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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Polls Are Useful: Yes, No, or Maybe?

As polls play an increasingly prominent role in shaping education policies, educators must learn to distinguish between "prevailing opinion" and what polls really measure.

Two years ago, the Public Agenda Foundation released its controversial First Things First report, presenting its findings on the public's views of public education. The results of the foundation's poll revealed a public preoccupied with "order, safety, and the basics." The poll was particularly controversial among educators because it asserted that a gap existed between their views and the views of those on whose behalf they make decisions.
The Gallup organization also conducts a poll on the public's views on education, publishing the results in Kappan magazine. Like Public Agenda, Gallup gauges opinions of current issues in the field. Yet since 1968 when Gallup began the annual poll, it has revealed a different gap: parents consistently view their schools more favorably than does "the public."

The Educator's Dilemma

Public Agenda and Gallup are not alone in taking the public's pulse on attitudes toward education. Reform advocates, labor organizations, and other politically involved groups are increasingly citing polls as evidence of support for, or failure of, public education. For example, a Wall Street Journal writer, arguing for vouchers, recently cited polls as evidence of public dissatisfaction with schools and thus a need for change.
That polls are becoming a prominent player in education policymaking is no surprise. Public schools conduct their business in highly public and political environments. In such an environment, a poll presenting a neat aggregation of what "everyone" wants is powerfully alluring.
Polls do provide information that can help leaders understand the public's values and preferences, but their allure ought to be tempered. The promise that one poll might offer a view into the future or a people's mandate in a single document, though tempting, is hollow. As George Gallup, the grandfather of polling, pointed out, "Polls, like any other social techniques, are at once enormously useful and subtly dangerous" (Gallup and Rae 1940).
The dilemma for educators, then, is to discern the extent to which polls do speak for "the people" and how sound that counsel is.

A Snapshot in Time

When polls first appeared in this country in the early 1900s, citizens held conflicting sentiments about their political leaders. They sensed that detached elites were making decisions for them—without their input—and they resented it. But determining what "the people" wanted remained a problem. Polling promised a solution: a way to efficiently and directly measure the people's will.
For those who believed in this new technology, distrusting this voice of the people amounted to distrusting the common man himself. For others, however, polls were the worst aberration of democracy, reducing sound thinking to sound bites and creating an environment in which leaders failed to lead. That leaders allowed popular opinion to inhibit them from making hard choices was—and still is—one of the most frequent criticisms of polling.
Since that time, we have come to understand that "prevailing opinion" and what polls measure are not the same; the latter is only a snapshot of the former. We know that the answers depend on the question and the methods, and that results can be manipulated. We have also seen public opinion change overnight.
Because many citizens understand the role that polls play in the political process, they respond to them accordingly. Thus, the closest a poll can ever come to representing a mandate is when the poll is taken in polling booths on election day. Discerning the people's will in an age of polling remains a challenge.

Leaders or Followers?

Our view of leadership has also matured. Although we want our leaders to listen to and respond to our needs, we also expect them to engage, push, and challenge us, and to offer solutions to problems we have not thought through. In fact, our greatest political heroes are those who stood against the tide of public opinion and changed it.
Consider how different our country would be if Abraham Lincoln simply respected the prevailing opinion of his day rather than challenge this country to imagine itself differently. And where would schools be today if all educational leaders had viewed the strong opposition to desegregation as a mandate? In these instances and countless others, public opinion was transformed by leaders who presented a more compelling vision of the future.
Public officials can come to regard polls and surveys as quarterly election returns, leading them to place too much emphasis on opinions and immediate emotional reactions. Such polls can distract leaders from a long-term view of the public interest. Further, as business leaders have learned, an overreliance on polls to test new products and ideas can supplant the intuitive judgment and creative experimentation that organizations need to thrive. Even those who passionately promote the possibilities of polling argue that the findings must contribute to—not substitute for—political judgment and that leaders must follow their convictions.

Ignoring Complexities

Polls are fickle. They have a fairly good track record predicting specific actions people plan to take in the near future, as in voting or consumer behaviors, though even here, margins of error make them much less prophetic than they appear.
Polls are less useful for understanding the public's views on complex issues. Education reform strategies, for example, require not only a familiarity with the issues, but also an understanding of all the consequences and trade-offs surrounding them. If the respondent is not well informed and does not hold a firm view on the subject, that person's view is likely to change with new information. Yet polls usually don't indicate where respondents are in this decision process, nor do they help us understand the basis for opinions.
Polls are not the best means of testing the waters for change. People tend to be skeptical of new ways of doing things until the new ideas become popular. But polls neither allow for this initial skepticism nor accurately predict what changes will eventually be embraced. For this, we still need visionary leaders.
Treating a poll as an evaluation of a public service is the greatest misuse of this instrument. This is because the question "How do you know?" is never asked. Consider the now common poll question, "What grade would you give your neighborhood schools?" Polls never differentiate respondents according to their experience in and around schools and educators. The opinions of people whose children attend a school, or of those who volunteer in a school and know its programs intimately, are treated in the same way as the views of people who have not set foot on school grounds since they were children.
This is not to dismiss the opinions of citizens (and taxpayers!) who are not intimately familiar with schools. When they express their negative opinions through the ballot box, they can block necessary funding as much as informed citizens can.

Image Versus Performance

The views of users and nonusers of public services both matter—they just matter differently. If the Ford Motor Company asked some owners of Fords their opinion of the vehicles and received neutral or negative responses, Ford would know that it had a performance problem. If, on the other hand, Ford asked the same question of lifetime Chevy owners and got negative responses, Ford would realize that it had an image problem and maybe a performance problem.
Image and performance are both valid, but each requires a different response. Yet education polls tend to lump the two together. Thus they offer no real information to help educators sort out the complexities of the public's views.
For feedback on the actual performance of schools, pollsters should, at a minimum, separate samples into subgroups that include users and nonusers of the service. Better yet, they ought to follow up with questions about involvement in the life of the school or with a school-age child. A poll can simply ask respondents how well informed about issues they feel they are, or to what degree they feel they are influenced by indirect sources of information, such as the media.
Ultimately, education leaders must do a better job of gathering their own information about how satisfied their customers are with their services. If done right, their inquiries should demonstrate some new gaps between the opinions of those who know the services well and the views of the general public.

A Supporting Role

The applications of polling techniques have expanded far beyond the world of politics. Polls and their kissing cousins, surveys, can be powerful assets in improving public organizations. Polls can help administrators understand citizens' perceptions of services, including problems, gaps, reasons for likes and dislikes, and even awareness of program and service availability. They can also help educators understand the attitudes and degree of commitment of employees and other key stakeholders.
Along the way, these surveys also provide important planning data, such as the numbers of users. By linking such data to survey results, administrators can segment markets, identifying subgroups' different values and needs. Surveys and polls can bring systematic information into the decision-making process, thus making it more likely that all constituencies are heard. In a world as political as education, such systematic access to the public's preferences and values can be an asset.
Like all market research, polls should only be used to complement the results of other ways of listening to customers and constituents. Reliable data can help educators evaluate the many other forms of feedback they receive—letters and phone calls from citizens, contact by interest groups, pressure from the local press. Through these channels, well-organized but nonrepresentative individuals can raise bogus issues. Reliable data can help educators ascertain to what degree these vocal citizens are representative of educators' broader constituency.
Polls themselves do not reflect judgment; they are no substitute for a leader's sound judgment. But they can play a part by engaging the public in discussing their needs and values, thereby laying the groundwork for genuine public engagement. The tried and true methods of public dialogue—town hall meetings, issues forums, and debates—do the most to build relationships and understanding. At best, polls can initiate that dialogue and help leaders understand core issues and values.

Allen, J. (September 17, 1996). "What Americans Really Think of School Choice." The Wall Street Journal, p. A14.

Gallup, G., and S. F. Rae. (1940). The Pulse of Democracy: The Public Opinion Poll and How It Works. New York: Greenwood Press.

Suzanne A. Tacheny has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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