Tag Archives: parents

Understanding Parents Requires More Than a Single Poll Result

In statistics, it’s often said that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” When it comes to polling parents on K-12 schooling, it’s similarly true that while no single result may be “right” it can be useful –– particularly when considered in the context of other polls. 

It’s always important to consider how new polling data points fit into longer-term trends –– something that’s exceptionally true in public opinion research. Bellwether’s new Parent Perception Barometer aggregates national polling data to provide a more nuanced perspective on parents’ complex opinions. It’s also a tool to mitigate against the temptation to put too much emphasis on the most recent poll.

A recent NPR/Ipsos survey about parents’ thoughts on schools provides an excellent reminder of why context matters when considering the results of new polls. This particular survey asked parents how much they agree with the following statement: “My child has fallen behind in school due to the pandemic.” Thirty-two percent of parents agreed with the statement. 

By just looking at this isolated data point, we may infer that two-thirds of parents don’t think the pandemic has negatively impacted their child’s academic progress. But examining this data in the context of other polls changes its interpretation. 

Recent polls tracked in the Parent Perception Barometer consistently indicate that a majority of parents have been concerned about their child’s academic progress throughout the pandemic. As of March 2022, data from National Parents Union/Echelon showed 66% of parents worry “a lot” or “some” about their child staying on track in school.

Data visualization courtesy of Bellwether’s Parent Perception Barometer.

Using the barometer, we can more easily identify key differences in the phrasing of the NPR/Ipsos poll that help inform how we interpret the its data, along with the results of other polls:

  • Wording matters. A key distinction between the NPR/Ipsos poll and others is the difference between a parents’ “perception of” their child’s academic performance (NPR/Ipsos) and parents’ “general worry or concern about” their child’s academic performance (National Parents Union/Echelon). There are multiple explanations why these two constructs may produce different results. A parent could be concerned about their child’s academic progress while also believing that their child isn’t falling behind. Cognitive biases may also limit parents’ willingness to tell a pollster that their child has fallen behind in school. Examining the nuances in survey item phrasing can help tease out when different polls are testing similar –– or in this case, different –– phenomena.
  • Reference points are important. Survey questions often ask about abstract concepts. For example, asking parents if their children have “fallen behind” or “are off track,” may mean different things to different parents. Should “falling behind” in school be interpreted as a comparison to others in their peer group, to the state’s academic standards, or to where the child would have been academically absent a pandemic? Some polls try to define the reference point by asking “compared to a typical school year” or “ready for the next grade,” but others (like the NPR/Ipsos poll) leave more room for interpretation by respondents, which can muddle results.
  • The timing of surveys can influence responses. In addition to what is asked in a survey, when the survey is administered can influence results. In the chart above, there’s a noticeable trend where parents report less concern about their child’s academic progress during the summer, only for those concerns to rebound during the academic year. A USC poll asked parents about how “concerned” or “unconcerned” they are with the amount their child learned this year compared to a typical school year. In a survey administered in April through May 2021, 64% of parents reported being concerned, compared to only 50% in June through July 2021. National Parents Union/Echelon polls illustrate similar declines over the summer in parent worry. This is less relevant for the NPR/Ipsos poll, but is worth considering as new data are released.

Given these considerations, which poll is “right”? The truth is, absent obvious flaws in the survey design — like biased phrasing or leading questions — most polls provide some useful information. When polls ask slightly different questions on a given topic, understanding the relationships between item phrasing and response data can help analysts derive more robust insights. 

Differing results among polls aren’t a flaw, but a feature. Tools like the Parent Perception Barometer separate the signal from the noise in assessing what parents actually think about K-12 schooling.

Little Kids, Big Progress: New York Times’ Head Start Coverage

It’s not often that early childhood stories make the front page of the New York Times. But this week, the paper featured an article by Jason DeParle about Head Start, a federal early childhood program that serves nearly 900,000 low-income children, and how the quality of the program has improved over the past several years.

DeParle’s article is a great example of journalism that moves past the common (and relatively useless) question of “does Head Start work?” and goes deeper into exploring how the program has improved  its practices, including changes related to coaching, teacher preparation and quality, use of data, and the Designation Renewal System (all of which Bellwether has studied and written about previously). This type of reporting contributes to a more productive conversation about how to create high-quality early learning opportunities for all children that can inform changes to early childhood programs beyond Head Start.

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

As DeParle points out and the data clearly show, while there is wide variation between individual programs, overall the quality of teaching in Head Start is improving. But while this trend is undoubtedly positive, it raises some questions: What effect will these changes ultimately have on children’s academic and life outcomes? And what can Head Start programs do to their program content and design to even better serve children?

Next month, Bellwether will release a suite of publications that tries to answer those questions. We identified five Head Start programs that have evidence of better-than-average impact on student learning outcomes and thoroughly examined these programs’ practices to understand how they contributed to their strong performance. I visited each program, conducted in-depth interviews with program leadership and staff, reviewed program documents and data, hosted focus groups with teachers and coaches, and observed classroom quality using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, CLASS (the measure of teaching quality on which DeParle notes Head Start classrooms nationally have shown large quality improvements). By better understanding the factors that drive quality among grantees and identifying effective practices, we hope to help other programs replicate these exemplars’ results and advance an equity agenda.

As the New York Times front page recently declared, Head Start’s progress offers a ray of hope in a dysfunctional federal political landscape. But there is still room for progress. Looking at what high-performing programs do well can help extend the reach and impact of recent changes to produce even stronger outcomes for young children and their families.