On ignorance & impartiality: A comment on the Monmouth U. Poll on Ed. Policy

Posted on September 17, 2011



Some Twitter followers may have noticed the ongoing back and forth regarding the validity of the recent Monmouth University Poll on education reform.I’d certainly rather spend my time on more substantive discussion.

As I’ve noted on many occasions, polls are what they are. They ask what they ask. And the responses to the questions must always be evaluated only with respect to what was asked. Questions about specific policies in particular require that the policies in question be described correctly. This is a point raised the other day by Matt Di   Carlo about the Monmouth Poll here.

Yesterday, Patrick Murray, director of the polling institute posted a response to some of the criticisms levied against the recent Monmouth poll. Unfortunately, I found his response to be much less fulfilling and in many ways far more disturbing than the poll itself. Quite honestly, I’d have left this issue alone if not for some particularly troublesome assertions made by the polling institute director Patrick Murray.

First, here is my response regarding the substantive issue raised by Matt Di   Carlo:

Mr. Murray points out that he, as many pollsters do, chose to use colloquial language to describe “tenure.” The problem, as explained by Matt Di Carlo here http://shankerblog.org/?p=3695, is that the colloquial characterization was factually incorrect, and that it would be possible to achieve a colloquial characterization that is not factually incorrect. The factual error in the characterization of tenure leads to a clear bias in the question. This is the most obvious example, but there are numerous more subtle cases where questions do not accurately represent existing or proposed legislation or regulations.

Here are a few additional points regarding content in Mr. Murray’s response:

Specifically, Mr. Murray contends that critics were simply unhappy with the results, and offered no substantive criticism of the methods.

On Twitter, I have criticized the title of the press release for the poll, which claims that the poll results indicate broad support for New Jersey reforms, implying that responses to the specific questions regarding policies can be taken as supporting the specific policies being proposed.  That is, it infers a close relationship between the policies framed in the questions and actual policy proposals on the table.  Usually,  it is the media who makes such misguided leaps. In this case, the polling institute provided them with the misleading headline.

Mr. Murray’s response not only defends the headline, but he actually makes even less justified statements (slightly more specific) to the same effect. Mr. Murray claims that the poll results provide “broad, general support” for the “Governor’s proposals”, which happen to be rather specific proposals (many of which are not actually the governor’s proposals, but proposals for which he has offered support).  But, very few (if any) of the questions in the poll accurately represent the specific proposals (like mischaracterizing what tenure is).  The questions are broad, and imprecise (if intended to discern support for existing proposals). They are general. Some are outright incorrect. As a researcher, I can assure you that a response to one question, referring to one type of policy (a hypothetical policy that is substantively different from the actual proposals) should not be interpreted as relating to another (without careful statistical validation, which would involve asking the other question).  That is a methodological concern. Not a concern with the findings. It is a concern largely over the representation of findings (press release titles matter), as opposed to the usual quibbling over sampling issues.

After defending the wording of the tenure question, Mr. Murray goes on to discuss the follow up questions to the tenure question – specifically those about how the general public would like to see tenure changed. The problem is that each of these questions about how to “change” tenure is invalid because “change” in the mind of the respondent (at least the uninformed respondent) is measured against an incorrectly defined baseline of what tenure is. That is, Mr. Murray has provided a prompt in the first tenure question that incorrectly describes tenure, asserting that tenure means that a teacher can only be fired for “serious misconduct.” Then he asks in a series of questions whether that should be changed and how. If the baseline condition – existing policy – is described incorrectly, arguably biased – then responses to subsequent questions are influenced by this. That is either biased, or simply sloppy.

Which brings up a related issue. Mr. Murray notes that many if not most poll respondents were unaware of policies, or details of reforms. Because of that, the phrasing of the questions, the colloquial explanations of the policies are of even greater importance, having even greater potential to shape the response. That phrasing can be the basis of grossly misinforming the otherwise uninformed respondent. And it just may have been.

The most significant and most disturbing point:

Setting aside this methodological quibbling, I take issue with Mr. Murray’s point that academic researchers might come at these issues with normative values – as I admittedly do – and that having normative values (based on years of extensive research on these topics) somehow invalidates someone’s ability to critique the poll. Mr. Murray explains:

 To start, most of the criticism has come from people without expertise in the field of survey research.  Some has, which I will treat more seriously.  But it’s important to note that all of these critics, including some who are academic researchers, have taken very public normative positions on education policy.  Normative is one of those great social science words.  It simply means they already have a clear opinion about how things ought to be.  When normative values get applied in a research setting, they lead to bias.

So, in other words. If you don’t have expertise in opinion research, your criticisms should not be taken seriously. And, if you have far too much knowledge and expertise in the substance of the poll (education law, policy and reform), you are too biased for your opinion to carry any weight. This argument is patently absurd.

As Mr. Murray frames it, only through blissful ignorance  on issues of substance can anyone be sufficiently impartial to be involved in, or make claims or arguments regarding either substance or method.  Those with knowledge and opinions derived from that knowledge are necessarily too biased to have valid concerns. I’ll admit that I have biases for rigorous research methodologies.

Like Dr. Di Carlo (who holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Cornell), I’m not a pollster. I’m a researcher and perhaps that alters my view on how research is conducted and what kinds of conclusions can be reasonably drawn from survey responses to questions with specific wording.  I generally don’t care much for polls or polling results, but I am a stickler for methods.

This poll was about policies, not politicians. And as someone who studies policies I am particularly sensitive to the details of policy design & implementation. This poll was clearly not sensitive to those details and was exceptionally sloppy in its characterization of policies and policy design. And that’s a methodological problem, and one that is so glaringly apparent because of my academic expertise in this area – not because of some normative bias – but, because of actual details, including statutes and regulations.

Perhaps I’m being too picky, and that’s just how the polling industry works. Perhaps the normative values of pollsters allow for imprecise colloquial descriptions and drawing broad unsubstantiated conclusions. That seems to be the gist of Patrick Murray’s argument, and one I find distasteful enough to require a response.

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