Like political journalists, we education writers deal with many surveys. In the midst of this year’s torrent of public opinion, I have a question: Don’t some poll questions seem stupid?
Usually I try not to challenge traditional practices. It wastes energy and can sometimes get you fired. But I need to vent. Here are two much-used polling questions that make no sense to me.
One asks us to grade our schools. The other asks whether the country is on the right or wrong track. If you have your own favorite dumb questions, please send them to me.
The schools question is from Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators: What grade would you give your local public schools, the nation’s public schools and, if you have children at home, their schools?
Since 1985, the results have been consistent. Respondents award their children’s specific schools the highest grades, with about three-quarters giving A’s and B’s. About half of them give their local schools A’s and B’s. About a fifth give A’s and B’s to the nation’s public schools.
See the problem? They are asked to compare the schools they have picked for their children with schools they have not picked and don’t know much about. Journalists like me usually write only about schools in trouble. That leaves a bad impression. The survey records their biases, not informed judgment. I don’t see why they bother to ask.
Washington Post polling manager Scott Clement, a bona fide expert, said: “I think the ‘homerism’ theory is compelling, though the finding itself has some significance.” He said, “The much higher ratings for local schools can help us understand resistance to certain types of school reform such as Common Core. If people feel like their local schools are doing a good job, they may be more skeptical of disruptive changes in the curriculum.”
The right-track-wrong-track question is even more aggravating because it is so often extolled as a mark of voters’ desires. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll uses this question: “Do you think in this country things are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?”
On July 14, 68 percent of respondents said things were on the wrong track, 28 percent said the right direction and 4 percent had no opinion. This was greeted as usual with deep concern in the campaign world. We were told it meant we have to change what we are doing, and fast.
I accepted this analysis because I thought the poll results were new information. I assumed public anger had reached unprecedented heights. With people that worried, obviously we had to shift gears. But when I looked up the numbers, I discovered that most of us have judged the country to be on the wrong track for most of my life. Survey results have been on the negative side nearly 90 percent of the time since the question was first asked in the early 1970s.
In the Washington Post-ABC News poll, supplemented by the Roper poll before 1982, just 9 percent of 151 surveys showed a majority of respondents saying things were going in the right direction. (Two percent were ties.) We have been mostly on the wrong track during every one of the seven presidencies covered. On average, 61 percent of Americans said we were on the wrong track during those 44 years. Right-direction majorities appeared, usually briefly, in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2009.
Why should we pay any more attention to our persistent wrong-track crankiness than we do to our other well-worn complaints, such as traffic jams and sleep deprivation? Clement said the wrong-track percentage does not accurately predict incumbent party losses. There are more useful questions.
For instance, if we’re always going in the wrong direction, then why are we always so much happier with our local schools?