The Persuadable Public

William Howell, Martin West, and Paul Peterson
Education Next
Fall 2009

Public opinion remains largely stable over time, as demonstrated by the latest Kappan poll results. This is in large part due to the fickleness of public discourse, explain the authors of this brief, in which constantly shifting support for or against an idea tends to cancel itself out in the aggregate. But are there factors that can shape public discussion? This 10-pager combines a couple of surveys, the most interesting and recent (March 2009) of which looks at the effect of new information--specifically the support of President Obama or research evidence--on public opinion. The authors asked three groups of respondents about three common education policy topics: merit pay, charter schools, and school vouchers. The first group they asked without any qualifying information; the second group was informed if Obama supported (merit pay and charter schools) or opposed the idea (school vouchers); and the third group was presented with research that supported (merit pay and charter schools) or refuted the policy (school vouchers). Then each group of respondents was broken down by political affiliation and race. In all three cases, presidential opinion and research evidence influenced respondents' support or lack thereof. When told that Obama supported merit pay, for example, respondents liked the idea 13 percentage points more than those who were not told of Obama's support; supportive research evidence hiked respondent patronage by six percentage points. African-Americans were even more likely to support merit pay after told Obama supported the concept; their support jumped from 12 to 31 percent. And, in general, across all three topics, Democrats tended to respond more markedly to presidential opinion and to research evidence than Republicans. A second part of the brief concerns an older survey that looked at public knowledge on education; echoing the Kappan results, this survey found that Americans know much less than they think they do. The lesson to be learned, it seems, is that public opinion can be influenced by political actors and research evidence--and this can be helpful if used well, or dangerous if used poorly. Read it here.

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