The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Opinions without facts

Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but I'm amazed at how people can hold opinions - and even act on those opinions (such as when they vote) - without having a grasp of the appropriate facts. I've seen two releases recently that highlight this issue: the first is a commentary from the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the second is the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll (which I've addressed in a different vein previously).

From an 8/29/06 commentary by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation:

A recent survey of 400 registered voters in Washington shows that almost everyone has opinions about whether or not the state is spending enough on its K-12 public schools, but almost nobody knows how much is actually being spent.

Sixty percent of those asked felt public schools were under-funded . . . until they found out how much is being spent. Our state spends an average of more than $10,000 per pupil annually, but only 12 percent of respondents came within $2,000 of knowing that number. When asked if $10,000 per pupil each year seemed too high, too low, or just about right, 61 percent said it seemed either too high or just about right.

I'll only comment that knowing per-pupil expenditures is still not enough information to comment on how much "enough" is. Enough for what? Compared with what? How is that money used? What are you getting for it?

The PDK/Gallup poll found similar evidence of opinions absent knowledge. For example, they noted that public support for charter schools had increased over the past few years, despite the fact that the public clearly doesn't understand what a charter school is. From their report:

Findings. Public approval of charter schools has climbed from 42% in 2000 to 53% in 2006. This finding must be weighed against responses indicating that the concept is not clearly understood. Here are some comparisons:

  • 39% of respondents say charter schools are public schools; 53% say they are not (fact: they are public schools).
  • 50% say charters are free to teach religion; 34% say they are not (fact: they are not).
  • 60% say charters can charge tuition; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
  • 58% say charters can base student selection on ability; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
    I continue to have high hopes for NCLB - if not for the specifics of the law itself (it still seems to be a clumsy - but positive - first step), then for the idea that schools should be accountable for providing information to education consumers. And one can hope that if we start getting consumers used to receiving - and using - data on academic achievement, they'll start to become more savvy, asking for more and more information with which to make informed decisions.

    Of course, the final responsibility for requesting and using that information remains with the consumer, and that may be where my whole argument/desire for an informed public falls apart; that certainly seems to be the case from these isolated examples.

    The one thing that would frighten me more than schools not sharing critical information is if schools were to offer it - and not find any takers.

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