Questionable Questions

I read the following news release a short while ago:

“A nationally representative survey of American adults, roughly one-quarter… parents of school-age children, finds the public is aware of economic challenges to their local public schools and don’t believe things are going to get better soon. The survey, conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found respondents more in favor of cutting costs than in raising taxes or taking a wait-and-see approach….

“The survey also found respondents approve of a number of specific cost-cutting measures, which include: reducing the number of district-level administrators to a minimum (69 percent); closing or combining schools with declining enrollment (63 percent); merging small districts so they share a superintendent’s office, bus services and clerical help (63 percent); freezing salaries for one year for all district employees (58 percent); shifting school staff from guaranteed pensions to individual retirement plans (53 percent); and reducing all teacher salaries by five percent as opposed to laying off five percent of teaching staff (74 percent).

“In three other areas, the public is split about cost-cutting: charging fees for sports and extra-curricular activities, using noncertified teachers in certain subjects and making more extensive use of virtual education.”

The report was not very encouraging. I believe there is much more support for funding public education than the public is given credit for. The Fordham results do not indicate that, but that was not the intention, as the report’s introductory remarks make clear. The pollsters had a preset agenda. They asked questions expecting to get answers that would agree with and support their preconceived notions. The manner in which they asked the questions almost guaranteed an anti-school spending result.

For example, Fordham asked whether people would favor raising taxes or cutting costs. Well, we’ve certainly been trained to say we don’t like taxes, so the answer is easy. Only 11 percent favored raising taxes to overcome a serious budget deficit. But would the response have been the same had the question been phrased, “Would you favor cutting costs or raising taxes if cutting costs meant test scores would decline by 10 percent or more?” 

By the same token, “Should we close schools with declining enrollment and merge small districts to save administrative costs?” is a no-brainer until you add, “meaning that your child or grandchild might have to spend two hours or more each day on a bus?”

Or, try this: “Should we reduce teacher salaries by five percent, knowing that many of our best teachers would leave the district and take better-paying jobs elsewhere?”

Of course, let’s get my bias out there, too. The questions as I have phrased them are also designed to get a predetermined answer. They are poor questions.

It was interesting, though, to note that when the Fordham questions did seem to touch closer to home — charging fees for sports and extra-curricular activities; using noncertified teachers; more extensive use of virtual education — respondents were split. Those cuts would affect their children. Cut administrators? Why not? Who knows what they do? Charge me for my son or daughter to play sports or participate in the band? Wait a minute; maybe I wouldn’t mind if everybody paid a little more in taxes to keep a full extra-curricular program running.

As for virtual education, that actually was what the Fordham people hoped would generate the most support, so much so that in the foreword to the report, the public is chastised for failing to understand how wonderful (and inexpensive?) virtual education would be. Personally, I think that already too many graduates of our schools and colleges have been only virtually, rather than fully, educated.

I’ve digressed and gotten my own biases too far out front. My real point here is that newspapers and television and others quickly pick up and report survey results without looking at who did the survey and whether or what their bias might be. A doctor friend of mine always reads to the bottom of articles touting the health value of various foods or drinks to see who sponsored them. We need to do that with surveys on education.

So take a close look at some of these publicized national education surveys. The first question to ask is whether the people asking the questions have a bias.

The second, is to look at how the questions are asked. Do they simply offer an easy choice (would you like to pay more in taxes?) or do they suggest the possible consequences of choosing the obvious? It’s not just the questions; it’s the context in which they are placed that makes the difference.

Last point. I’m not sure national surveys on education really tell local school districts very much. Local surveys, however, can be very valuable. Just make sure that when you ask questions, they are put in a local context so that the possible results of the suggested actions can be weighed by your respondents.

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 “Planner of the Year.” He can be reached at

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."