Survey is ammunition, not illumination

University of Illinois education professor Christopher Lubienski said he winced when he saw a recent Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice survey that purported to find suspiciously strong support among Indiana voters for private school vouchers.

Christopher Lubienski

Christopher Lubienski

Lubienski, who studies both school choice and research methodology, suspected the survey results would be reported uncritically — and sure enough, they were.

“The Friedman Foundation is an advocacy organization,” he said in a phone interview this week. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but they have a position. I think it’s not appropriate to represent them as some kind of objective research organization. They’re not; they’re pushing an agenda.

“Researchers are looking for illumination,” he said. “And the Friedman Foundation is looking for ammunition.”

The Friedman Foundation survey found that an extraordinary seven in 10 Hoosier registered voters favor vouchers, in which the government pays private and religious school tuition for qualified students. Other surveys find voucher support to be half that strong. The foundation also found strong support for charter schools and for education savings accounts, a new and convoluted approach to providing public funding for private school tuition.

Lubienski, co-author of the book “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools,” said the survey can be faulted for low response rates, biased questions and other issues.

“But they’re also dealing with a topic where there’s a general lack of awareness,” he said. “Survey after survey shows many parents and many nonparents simply do not know what a charter school is. They don’t know specifics about vouchers and education savings accounts. A knowledgeable surveyor can have an information advantage over the people they’re surveying and shape things the way they want.”

Another issue is the way survey results are presented. For example, the survey report leads with a finding that a majority of voters have a “negative” view of the state of education in Indiana and think education is “on the wrong track.” The implication is that the public wants dramatic change.

The survey doesn’t probe, but it’s likely many respondents are reacting against the education policies that Indiana has adopted over the past five years – policies of school choice and market-based accountability that have been pushed by the Friedman Foundation and its political allies.

The foundation also claims a majority of Hoosier voters give “negative” ratings to public schools. But it does so by classifying a rating of “fair” as negative. When the surveys ask respondents to give area public schools a letter grade, nearly half give them an A or B and fewer than 20 percent give a D or F.

Lubienski’s research finds that public schools outperform private schools when you adjust for the fact that public schools serve students from different demographic groups than private schools.

“And it’s not just my research,” he said. “This has been replicated by studies at Notre Dame, which is not exactly an anti-Catholic organization, and at Stanford. There’s a growing consensus about this.”

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One thought on “Survey is ammunition, not illumination

  1. I am a progressive and for some reason my comments tend to be ill-received on this blog but I feel it necessary to comment. I’m sure this will be written off as anecdotal but here goes: Some of the Indiana public middle schools are a mess….a real mess. My daughter went to wonderful public elementary school with dedicated teachers and a challenging curriculum. The wrote creatively for school projects and classroom work everyday. They were challenged to stay engaged at home through long projects to be completed at home over several weeks time. Her elementary school was Indiana Grade A. Once we began the process of researching middle schools we realized that unless we wanted to move…..we would have to downgrade our expectations of her education greatly. Most of the middle schools in our area are Indiana Grade D…a few are Grade C. There is a loooong list of parents who want to get into a Grade C school (which seems bizarre to me). We kept her in her original middle school. Any work that is not part of an advanced class is so easy it isn’t challenging to a child who came from a terrific elementary. Almost NO writing is required of the students…no spelling either. No one checks ANY of their spelling on the small bit of writing that does happen. No school research projects required. Kids are being hauled out of class in handcuffs on a weekly basis. The in-school suspension program is used as babysitting on a daily basis for some kids. The art teacher was just fired for getting beat up in a bar fight on a Tues. evening. This is their 6th art teacher in one year. And we live on the GOOD end of town!! I am a HUGE advocate for public schools…but I admit to researching charter schools and if I had a terrific charter program in the area I might do well to consider it. I know lots of parents who feel this way. Something HAS to be done about the middle schools. I can see why this is a Grade D school. Academic time is wasted. The standardized test scores are mess. How do we advocate for public schools and not be interested in charter programs when the public schools are happy with being sub-par?

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