Poll Finds That Obama and the Weight of Research Can Sway the Public

By Debra Viadero — August 31, 2009 1 min read
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A public-opinion poll being published this morning by the journal Education Next suggests that President Obama can be an influential opinion maker—but so can researchers.

For the survey, pollsters asked the public for their opinions about charter schools in three different ways. The first question read:

Many states permit the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations. Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?

In response, 39 percent of those polled said they would “somewhat” or “completely” support such a proposal; 17 percent said they were “somewhat” or “completely” opposed to it.

When asked the same question and being told, in addition, that President Obama supported the idea, respondents’ favorability ratings increased by 11 percentage points.

Being told that “a recent study presents evidence that students learn more in charter schools,” proved almost as influential, though. When pollsters added that tidbit of information to the basic question, public support for charters grew by 14 percentage points. (Note to readers: Research is actually mixed on this topic.) The survey also found that research evidence was particularly persuasive, according to the poll, with white people and public school teachers.

The president and research evidence also appeared to carry some sway on the question of vouchers.

When you consider that the poll was taken in March, when President Obama’s approval ratings were above 60 percent, the findings look pretty darn good for researchers. Scholar often complain, though, about their lack of influence on public policy. Maybe Education Next should do the same survey with state legislators and members of Congress?

The survey was drawn from a nationally representative sample of 3,200 Americans, including 709 public school teachers. It provides useful information on what Americans think about a range of hot-button education topics, including merit pay for teachers, single-sex schools, national standards, virtual schools, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act. You can find the complete results at Education Next‘s Web site. In the video clip below, Ed Next publisher Paul Peterson and researcher Martin West, both Harvard scholars, discuss the findings on President Obama’s and research’s opinionmaking power.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.