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.
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.