When it Comes to Supporting NCLB, It’s the Way You Ask the Question That Counts

In polls, the way you ask the question can sometimes determine the answer you get.  If the public has no strong opinion, they can be swayed by the question itself.

Consider No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that hot potato that will come before Congress this coming year.  Exactly where the public stands on this issue depends a lot on how you ask the question.

According to the latest Education Next (Ednext) poll, 60 percent of the public supports the “federal accountability law with no more than minor changes,” up 3 percent from 2008, but down 11 percent from 2007.   (I am one of those responsible for the Ednext poll, and also a co-author of this article which interprets some of the poll’s results.)

But if you ask about support for NCLB in particular, public support falls to 49 percent.  So the idea of “federal accountability” is more popular than the brand name  NCLB, which has been the focus of negative campaigns for several years.

The latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll (PDK) shows much lower levels of support, however. They say that only 28 percent of the public is favorable to NCLB.

So which poll should the reader believe?

Consider the wording of the PDK poll:  “From what you know or have heard or read about the No Child Left Behind Act, do you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of the act?

Notice that the person asked the question is given very little information about the law but is instead invited to answer in light of what they “have heard or read.”  That question encourages a response shaped by media coverage, which has been quite negative in recent years.

By contrast, the Ednext poll says nothing about what people have heard or read but instead summarizes the main features of the law:

“As you may know the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not. This year, Congress is deciding whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act.  What do you think Congress should do?  Should it….. a) Renew the Act as is, b) Renew with minimal changes, c) Renew with major changes, or d) Not renew at all.”

So…what might one conclude?  My interpretation:  The idea of federal accountability remains popular, the title No Child Left Behind is not popular, yet a good share of the public is willing to support re-enactment of some kind of change in the law.

My prediction:  We will have renewal of some kind of federal accountability legislation.

A final thought:  One needs to look carefully at the way a question is worded before drawing strong conclusions from the way the public answers.

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