PDK released their annual Gallup poll on the public’s views on education on Wednesday in DC. You can watch via CSpan here. It’s an important survey and people key off of it in different ways. But like all surveys it has its limitations and should be taken with a grain of salt. Here are five takeaways from this year’s survey:
1) This year’s sample seems a little off. For starters it’s 62 percent college graduates, which is higher than the approximately 30 percent the Census Bureau estimates. The party affiliation breakdown is also unusual, 36 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican, and 35 percent independent. If that’s the composition of the electorate (it’s not even according to other Gallup data). President Obama can take the next two months off and go golfing rather than campaign. So view the results through the lens of a more liberal and educated sample than the population at-large.
2) Polls like this are better at gauging gut sentiment than detailed views on policy. For instance when 41 percent of Americans favor (and 58 percent oppose) providing free lunches and other benefits to children of illegal immigrants, you’re probably getting a proxy for immigration views overall more than a nuanced take on whether giving hungry kids hot lunches is a good public policy. Those same numbers were 28 percent in favor and 67 percent opposed in 1995. So the trend seems to illustrate evolving views on immigration.
Likewise, when 50 percent of respondents say they think Common Core standards will improve the quality of education in this country, do they really know what they’re talking about? Have they read the standards, understand how the assessments may work? Or, if you were to ask the same question about any range of plausible school improvement strategies might you see similar numbers?
3) Still, those gut sentiments can be valuable to know. For instance, this year’s survey asked “what is more important for the federal government to do in the next five years – balance the federal budget or improve the quality of the education system in the nation?” 60 percent of respondents said balance the budget, and just 38 percent said improve the schools. Cancel the President’s golf holiday! When the same question was asked in 1996 only 25 percent wanted the budget balanced and 64 percent said improve the schools. Forget all the noise about other funding questions – with this sample that one tells you all you need to know about where the public is right now on fiscal matters.
4) There is something for everyone in here. Not surprisingly every interest group found something in here they said supported their view of the world. For instance on teacher evaluations critics of today’s emphasis on evaluations cheered the finding that respondents favored using standardized test scores as part of teacher evaluations only 52-47. But when asked what percentage of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on standardized tests 63 percent of respondents said at least one-third of it should be. It’s reasonable to assume that most respondents are not familiar with the ins and outs of evaluations or contextual issues like the relatively small percentage of teachers who even teach in grades or subjects that are assessed with standardized tests. So again you’re getting a gut sense more than a parsing of complicated issues.
Similarly the school choice questions show the limits of polling like this. Charter schools were favored by 66 percent of respondents in the survey, down from 70 percent last year. Charter critics were thrilled! A four point drop (albeit in a survey with a four point sampling error). What they didn’t mention is that the percentage of respondents – again in this sample – favoring vouchers jumped 10 points over the previous year (to 44 percent). There are plenty of theories for these numbers but here’s mine: Contentious debate in the media about charters over the last year, not surprising the public is moving some after hearing a lot of negative messages – especially with this sample. Meanwhile, vouchers seem less radioactive all the time as more states adopt them. The takeaway – throughout the years this poll illustrates how the media can prime people on certain issues, school violence, funding, standards, etc…
5) The most interesting questions and results in my view? Four jump out. First the deficit number above. If that’s the public mood, this fall’s election could be less predictable than people think if Mitt Romney can find his voice during the fall crucible. Second, and related, in this sample independents preferred Mitt Romney on education by 5 points. The bipartisan group of education insiders Whiteboard surveys doesn’t agree (pdf). But policy specifics aside that number shows some political vulnerability. Third, when asked about parent trigger laws the result was 70 percent in favor, 28 percent opposed. Again, complicated issues that respondents are not parsing but that gut sense is telling and over time opponents have their work cut out for them. Finally, this year’s survey asked whether respondents thought schools should investigate bullying that occurs online and outside of school. 58 percent said yes. That is complicated terrain for schools and will make the “Bong Hits For Jesus” Supreme Court case of just five years ago look delightfully quaint. But that issue is coming to schools, school boards, and courts. In the online social media world, where does the school boundary exist?