Some Nerdy Stuff About Education Polling

We here at EdChoice are big into polling.

We have been  conducting our annual Schooling in America Survey since 2013 and started a partnership with Morning Consult last year to create our Public Opinion Tracker, which polls a nationally representative sample of Americans every month and a nationally representative sample of teachers every quarter. As need has arisen, we have polled teens, residents of specific states and Black school parents. As I said, we’re big into polling.

That is why a new working paper from David Houston, Michael Henderson, Paul Peterson, and Marty West caught our eye. In it, they use data from the Education Next poll (an annual survey of American attitudes) and follow individual survey respondents that were part of the sample in multiple years. They track whether or not those individuals’ responses change over time. Are opinions consistent, or do they vary?

Why does this matter?

There has been debate in the world of polling about the consistency of public opinion. If, for example, folks change their opinions frequently or simply don’t have strong opinions and tell pollsters an answer just to tell them an answer, then much of public opinion polling is useless. If, however, those opinions are consistent, it is more likely that opinion polls really do capture what people think.

The paper suggests that, at least with respect to education, opinions are reasonably consistent.

The authors use different tests to come to this conclusion, including comparing the consistency of answers to how frequently those patterns might emerge due to random chance and comparing the consistency of opinion question answers to demographic questions that we would expect to remain consistent over time. All in all, answers were more likely to be consistent than what we would expect from random chance, though the authors do qualify this a bit by saying, “We tend to observe higher rates of attitude stability on questions that require less familiarity with specific education policy debates (local grades, national grades, spending, and teacher salaries), and lower rates of attitude stability on more esoteric items (charter schools, vouchers, the Common Core, merit-based pay, teacher tenure and teacher unions).” The authors also found that teachers had more stable opinions than non-teachers and parents of school children had opinions that were about as stable as those without children.

As an organization that does a lot of polling, this is a comforting finding. It gives us confidence that the opinions that we are observing are actually what people think and will be what they think at least for the short- and medium-term. Sure, people change their minds and that will account for some drift over time, but we know that there is at least some baseline consistency in their opinions.

That said, we also make a serious effort when trying to inform survey takers the authors call “more esoteric items” like tuition tax-credit scholarships, vouchers and education savings accounts before asking their opinion. We frequently provide definitions of terms so that people know what they are opining on before they do so. This allows us to compare opinion responses to a term by itself (like “school voucher”) to that same term with a definition. We also provide the full questionnaire that we ask and any and all definitions that we provide to be completely transparent about what we have done.

Now that we know that education opinions are reasonably consistent, check out all of our polling resources, they’re probably right!