CPS joins national trend in polling the public

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Ninety-three percent of Chicagoans believe summer school should be available to all students in the Chicago Public Schools.

Eighty-four percent believe that CPS should provide before- and after-school learning programs.

Seventy-four percent believe the Chicago Public Schools should offer tuition-based preschool to families whose income disqualifies them for free preschool.

These are among the findings of a telephone survey conducted in mid-October for schools CEO Paul Vallas and the Board of Education. The survey was the fourth in a series that began in April 1999. With an authorization to spend $150,000 on the series, the board has joined a trend among school systems nationwide.

Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, says polling is especially on the rise in urban districts, with Minneapolis and Seattle among the most recent additions.

“They usually do it around issues that they are about to take to the voters: school bonds, increases in operating levies, and other new things,” he says. “We’re starting to see it more commonly around just customer support issues. One reason is to get a better handle on what the public expects of its schools, to try to respond to its needs and concerns.”

In the Chicago area alone, Joliet-based McKeon & Associates, which conducted the surveys for Vallas, have sampled public opinion for school districts in Buffalo Grove, Mount Prospect, Joliet and Woodstock.

While market research firms are getting more business from school districts, polling experts urge caution in the interpretation and use of the results. Questions on any survey can contain hints that push respondents toward a particular response. The sequence of questions can have the same affect. And the size and composition of the sample can have an impact.

Further, respondents may not be in a position to know much about the topics being explored or may have nuanced views that cannot be captured in a simple response.

“I think there’s times when people read into answers what they want to read in,” says Andy Plattner, chairman of KSA-Plus Communications, whose clients include school districts in Cleveland, San Jose, Kansas City, the District of Columbia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. “If you ask people, ‘Should standards be more rigorous?’ you’re going to get 8 in 10 saying ‘yes.'”

Caution is especially warranted in contentious situations, according to Carol Malach, director of the education research division of Harris Interactive, a national polling firm that has worked with well over 200 districts. “If you know it’s going to be a very contentious issue, be sure you have people from all sides of the issue involved in the conversation [about wording],” she advises.

The questions in the four CPS surveys conducted between April 1999 and October 2000 dealt mainly with initiatives of Vallas and the School Board.

“I read [these surveys] as the board wanting to get a fix about how the public would respond to their initiatives,” says James Lewis, director of the Institute of Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University, who reviewed the questions for CATALYST. “If that’s their purpose, it behooves them to get the best information they can.”

However, he adds that the people interviewed are “responding based on their very broad, casual impressions of things they couldn’t possibly know. Because the knowledge isn’t deeply held, people are susceptible to changes of opinion based on news spin and the like.”

Several contradictions in the results underscore Lewis’s observation. Asked about the factors they would consider most in deciding whether a student should be promoted, respondents strongly favored grades (52 percent) over “passing an exam at the end of the school year to determine if a student is prepared for the next grade” (25 percent).Yet in the very next question, 64 percent said that students should not be promoted “if they fail to achieve a minimum score on an examination at the end of the school year.”

In a survey conducted a year ago, a majority said they believed that CPS “is heading in the right direction,” and a plurality of those cited the CPS administration as “most responsible.” However, in an open-ended question posed in October, better teaching and parental involvement far outdistanced CPS administrators as “the main reason” respondents believed test scores have improved in recent years.

One of the strongest areas of consistency involved class size, which has not been prominent in the news. In an open-ended question about what can be done to improve CPS, reducing class size came in first with 19 percent. It also came in first when respondents were presented a list of things CPS “should work hardest to improve on.” Those questions were asked in mid-October. A year ago, “reduce class size” tied with “security for schools” as the area CPS should work hardest on.

In the view of several pollsters who reviewed the CPS surveys, the phrasing of the questions, with a few exceptions, was neutral.

One exception noted by Malach was a question, asked in October, about whether parents should attend the first day of school with their children “so the parents or guardian’s [sic] can become acquainted with the school and the school’s administration.” Nearly 70 percent agreed with that statement, but the question is phrased in a way that “makes it very hard for people to say ‘no,'” she notes. “It’s sort of like asking someone, ‘Do you support strong schools?'”

Over all, Vallas believes the results support his vision for CPS. “We learned that there’s a lot of support for tougher standards laid down by the central office,” he says. “We learned that there is very strong support for raising standards for the selection of principals. We learned that there is strong voter support for retention, and strong support for the use of standardized tests.”

Vallas also got a quick thumbs-up for the novel idea of mounting preschool programs for middle- class families and charging them tuition, a plan he announced in September.

In at least one area, survey results prompted a change in plans. Initially, Vallas planned to limit transportation costs in a revamped magnet school program. However, the poll results showed him that taxpayers and parents expect the district to bus students to schools of their choice. “I really slowed down the busing changes,” says Vallas.

Because of the polling, Vallas also is considering a later start to the school year, which this year was the third week in August. In the poll, “the first week after Labor Day” was the winner by far. And he intends to use results from the next survey, which will be of teachers, to hone the district’s teacher recruitment and retention programs.

Critics of Vallas say the polling is, at best, mere public relations and, at worst, a bad way to set policy.

“In general, it’s a part of an emphasis on good PR for the school system and its chief executive office in particular,” says Bernard Lacour, policy director of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change. “It seems a waste, given all the other kinds of needs there are out there.”

“There’s clearly a sort of crass relationship between popularity and policy, as opposed to what’s looking out for children,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education. “You wouldn’t ask your doctor to treat you based on the poll of what people’s favorite treatments are.”

Told to ‘prove it’

Vallas says he started the surveys to substantiate his claim to the Legislature that the public wanted stricter standards for local school council (LSC) members and some of their key decisions, such as whether to renew a principal’s contract. “The legislature said, ‘Prove it,'” he says.

In the first survey, Chicagoans were asked whether an LSC’s decision to renew a principal’s contract “should be based on specific academic standards … or no set standards.” Overwhelmingly, the public said, “Set standards.”

However, in the face of strong lobbying by LSCs and their supporters, the legislature allowed only for a rejected principal to appeal to an independent arbitrator.

Vallas’ surveys came to public attention by a Sun-Times columnist last year. Mark Brown, another Sun-Times columnist who recently wrote about it, was tipped to the practice by someone who suspected Vallas was doing political polling with the public’s money—the CEO’s name keeps popping up in speculation about the next Democratic candidate for governor. Brown saw no political intrigue.

Alexander Russo is a Chicago-based education writer. Comments can be sent to

editorial@catalyst-chicago.org