Survey Do's and Survey Don'ts

Last month, Fordham published its biennial survey of Ohioans' views on education (see here). Who knew it would be the start of a trend? Two other surveys followed close on its heels--one from KnowledgeWorks (see here) and a second conducted by Baldwin-Wallace College (see here). In light of their diverse and--in some instances, inconsistent--findings, we asked Steve Farkas, president of the FDR Group (which conducted our survey,) to provide some tips for interpreting survey results. ___________________________________________________

Ohio has long been an epicenter for conflict around education reform--be it schemes to "fix" school funding, efforts to expand school choice, or attempts to ratchet up the level of rigor in Ohio's classrooms. Such conflict is reflected in the sheer number of surveys of Ohioans popping up lately, some of which report different, even contradictory, results. For rank and file Ohioans, inconsistent reports of what they "favor" or "oppose" may simply breed confusion and further pessimism about the chances for substantially improving education in the Buckeye State. Yet it is possible to draw some commonsense conclusions--and precautions--about where the Ohio public really stands. Here are some "do's" and "don'ts" to help make sense of all those data.

Don't believe surveys that show Ohioans are critical only of other people's schools, not their own. Buckeye residents don't think their local public schools are doing a great job. As the 2007 survey conducted by the FDR Group for the Fordham Foundation reveals, more than 4 in 10 (43 percent) Ohioans think that a high school diploma from their local public schools is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics. Only 41 percent of Ohio parents say they would send their own children to traditional public schools if money were not an issue. These ratings point to too many unhappy customers.

Be skeptical of surveys that show Ohioans are willing to pay more in tax money for the schools. Ohioans are polite and they value education. So it's hard for them to disagree when nice interviewers ask about spending more for something as important as the public schools. But if they believe the schools are educating ineffectively and spending their money ineffectively, do they really mean it? Our survey shows that Ohioans think--by a 71 percent to 21 percent margin--that if more money were spent on the public schools "the money would actually get lost along the way" rather than "get to the classroom and improve education." And recently, nearly 70 percent of all new school operating and capital levies on the ballot were voted down by the Ohio electorate. Since few educators or leaders bother to update voters on what happens to their money when they're not asking for it, citizens are left wondering what the schools are doing with the taxes they've been paying all these years.

Don't expect surveys to resolve the debate over reform of Ohio's system of school funding. Most Ohioans are not closely monitoring the minutiae of new funding schemes and haven't thought about how to restructure the school financing system. But the public does have some convictions that are relevant to the debate. In our survey, for example, 43 percent say it's the school districts themselves--not the state board of education (18 percent)--that they "trust most to make decisions about how to spend tax money allocated to Ohio's public schools." This is a pragmatic calculation that the closer decision-making is to the playing field the better the decision, not an ideological stance. And in focus groups people clearly evince another conviction: a desire to help the schools of poorer communities without preventing wealthier communities from spending more on theirs.

Be aware of surface support for a proposal when the public has not given much thought to an issue. Lacking any independent knowledge, people try their best to answer by looking to the question for clues. Thus much will depend upon survey question wording: what language is used and whether it is even understandable, which concepts and values are highlighted, which players are associated with the proposal. In short, they're going on instinct. For example, in our survey 63 percent of Ohioans support a concept called weighted-school funding, described in the question as "a proposal to make the amount of money that Ohio spends on children's education differ according to each child's individual needs and special circumstances, and to have all of that money follow children to the schools they attend." It's a complicated thought and a new one for the vast majority of people to consider. The fact that most favor it means that people like what they heard in the question, and that there's initial support worth exploring--but not that the issue is resolved. 

Carefully scrutinize polls that show the public abandoning a policy they previously supported. Once they commit to a policy, people just don't change their minds easily or capriciously and often have a lot more patience than leaders and elites. Instead, pay attention to trend data--i.e., survey questions that are repeats of previously asked questions. For example, the FDR/Fordham survey reveals that support for charter schools is stable (2007: 52 percent in favor; 2005: 51 percent in favor). When substantial shifts in opinion occur, it's typically in response to something real that's occurred in the world.

Finally, be suspicious of surveys that give the public a chance to reach for simplistic solutions to funding dilemmas or a chance to reach for the proverbial "free lunch." Taxpayers will, of course, like proposals that offer to cap their property taxes, to exempt whole groups from levies, to take money from magical places like tobacco settlements. A survey may skip the part where the public has to wrestle with policy tradeoffs and costs; responsible elected officials will not be able to.

Many observers believe that the public is easy to manipulate. As it turns out, it's opinion polls that are easy to manipulate.

by Steve Farkas

Steve Farkas is the president of Farkas Duffett Research Group. Prior to co-founding the FDR Group, Steve was Research Director at Public Agenda, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank, from 1992 to 2004. Steve is the principal author of over 100 major opinion studies on a range of issues from public education, families, poverty and immigration, to social security, crime and foreign policy.

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