Will Friedman argue this is one of the most common mistakes in the policy world. "The media often treat people as if they were attentive experts who can take in reams of data, rather than inattentive citizens with busy lives who are more interested in the values underlying policy choices and the practical consequences of action," they write.

The public has a "Learning Curve" on complicated problems, and while a lack of information can derail it, so can lots of other things: a lack of practical choices, mistrust, denial, or just a lack of urgency about the problem. All those things can get in the way even when there's plenty of information available.

Understanding the public’s learning curve is critical because a sense of empowerment is not really the critical problem in today’s public square. As the authors point out, one of the challenges about our political discourse is that too often “intensity of conviction [acts] as a substitute for sound judgment.” The recent calls for a less violent and more civil and constructive public debate in the wake of the Arizona shootings are a direct reflection on this.

Yes, people need information. In the 21st century, there's no reason – and frankly, no excuse – for governments to drag their feet when it comes to being more open about their operations with citizens. But the public also need a way to sort that information out and make sense out of it. The "put it out there and let people figure it out" strategy is a good start—as the Pew research shows. But it’s only a part of what citizens need in order to solve problems and isn't going to do the job by itself. Stronger, more engaged communities come about through more and better information, yes, but they also require richer opportunities for real dialogue, deliberation and participation.

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03.03 How Teachers See Their Unions

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The ferocity of the fight over public employee unions, and teachers unions in particular, has reached a fever pitch as governors and labor groups square off over tight budgets, layoffs and bargaining rights in multiple states. The fight has serious implications for education reform, and some argue for the status of teachers.

Several national surveys have shown public opposition to cutting collective bargaining rights, but also support for reducing public employee benefits. But what about teachers themselves? How do they see unions?

When we last examined this in our
Supporting Teacher Talent survey
with Learning Point Associates, we found that eight in 10 teachers said "without collective bargaining, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse." And 51 percent of teachers "strongly" agreed with this.

But a lot of teachers' views about unions weren't purely economic – they also see the union as protection against other problems they face. Eight in 10 said teachers facing unfair charges from parents or students would have nowhere to turn without the union, and just as many said that teachers would be vulnerable to "school politics or administrators who abuse their power." In both cases, about half of teachers "strongly agreed," a significant indication of how intensely they feel about this.

But there was criticism of unions as well, with two-thirds of teachers saying the union "sometimes fights to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom." About 22 percent said they "strongly agreed."

Across the board, there was a split between younger and older teachers, with "Generation Y" teachers less likely to "strongly agree" on the benefits of unions – but also somewhat less likely to agree that the union protects problem teachers.

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02.24 Unrest, Instability & Oil Insecurity

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The unrest in Libya is rattling the world oil markets – but is it enough to put dependence on foreign oil back on the agenda in the United States?

The waves of change sweeping the Middle East, and the bloody uprisings in Libya in particular, have driven oil prices up to $110 per barrel, a level that hasn't been seen since the price spike of 2008. More importantly, the changes are again raising questions about American dependence on foreign oil, with U.S. leaders raising questions about the national security and economic implications of getting more than half our oil from overseas.

When Public Agenda examined this in our Energy Learning Curve survey, we found eight in 10 Americans worried that our economy is too dependent on oil (47 percent said they worried "a lot") and that oil dependence will involve us in conflicts in the Middle East (43 percent worried "a lot").

But it will take more than worry to address this problem; it's going to require grappling with the choices involved in actually changing how we use energy. The United States hasn't been able to meet all its own oil needs since 1957, so this problem is well-entrenched. Almost all the oil we use is for transportation, which means this is closely tied to how much Americans drive, and what we drive.

Yet our Energy Learning Curve also found a lot of public resistance to anything that increases the cost of driving, and very low knowledge levels on some key facts, such as how much of the world's oil is actually in the United States (about 2.5 percent).

We do have options for changing how we use energy, but they require some basic national choices: what do we want to use to fuel our cars? What kind of infrastructure do we need to support that? How much do we want to spend to do it? And since no energy source is perfect, all of our options require making tradeoffs, in one form or another.

There are some problems, even public policy decisions, that can be left to the experts. Energy isn't one of them. It's too interwoven into our daily lives. If we are to seize this moment and change the nation's course on energy, leaders are going to have to present the public with realistic options – and a clear sense of what it'll take to get there.

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02.16 The Budget Challenge, In 500 Words or Less

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 | Francie Grace

One of the first, widespread reactions to the budget President Obama proposed this week was this: it's avoiding the real issue. That's because the president didn't propose solutions to the basic problems driving our fiscal problems, namely, the health care costs and aging population that will drive up spending on Medicare and Social Security.

But, the president's advisers were also fairly open about why they did this, which is that they don't think Washington is ready to tackle those problems. Better to propose spending cuts and tax increases in other areas, and see if that provides openings for the two parties to move forward. The president did suggest a bipartisan effort to work on Social Security, and set out his views on what would be acceptable.

Polls show that many Americans are fundamentally uninformed or conflicted about key aspects of the budget problem, which makes this a daunting problem for elected officials on both sides of the aisle. But if the country isn't ready to think about these problems, it needs to get ready, because the problem is closer than most people think. In as little as 10 years, our national debt could be as big as our entire economy. Sooner than that, government auditors say, more than 90 cents of every tax dollar will be taken up on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the national debt. Allowing this problem to play out won't help our fiscal situation, or our economy.

Getting our deficit and national debt under control requires setting priorities and making tradeoffs, and it takes time for the public to grapple with those questions. The knowledge needed isn't that complicated – in fact Public Agenda authors Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle managed to "Tackle the National Debt in 500 Words or Less." The Our Fiscal Future initiative, in which Public Agenda is a partner, also sums up choices and challenges quickly.

The public can make choices on this problem, if our leaders will let them, and if they can tame their tendency to try to spin the facts to suit their own political aims. We will all have to live with the consequences of what the country does or doesn't do as we grapple with the budget and the debt. As political leaders in Washington edge toward decisions, we'd urge them to remember that the public has a role to play here, and the American people have the right to understand this debate and take part in it.

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02.16 In Their Shoes – Students Teaching Us About Higher Ed

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

A recent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed wondered "Where Are the Student Voices?" when it comes to community colleges. "This paucity of on-the-ground knowledge is a prescription for policy disaster, for the history of social policy is littered with reforms that failed because local knowledge was ignored," the authors say. "How, we wonder, can legislators and educators know what kinds of interventions to create without hearing from the very people they are trying to help?"

We agree. And we can shed some light on the question.

In our With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them survey, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we asked young Americans who started college, but weren't able to complete their degrees, what kinds of obstacles they faced. What they told us was very different from what many policymakers assume. Nearly all of the young people we surveyed recognized the value of a college degree is in today's work force. Relatively few told us that they left college because they didn't like it, or, didn't think it was worth the money.

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02.10 Getting The Debt Debate In Perspective

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 | Francie Grace

We'll be hearing a lot about the federal budget in the next week – but how much of the debate will actually help Americans figure out their choices?

President Obama will be formally submitting his budget on Monday, with proposals from Republicans already circulating. But with all the highly wonky plans and counter-plans, and the inside-the-Beltway debates over debt ceilings and resolutions, what gets lost is that the budget debate is about setting priorities – and the public needs to play a role in setting them.

Projections show the national debt will be nearly as big as our entire economy in as little as 10 years, and that more than 90 cents of every tax dollar will be taken up by rising costs for Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and interest on the money we've already borrowed. If we're going to change those projections, it'll help to act sooner rather than later. Yet we're also facing a frail economy, high unemployment and lots of needs the government has to meet.

Fortunately, we've got some resources to guide you through the blizzard of billion-dollar numbers you'll be hearing in the next week:


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02.10 Teaching Teachers: How Well Are Colleges Meeting The Challenge?

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 | Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

It's an old question in education reform, and an important one: how well do we teach our teachers?

U.S. News and World Report, already a player in the education world because of its popular and controversial college guide, has plunged into the debate with its plan to issue ratings of teachers colleges. A number of schools of education, citing concerns about how the magazine will reach its conclusions, have said they won't participate.

In Public Agenda's Lessons Learned survey, we found most first-year teachers gave their training programs good marks. Nearly 7 in 10 said their training on direct instruction helped them "a lot" and 6 in 10 said that what they learned about classroom management helped "a lot." Overall 8 in 10 felt they were prepared for their first classroom (42 percent said "very prepared).

However, by the new teachers' own account, there are places where their instruction fell down. For example, three-quarters of new teachers said their training covered dealing with diverse classrooms, but only 39 percent said it helped them "a lot" once they were in their own classroom.

Moreover, new middle and high school teachers were more likely to criticize their training for putting too much emphasis on theory compared to the practical demands of the classroom. More than half (53 percent) of new high school teachers say their preparation was too theoretical, while just 40 percent of new elementary teachers say this.

The survey also raised questions about the kind of support brand-new teachers get from colleagues and administrators when they take on their first classroom, especially new high school teachers. Just a quarter of new high school teachers (26 percent) said they get excellent advice on lesson plans and teaching techniques, compared to 39 percent of elementary school teachers who said the same.

There is also a 10-point difference on the advice they said they got about handling unmotivated students: 31 percent of high school teachers say they get excellent advice, compared to 41 percent of grade school teachers.

There are dissatisfied, struggling teachers in America, beyond question, and they're an uncomfortably large group. In our Teaching for a Living survey, we found 4 in 10 teachers are "disheartened" about their jobs. More than half teach in low-income schools, and they're more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and an undue focus on testing. Their concerns are not so much about their training as they are about working conditions once they are on the job.

We need to produce the best possible teachers, with the best possible training. Second-rate training certainly won't produce first-class teachers. But the powerful frustration we've found among teachers in surveys focuses less on their preparation for the classroom than on what they found, and what they need, once they arrive.

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01.27 Science Ed: Waiting Too Long, Settling For Too Little?

Thursday, January 27th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

No sooner did President Obama call for a new focus on math and science education in the State of the Union than new test scores showed how big a challenge this will be. The new edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released the day after the speech, showed only 21 percent of American high school seniors are "proficient" at science.

This isn't the first time American political and business leaders have sounded the alarm about students' poor performance in math and science, particularly compared to other countries. There's a whole range of theories about why this might be. The most recent one is that Chinese students perform better because Chinese parents are more strict and goal-oriented than American ones – the so-called "tiger mother" theory.
Whatever the virtues and weaknesses of that theory, we'd point out that in science, American students also lag behind nations like Hungary and Russia, so that can't be the whole explanation.

In Public Agenda's surveys, what we've found suggests the real issue for American parents may be complacency and priorities.

Most parents we surveyed want their children to take advanced science in high school (54 percent) – but even more (70 percent) also say science can wait until middle and high school.

In addition, most parents may also believe their children are doing better than they really are in this area. About half (52 percent) say that the amount of math and science their child is getting is "fine the way it is."

The way to change those attitudes may be to talk about opportunity – particularly the opportunities that might be missed if Americans don't do better in this area. Some 84 percent believe there will be a lot more jobs in the future for those with math and science skills, and even more (88 percent) say those skills are an advantage in getting into college.

When it comes to improving math and science education, parenting may matter – but parents' priorities may matter more.

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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 Factcheck.org 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.

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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.

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