Opinion polls make for easy news stories. They reduce complicated issues to simple-seeming arithmetic, and they give reporters and talking heads a gold mine of raw material. They can seem satisfyingly definitive, too; “We asked Americans whether they prefer hot dogs or hamburgers for Labor Day barbecues, and 62% said hamburgers.” Hamburgers it is!
Here’s the problem, though. Many polls ask regular people about complex policy issues that are distant from their daily lives. Take two recent polls on education by Education Next and Phi Delta Kappan. Each was dissected, written up, and commented upon widely. Commentators paid particular attention to the level of support for hot-button issues like charter schools, vouchers, testing, Common Core, and so on.
But does this mean we now know what parents really think? I am doubtful that is the case.
Both polls include members of the general public, with “oversamples” of parents and teachers in the Ed Next version. Put another way, both polls include lots of people who do not actually have school-aged children in their homes and are unlikely to have any direct experience with the issues in question. It’s like asking me what I think about new safety standards for sailboats; I can state an opinion, but since the only boat I have is in my kids’ bathtub, I’m probably not the best person to ask.
Consider opinions on charter schools. Most people are confused by the term “charter school.” Even those whose own children attend charter schools often don’t fully understand what they are or how they work. The polls make a good-faith attempt to explain things but the focus is always on governance (e.g., charters are “publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board”). Do you know a lot of people who are fired up about the intricacies of school oversight?
People still answer the questions, but the truth is plenty of parents don’t care. Why? Because a school’s status as a charter changes how it is formed and governed, but it has little impact on families’ experiences on a day-to-day basis.
A lot of the time, you can see the “don’t care / haven’t really thought about it” nature of people’s opinions in their logically inconsistent responses to different questions. Look at opinions about private schools, for example. Phi Delta Kappan delivers one of the year’s best understatements when it concedes, in its executive summary, that “traditional public schools don’t command vast loyalty.” What does that mean? Well, when polled, two-thirds of parents reported that, if cost was no object, they would pick something other than a public school for their children. Forty-five percent would select a private or religious school.
So that must mean people are clamoring for school vouchers, to make those schools affordable, right? Nope. When the framing shifts from school preferences to how schools are governed and funded, opinions appear to change. Knowing that vouchers allow public funds to benefit religious schools erodes support. So parents want their kids in private schools but nobody wants vouchers to pay for it? Maybe, but maybe we should also consider that respondents have not given much thought to this issue and are not that engaged either way.
I would recommend placing more stock in education polls that focus on issues as families experience them, on a personal level, rather than abstract policy debates that very few people think about on a daily basis.
For the past two years, Learning Heroes has released a poll done by Hart Research Associates that does just this. Take a look. Parents across racial and economic groups offer insights into what they want for their kids, which sources of information they trust most, and what worries them. These are questions parents are extremely well positioned to answer. I don’t believe you will find a single item that references politically volatile terms like charter, voucher, or Common Core. However, you will find that over 90 percent of parents believe their children are on or above grade level even though evidence suggests the figure is far lower. That’s a serious issue we need to be grappling with as educators and parents.
Instead of testing out nuanced language that might illuminate how to win policy battles among longtime warring factions, I wish we put more attention on asking questions like the ones in the Learning Heroes poll. Parents aren’t just pawns to be enlisted by advocacy groups. They are real people with their own hopes and fears for their kids. Please consider that the next time you encounter a paint-by-numbers news story about the latest education poll.