Vail Daily column: The value of public opinion
August 25, 2015
This past week, two national organizations released opinion polling results on education policy. While the topics were quite similar and both polls were conducted using best practices around sampling and polling methodology, the results were quite different.
The first poll was conducted by Education Next, a think-tank and ed-policy journal housed at Harvard. EdNext generally sides with the education reform movement and favors more right-of-center policies like more testing, accountability, school-choice and vouchers. EdNext worked with Knowledge Networks, a professional polling firm, in sampling 4,083 respondents nationally.
The second poll was conducted by Phi Delta Kappan, a global association of education professionals that was founded in 1906 and has conducted their poll continuously for 47 years. While trying to walk a centrist balance, PDK caters more to education practitioners and those closely connected to the field. PDK worked with Gallup, perhaps the best known polling organization in the world, in sampling 3,499 respondents around the country.
While there were questions asked on both polls that provided very similar results, one area of striking difference was around student testing, the amount of it and the support of parents "opting" their students out of tests.
On the amount of testing, the EdNext poll found 67 percent of respondents supported continuing "the federal government's requirement that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school." Yet, the PDK poll found that 64 percent of their respondents felt that there was "too much emphasis on testing" in our schools.
On the opt-out issue, the EdNext poll found nearly 60 percent of respondents opposed "letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests." Yet, on the PDK poll, only 44 percent said parents should not "be allowed to excuse their own child" from taking standardized tests.
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So, what gives? And, what does the American public really think about the issue of testing in our schools? From a surface read of these conflicting results, it's difficult to tell.
Opinion polling is tricky business and the wording of a question can have a big impact. Sometimes this is the result of a phenomenon called "framing" by professional pollsters — where the information included around the central question can sway responses. In fact, as a follow-up to these opposing poll results, EdNext researchers Paul Peterson and Martin West argued that this was the reason for the different results and (predictably) that their poll had asked the questions more accurately and correctly.
Groups supporting testing and education reform, like Stand for Children, a nonprofit active here in Colorado, immediately began waving around the EdNext poll results as validation of their agenda.
Oppositely, groups like the two national teacher unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) hailed the PDK poll as validations of their criticisms of testing and recent education reform efforts.
Perhaps an even more important question than the meanings of these opposing polls is, fundamentally, "what role should public opinion play in shaping and determining public policy?" In this era when someone like Donald Trump leads the opinion polls for one party's nominee to be the leader of the free world, we should take our poll results with a grain of salt.
Take the issue of corporal punishment, as an example. According to an ABC News poll, Americans favor spanking and other physical punishments for children by an over 2-to-1 margin. Yet, the research on corporal punishment reveals abysmally bad outcomes for kids. Children who are spanked are more likely to be involved in domestic violence as adults and face a whole host of other academic, social and health risks.
So, the evidence clearly indicates corporal punishment is not a good thing. But the public says (by an overwhelming margin): "whack 'em."
Taking public opinion into account in making policy decisions is important as it can give policy-makers a view into the preferences of the people. But, let's not confuse public opinion with what may actually solve the problem we are trying to address or confuse it with what is best for our nation's children.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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