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Lessons—Polls Only Confuse Education Policy

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON NOVEMBER 15, 2000]

Polls Only Confuse Education Policy

By Richard Rothstein

When the cold war raged and crime, inflation and unemployment seemed intractable, education barely registered in politics. But now, no public discussion seems complete without reference to schools.

Education can certainly benefit from closer scrutiny. But with the attention has come the politics, including specious public opinion polls, used shamelessly to build support for one proposal or another.

Citizens cannot be expected to balance complex educational alternatives in response to multiple-choice questions posed by pollsters. Sometimes, polls find majorities favoring contradictory positions, so advocates can claim popular legitimacy for either stance.

At other times, respondents lacking policy background may hesitate to choose unconventional answers. In this way, opinion can be molded by leaders with access to the media. “Public opinion” can be self-fulfilling if the same leaders then justify their plans by citing polls.

Consider how public opinion shifted early in the current school-reform wave. In 1973, 61 percent of Americans said schools were better than when they were children. By 1979, only 41 percent said so. Nothing in those six years diminished schools’ true relative quality. Only poll results changed. Policy makers still had to determine whether, in fact, schools had declined.

Gallup polls now consistently find dissatisfaction with the nation’s schools. But just as consistently, respondents report satisfaction with their own children’s schools. This is not unlike other issues where people believe that their widely shared experiences are not typical. One example is that citizens hold Congress in low repute, but think highly of their own representatives.

Two months ago, the Business Roundtable, an association of corporate officers, said its polling showed the “strength of support” for ending social promotion. “Fully three-quarters supports requiring children to pass a reading and math test for promotion,” the association announced.

But its poll also found that most people thought grades and teacher evaluations were better guides to promotion than standardized tests. Large majorities were more broadly skeptical of standardized tests: 80 percent said some students who know the material still test poorly; 71 percent said tests can’t measure many crucial skills; and 65 percent said tests lead to dropping other important curriculums.

The Roundtable could just as well have said “nearly all Americans reject tests as the main basis for promotion.” This interpretation, however, would have been as one-sided as the association’s actual view.

More troubling are the reports of Public Agenda, a group whose board includes statesmen, executives and university presidents. The group polls on many issues and says it has no agenda of its own.

Last year, Public Agenda reported that few people understood charter schools, but that when charters were described, 68 percent approved. Pollsters explained to interviewees that charters are public schools with “more control over their own budget, staff and curriculum, and are free from many existing regulations.”

But this succinct description had to omit nuances that policy makers can’t avoid: while some charters excel, the phenomenon also includes corporate chains with cookie-cutter school plans, private schools that convert to charters and get public money, church-sponsored schools and subsidies for home-schoolers. Knowing 68 percent would approve of charters, without these details, is more misleading than helpful.

An article by Michael Lewis in The New York Times Magazine on Nov. 5 described how opinions can now be collected from people clicking buttons at home. This, Mr. Lewis said, can make politicians less “elitist,” and more democratic and responsive. But if popular opinion is not based on informed deliberation, the use of it by elites does not truly enhance democracy.

When President Truman’s approval ratings dropped during the Korean War, he mused, “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt?” The 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke influenced the founding fathers by arguing that representatives should be chosen based on the values, judgment and experience that make them trustworthy to decide policy and ignore popular fashion.

A democracy does not elect leaders, from president to school board members, to be mouthpieces for the clichés of public opinion. Regular in-depth conversations with citizens are a better way to gauge sentiment than polls based on quick reactions to yes-or-no questions.

If we paid less heed to polling, we’d have more, not less, democratic decision making about education – and, indeed, in all public policy.

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