The Persuadable Public

William Howell, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West
Year of publication: 
Education Next

What do Americans think about their schools? More important, perhaps, what would it take to change their minds? Can a president at the peak of his popularity convince people to rethink their positions on specific education reforms? Might research findings do so? And when do new facts have the potential to alter public thinking? Answers to these questions can be gleaned from surveys conducted over the past three years under the auspices of Education Next and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG).

In a series of survey experiments, we find a substantial share of the public willing to reconsider its policy prescriptions for public schools. But this responsiveness is not uniform: presidential appeals are more persuasive to fellow partisans than to those who identify with the opposition party, research findings have the greatest impact when an issue remains unsettled, and learning basic facts has the biggest impact when those facts are not well known. None of this comes as a surprise, until one considers how stable aggregate public opinion has been over time.

Individual Volatility but Collective Stability

The opinions expressed by individuals, when surveyed on political issues to which they have not given much thought, can appear so fragile as to be meaningless. More than one psephologist has shown that it is not uncommon for people, when repeatedly asked the same question, to give a positive response the first time, offer a negative one on the second occasion, and then return to a positive position the third time around. In such situations, opinions seem to be so lightly held they lack any content whatsoever.

Our own data likewise reveal a fair amount of volatility in the views expressed in the three Education Next—PEPG surveys by individual respondents, many of whom participated in multiple years. Of those asked to grade the nation’s public schools in both 2008 and 2009, for example, only 59 percent assigned the same grade both years. Among those who gave a grade of “A” or “B” in 2008, 46 percent awarded a grade of “C” or lower in 2009.