Can we believe education polls? Do different education polls yield different responses? We know from presidential election polls that most polls yield results that do not differ more than a few percentage points, but, then, the question posed is almost exactly the same: Who do you plan to vote for? Further, those polls are about a topic that has been given intense publicity for a prolonged period of time. How about education polls, which ask people their views about matters to which the media give much less attention?
We have some answers to this question with the near simultaneous release of the EdNext poll, for which I am responsible, and the Associated Press (AP) poll, which was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, a high-quality research firm where I learned my survey research skills some years ago. For the most part, AP asked quite a different set of questions from those posed by EdNext, so the two polls must be seen mainly as complements. And EdNext has a representative sample of all adults, while AP just interviewed parents of school-age children. However, EdNext collected an extra large sample of parents, so direct comparisons between the two polls can be made for this group on some items.
A comparison of the two polls reveals that responses depend quite a bit on how a question is posed. Generally speaking, EdNext prefers to ask questions starkly so as not to guide the response or else to provide both sides of an issue so as not to load the deck in one direction or the other. AP often structures questions in ways that guide parents to respond in a particular direction.
A few examples show how both surveys yield broadly similar results while at the same time reveal how particular wording can shift the pattern of response in significant directions.
EdNext: “As you may know, all states are currently deciding whether or not to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math. If adopted, these standards would be used to hold the state’s schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the adoption of the Common Core standards in your state?”
Support: 62 %
Oppose: 15 %
Neither: 23 %
AP: If the Common Core were implemented in your state, do you believe the Common Core would…?
Improve the quality of education? 47 %
Decrease the quality of education 11%
Have no effect 27 %
Don’t Know 16 %
Interpretation: Both surveys show parental opposition is limited to a small minority. However, AP forces parents to predict the consequences of Common Core rather than simply asking whether they support or oppose the proposal, thereby reducing the apparent level of support for the standards.
EdNext: “Teachers with tenure cannot be dismissed unless a school district follows detailed procedures. Some say that tenure protects teachers from being fired for arbitrary reasons. Others say that it makes it too difficult to replace ineffective teachers. We want to know what you think of tenure. Do you favor or oppose offering tenure to teachers?”
Favor of Tenure: 25 %
Opposed to Tenure: 55 %
Neither: 21 %
AP: Would you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose making it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance?
Favor firing poor teachers: 72 %
Opposed to firing poor teachers: 13 %
Neither: 14 %
Interpretation: Both surveys show majority opposition to restrictions on school district’s ability to terminate teachers. AP gets a higher percentage in favor of “firing” teachers by talking directly about “poor performance.” EdNext reduces that percentage by providing respondents both the argument in favor and against the elimination of tenure.
Evaluating Public and Private Schools
EdNext: Students are often given the grades A, B, C, D, and Fail to denote the quality of their work. Suppose the public schools themselves were graded in the same way.
• What grade would you give the public schools in the nation as a whole?
• How about the public schools in your community? What grade would you give them?
• And what about the private schools in your community? What grade would you give them?
|Nation’s Public Schools||Local Public Schools||Local Private Schools|
|A or B||22 %||55 %||76 %|
|D or F||21||18||4|
AP: How would you rate the quality of education in [INSERT ITEM]? Would you say the quality of education is in …?
|Public Schools in U.S.||Local Middle School||Private Schools in U.S.|
|Excellent/Good||38 %||54 %||61 %|
|Poor/ Very Poor||16||13||2|
Interpretation: Although the scale on which parents are asked to grade schools are different in the two surveys, results are broadly similar in that local schools get a substantially higher rating than the nation’s schools and private schools get a substantially higher rating than public schools. Perhaps the most noteworthy finding is that about a fifth of parents think their local schools are poor or deserve one of the two lowest grades.
EdNext: “Do you think that public school teacher salaries in your state should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?”
Increase: 56 %
Stay the Same or Decrease: 44 %
AP: Do you think public school teachers get paid too little for the work they do, too much for the work they do, or about the right amount?
Too Little: 66 %
About Right or Too much: 29 %
Don’t Know 4 %
Both surveys show that parents who do not know how much teachers are currently making favor an increase in teacher salaries. The response to the EdNext question is lower because we simply asked whether the parent thinks teacher salaries should increase or not, while AP, in its question stresses “for the work they do,” a phrasing that is likely to fetch a sympathetic response. AP would likely have obtained a quite different response had it loaded the deck by asking: “Given the fact teachers have summer vacations, do you think public school teachers get paid too little, too much or the right amount?”
If parents are told how much current teacher salary levels in their state, their support for salary increases drops to 43 %.
—Paul E. Peterson