Education often sparks rancorous debate, but most Americans argue over school issues without knowledge of even basic facts. People know so little that providing them with even small pieces of information, new research shows, can significantly alter their views on school funding and administration.
The findings also provide clues to how opinions might be shaped by a more fact-oriented political process.
For several years, William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Martin West, an education professor at Brown University, have overseen an annual survey sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and Education Next, a journal from the conservative Hoover Institution, where West is an executive editor.
Like others who have examined public knowledge about education, they are well aware of how little Americans know. In their 2007 survey, for example, people estimated, on average, that per-pupil spending in their school district was $4,231, whereas the actual average exceeded $10,000. The respondents had formed opinions based on faulty assumptions, and the researchers wanted to know more about the reasoning behind their choices.
"Marty and I got interested in exploring — not just what is the expression of their views, but what are the foundations of their views? And what would it take to nudge them?" Howell said.
They thought the answers might also give them a better sense of what public opinion might look like if people were given a chance to deliberate over solid information — as opposed to strident political speech and advertisements. To tease out those ideas, they embedded several experiments into the survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks during February and March 2008.
They randomly divided the 2,500 respondents and an additional 700 public school teachers nationwide into two groups. All were asked their opinion about education issues, but only some were primed with information. For example, before a question on whether public school funding should be increased, the experimental group was informed of the average per-pupil expenditure in their district. Support for increased school funding was 10 percentage points lower among the informed group — 51 percent vs. 61 percent.
"If you can change 10 percent of the public's view on a particular issue by giving them a single fact, that's pretty striking," Howell said.
The survey produced similar effects when people were asked whether increased spending would bolster student achievement, and the dynamics weren't undermined by differences in class, race, location or political ideology. Even schoolteachers' support was lower when given the facts.
The differences were more pronounced on the issue of teacher salaries — providing accurate teacher salary numbers depressed support for increased teacher pay by 14 percent. The changes varied among subgroups — support among African Americans decreased from 91 to 71 percent with more information, but support among teachers dropped just 8 points to 81 percent.
"It does show that information does matter," says nonpartisan public opinion researcher Steve Farkas of the FDR Group. "Public policy people want to know, if we give information to people will it make a difference? This shows it sometimes does."
The most unexpected results came from questions about support for charter schools, the state-funded, locally managed entities that are exempt from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools.
Some respondents were told that charters "cannot charge tuition and they cannot provide religious instruction." Those facts produced little effect on overall opinion — roughly 40 percent of Americans tell pollsters they're undecided about the schools, and that didn't change much. As with the teacher salary question, though, the aggregate numbers masked serious shifts among certain groups.
Without information, 49 percent of conservatives and 36 percent of liberals supported charters; with it, those figures changed to 43 and 47. Presumably, the religion restriction had a lot to do with that flip: Liberal church non-attendees increased support from 32 to 55 percent, while conservative church attendees dropped from 57 to 44 percent.
In surveys, charter schools often receive more support from conservatives than from liberals — partly because people confuse them with voucher programs, which in some incarnations use public money to send children to private or religious schools. The Education Next research implies that if Americans knew more about charter schools, many might cross to the opposite side of the battle line. Such effects are particularly surprising given that the researchers tried to steer away from politically tinged facts, such as, "each voucher drains X dollars from local public schools."
Yet control like that isn't always possible outside of a survey.
"In the noisy, real policy world, where media coverage is not that attentive and people are not exposed to the same sources of information, you can't replicate a survey like this that has an introduction of a single, clean fact," Farkas said.
It's difficult to successfully marshal facts against emotional appeals and advertisements aimed at producing a visceral reaction. Nevertheless, charter schools do successfully recruit many students among religious populations. In urban areas, for instance, charters often serve children in churchgoing African-American families. "They don't seem troubled by these issues," said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
What concerns Howell most about the results, however, is that they seem to show that a well-informed public is a polarized public. Yet he's encouraged by the facts' significant effect on people's opinions.
"They're willing to update. They're not locked into their current views," he says. "Possibly, if we had a serious conversation about these issues, people would be willing to rethink."
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