Framing the status quo

Tal Kerem

Polls are focused measures of public opinion and policymakers and--especially--politicians tend to take them seriously. But a poll is like a piece of plastic sheeting: if transparent and free of bias, public opinion shines through; if colored by a particular agenda, certain wavelengths of public opinion are filtered out.

Which brings us to the 38th Annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Prevalent bias has been a problem with this organization's past surveys. This year is no exception.

It begins by presenting respondents with this choice--Would they prefer reforming the existing public school system or finding an alternative to it? Not mentioned is the possibility for competition or synergy between and within systems. As framed, the question suggests to poll-takers that public education is a zero-sum game. And not surprisingly, most respondents said they strongly prefer sticking with the existing system.

It's the first of many examples of how the Kappan frames questions to ensure that the educational status quo looks good.

Here's another. The report crows that people's ratings of their local public schools "are near the top of their 38-year range.... Approval ratings remain high and remarkably stable." True, but that doesn't mean the public is particularly thrilled with the performance of public schools overall. Two-thirds of respondents gave the nation's public schools a grade of C or lower. Local schools fared only slightly better, receiving As and Bs from fewer than half of all respondents. And fully one-third of parents surveyed are displeased with the performance of their oldest child's school.

Granted, two-thirds of parents give their children's schools with As and Bs (mostly Bs). But the Kappan ignores the possibility that parents inflate their grades so as not to appear delinquent in knowingly sending their children to unsatisfactory schools.

The pro-establishment spin does not end here. "Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?" the poll continues, replacing the politically charged "vouchers" (so as not to distort the results, the authors explain) with "at public expense." But that's hardly better: Ask people to pony up more money, and many will oppose the idea, regardless of what it is. So it's not surprising that respondents shot down this idea.

Past polls included a more neutrally worded question describing vouchers as government--allotted money that parents may use to send their children to the school of their choice. This question, which consistently demonstrated greater public support for vouchers, has been discarded entirely. Yet nearly two out of five respondents continue to support voucher programs despite Gallup's anti-voucher framing.

It is long past time for policymakers to stop taking cues from poorly formed public opinion polls. To construe this one as anything but an ill-disguised attempt to make a poor-performing system of schools look good is irresponsible. And those who would read it as such are either self-deluded or blissfully ignorant of how they're being deceived.

Tal Kerem was a 2006 summer research intern at the Fordham Foundation.

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