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Polling Techniques Help Districts To Get Closer to Their Customers

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In the videotaped images, 50 people in a hotel ballroom fidget with hand-held electronic devices to register their opinions of proposed new academic standards.

Vincent J. Breglio, a prominent public opinion researcher, is helping the Washington-based New Standards project gather community reactions to its draft benchmarks for student learning.

On the tape, from a 1995 session in Greenbelt, Md., he asks the audience what they think of the involvement of various groups in the development of educational standards. They respond by clicking a number on the wireless gizmos, ranging from 1 for most negative to 9 for most positive.

Teachers, parents, school board members, and "experts" all get positive reactions. But when Mr. Breglio mentions "state government officials" and "federal government officials," the ratings plummet.

The session is an example of a small-audience focus group, one of several public opinion techniques being used by a growing number of education organizations.

National reform groups, state education agencies, and school districts have in recent years dramatically increased their use of surveys and focus groups to help guide policy and reconnect with a disaffected public. The surging interest in the sophisticated techniques reflects educators' newfound awareness that public engagement must be considered every step of the way if efforts to improve schools are to succeed.

"There was a time in America when school officials assumed they were the experts and everyone else was wrong," said Gordon S. Black, the chairman of the Gordon S. Black Corp., a Rochester, N.Y., research company that works with districts. "But because school districts are now under siege, they feel a need to get closer to their customers."

Such techniques for gauging opinion are associated in many people's minds with marketers testing a new brand of cereal or Hollywood producers trying out different endings to a movie. Politicians also have long relied on public opinion surveys, but lately they have complemented large-scale polling with small focus groups that they believe provide a clearer window into the minds of voters.

Now educators are turning to such methods in the hope of taking the public's pulse and--much as a department store might--improving customer satisfaction.

Educators have become "much more attuned to using the tools of marketing and political communications," said Andy Plattner, a co-owner of A-Plus Communications Inc., an Arlington, Va., public relations company that specializes in education.

"More school districts are seeing the value in better understanding the publics they care about," added Mr. Plattner, who also works for the nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington.

Listen Up

Mr. Breglio, a Republican political pollster based in Lanham, Md., notes that school officials have long used polls and other campaign-style methods to rally community support for bond elections. But now they are employing such techniques for other purposes--notably to gauge reaction to education proposals.

The Education Commission of the States commissioned surveys and focus groups last year to learn how teachers and parents perceived changes in the seven designs of the New American Schools reform effort.

The research found that both groups were enthusiastic about the core ideas embodied in the New American Schools--a nonprofit venture formed to create "break the mold" schools--but were doubtful that they would take hold in the long run.

Based on those findings, the Denver-based ECS came up with recommendations that are echoed by similar outreach efforts: Listen to the public first, and talk later. Communicate reform strategies to teachers first. And make it a top priority to involve parents and the community in any reform effort.

"If you can communicate clearly to people on a couple of points, the concepts themselves will be very appealing," said Nancy Belden, a public opinion researcher who worked with the ECS. "But you have to satisfy something very fundamental: that you are meeting the basics."

The use of public opinion techniques even extends to school districts. More than 60 have hired Mr. Black's company to find out what teachers, parents, and community members think about the courtesy of bus drivers, the cleanliness of school bathrooms, or whether children have too much homework.

The 1,500-student Bloomingdale, Ill., elementary school district this year paid Mr. Black about $4,500 for a survey of students, teachers, and parents. Among the findings: Students in the suburban Chicago district want more meaningful homework assignments, staff members want stronger support from principals, and parents want more say in the selection of teachers.

Superintendent Jerry Gordon said he got the message and is already working on solutions. "Hopefully, two years from now we'll take another stab at this survey and see how we've improved," he said.

Video Scores

If educators are embracing marketing methods, some of what they are doing might also be called product testing.

To help the New Standards project test reactions to its draft standards, Mr. Breglio and his company, Research/Strategy/Management Inc., convened three focus groups last year--the session in Maryland and two in Orange County, Calif.

As is typical with such research, the 50 randomly selected adults in each two-hour session were paid a small sum--$40 in this case--and given food and beverages.

When they registered their reactions to an idea on their hand-held devices, a computer recorded the scores and quickly displayed them on video screens viewed by researchers.

Educators and other experts gave the audience information about New Standards' work in four subjects: mathematics, English language arts, science, and "applied learning."

In contrast to the negative responses to state or federal government officials, certain phrases evoked a sharp positive response, such as "parental involvement" and "high expectations."

"Words such as 'federal government' and 'state government' almost always produce a negative reaction," Mr. Breglio wrote in his report to the New Standards project.

The project, coordinated by the National Center on Education and the Economy and the University of Pittsburgh, is a consortium of states and urban school districts working on new assessments tied to higher academic standards.

Mr. Breglio concluded that the audiences welcomed the idea of higher academic standards, but were divided on whether all students should be expected to perform to the high levels envisioned by the project's leaders.

Mr. Breglio gave New Standards some advice for future presentations designed to explain the standards to the public.

They should not be too detailed or overrun by educational jargon, he wrote. Audiences like simple lists and key points.

He also counseled that presenters must "walk a fine line" between identifying with the average parent while also discussing complex material as an expert. "To share technical information on New Standards without sounding too preachy, patronizing, or acting superior requires constant reminder and rehearsal," Mr. Breglio wrote.

Focused Opinion

State education officials in Maryland have recently turned to public opinion experts as they move forward with a plan to require high school students to pass 10 core content tests.

"There was a lot of public criticism of some of our previous assessments, which we could have diverted had we gone to the public early on and understood what they wanted and what language they understood," said Ron Peiffer, the assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach.

Mr. Breglio convened focus groups last spring to discuss the proposed assessments, which state officials envision taking effect for the high school graduating class of 2004.

In a two-hour taped session in Montgomery County, an affluent area in suburban Washington, 10 anonymous parents embraced the call for higher graduation standards but worried about students who would not be able to pass all 10 exams.

"What if they don't test well?" one woman asked. "There are students who just don't test well."

Another man, after a discussion about how to inform the public about the new assessment system, said many parents "are going to be freaked by this."

"I've read stuff from the department of education, and they are not particularly good at communicating," he added. "No matter how clear they try and make it, it won't be clear."

Mr. Peiffer said state officials have taken such comments to heart. Instead of bombarding the citizenry with written materials about the new assessments, they scheduled numerous town meetings this fall to discuss the new system in person.

"We learned that the public wants to have face-to-face contact with us," Mr. Peiffer said.

Maryland officials believe that engaging the public has been a critical element in crafting the new assessments and other reforms.

But they have been reluctant to have the taxpayers foot the bill for the focus groups and other public opinion efforts.

"The advice we have gotten from around the country is that [public engagement] sounds like public relations, and that is not something the public is accepting of as an expense for government agencies," Mr. Peiffer said.

The estimated $50,000 cost so far has been covered by private grants, and the state hopes to find more private money to undertake similar activities in the future.

The use of focus groups and other public opinion techniques by educators has, as yet, drawn little or no criticism. But some observers have sharply questioned what they perceive as an overreliance on focus groups by politicians and news organizations.

'Adding Color'

Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington political analyst, has called focus groups the "most misused and most fraudulent political technique of the decade." But in a recent interview, he said they can be a useful tool if they are not used as a substitute for quantitative surveys.

"I don't object to focus groups at all as a way of adding color and flavor and getting an idea of what the public may be thinking," he said.

Mr. Breglio agrees that focus groups should be used cautiously, but says there is no better tool to find out how members of the public respond to a given topic.

"If you do 10 focus groups, and you see in each audience that an idea is getting a negative reaction," he said, "then you can be pretty sure you ought to question whether you are on the right track or not."

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