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Public Agenda Alert -- July 25, 2013
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Reconcilable Differences: 
Finding Ground for Solutions

Photo from flickr: ALDEADLE

"Partisan polarization, in Congress and among public, is greater than ever," proclaims a recent headline from the Pew Research Center's blog. While we certainly can't argue that the Beltway is inexorably polarized, are the divisions among the public as real and deeply embedded as this headline suggests?

 

We tend to be of the mind that divisions among the public (as opposed to those among our politicians), though slightly increased in recent years, are easily overstated, for a few reasons. More importantly, instead of worrying about the sky falling, we believe in focusing on solutions.

 

Decreasing polarization among the public is possible -- we've seen it time and time again. Divisive attitudes, even those perceived as deeply held, become less hard-edged when people consider a variety of options to our policy problems and talk with others holding diverse viewpoints.

 

When people have good opportunities to practically consider policy choices, they come to appreciate that there's no magic bullet; each approach has its pros and cons. Talking with neighbors helps humanize those we may perceive as "enemies" and develop empathy, if not endorsement, for their point of view. People then tend to become much more practical and less ideological when it comes to the solutions they'll endorse.

 

The challenge is creating sound opportunities for people to engage with the issues and deliberate with each other in a productive and thoughtful manner. Limited opportunities do exist in communities, cities, libraries and schools around the country. Some of our recent research suggests that public officials are looking for more opportunities to work with the public in a way that transcends the typical (and dysfunctional) town hall, so that citizens can dig deeper into the issues.

 

How can we help spur more thoughtful engagement so we can prevent our country from sliding into more hardened and irreconcilable divisions? We don't claim to have the entire answer, but it will surely require a collaborative effort among public officials, community organizations and the public. It will require financial backing to help underwrite costs. It will require media attention focused on common ground and problem solving as much as on conflicts and divisions. Really, it will require all of our efforts as we demand more of our politics and of ourselves as citizens. 

Bringing Civic Education to

All of Our Nation's Students 

This week, members of Public Agenda's public engagement team are in San Francisco to convene a meeting of experts in a range of areas, including civic education, education reform, education disparities, implementation and scaling science. This Advisory Council will discuss and offer guidance on how we can provide excellent civic learning programs to all students.

 

Civic learning is beneficial both to young people individually and to society as a whole. Improving civic knowledge and skills fosters pride in the democratic process, encourages active citizenship and builds leadership skills. It also improves public discourse, promotes civic equality and provides a platform for young people to enter and participate in the political sphere.

 

Unfortunately, wide-scale integration of civic learning into school curricula remains sporadic. While some schools and districts have effective civic learning programs, as of yet, these programs have not been successfully implemented (brought to scale) in other locations.

 

Furthermore, not all students have access to high quality civic learning opportunities; students in more affluent schools and districts tend to have better opportunities than their peers in low-income and high-need schools and districts.

 

With support from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, we are exploring multiple strategies for scaling civic learning programs and practices in under-resourced settings. Our research will result in a guide for educators and policymakers to effective strategies for scaling proven civic learning practices and programs.

 

In addition to assembling an Advisory Council of experts, we are interviewing civic learning champions and practitioners of exemplary programs that have been replicated and/or scaled, in order to understand the dynamics, challenges and opportunities for implementing and scaling in other settings. This fall we will be visiting schools and districts who've succeeded in scaling up civic learning practices in order to learn from their experiences.

 

A report, which will include promising practices, common mistakes, and opportunities and an analysis of cost effectiveness, will be released in early winter of 2014. Are you interested in receiving a copy of this research when it is released? Email Megan at mdonovan@publicagenda.org  and we will add you to the distribution list.

 

Interested in the topic of scaling up? Our report on scaling up community college interventions provides very general principles and practices for applying successful strategies in different contexts.

PA in the News   

How to Spot Good Teaching -- Maybe It's Time for a Broader Discussion
Is our view of measuring teacher effectiveness too narrow? Jean Johnson stresses the need for a nuanced conversation about what good teaching is in order to find the best ways to judge, nurture, and support the profession.

Revitalizing Democracy, Community by Community
Poorly designed public hearings and town halls have lowered expectations of both leaders and citizens, and caused more public enragement than engagement, as President Will Friedman discusses on his Huffington Post blog.

Politics as Usual? New Kind of Talk Needed
If adversarial "politics-as-usual" and expert research alone don't work, what kind of talk does democracy need? Martin Carcasson, one of our public engagement fellows, talked to a group of residents in San Diego about deliberative democracy and how it can improve our political system. 

Letter to the Editor: Bravo for Hermosa Beach's 'Community Dialogue'
A California resident heralded the public engagement efforts of the Hermosa Beach City Council and City Manager, which has taken up deliberative methods to decide the future of city projects. 
About Us
Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org.

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