Education Policy, Academic Research, and Public Opinion

William G. Howell
AEI Future of American Education Project, Working Paper 2007-01

This short paper covers a survey of public opinions about whether students perform better in public or private schools, with the data broken down by respondents' political persuasions and their opinions about vouchers. The survey results are barely interesting: 75 percent of the public believes students in private schools fare better than those in public schools, a finding that is roughly the same among all groups. The author's real purpose, however, is to show the extent to which such opinions change when people are presented with supporting (or conflicting) information, and the extent to which that change is a function of the information source --in this case, either a "conservative" or a "liberal" think tank. Not surprisingly, these factors matter a great deal, and the intensity of their effects depends on an individual's original views. Howell concludes, "the assessed value of academic research depends upon its congruence with previously held policy preferences." This isn't terribly shocking (it's easier to dismiss unsettling information than be forced to grapple with the cognitive dissonance it creates) but it's interesting to see its implications in education. You can read it here (it's the last paper in the right-side panel).

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