Monday, March 31, 2014

More Poll-Based Marketing

Want to see how pollsters can keep finding widespread support for the Common Core? Today we've got a perfect example to look at.

I am not a statistics or polling guy. I cannot, with any shred of authority, discuss n-curves and sampling error and any of those fancy statsy stuff. But I am a language guy, and I know when language is being used to game a system. And when it comes to polling, asking the right questions means it's not even necessary to game the statistics.

This particular poll was released last week by the Collaborative for Student Success, a CCSS promotion group that is tied directly to The Hunt Institute, which is in turn "an affiliate center" of  the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lists the usual suspects as collaborators-- Gates Foundation, Achieve, NEA, The Broad Foundation, et al. (You can find Hunt on the Osborne/Schneider Big Chart of Gates Beneficiaries-- they're one of the Core's godparents).

The pollsters gathering the numbers were The Tarrance Group and David Binder Research, and the big headline that went with their research when it appeared in USNews, among other CCSS-loving news outlets, was "Poll: Most Voters Would Support a Common Core Candidate." USNews had a quote to underline the results.

"When Americans hear accurate, straightforward information about the Common Core standards, they overwhelmingly support them because they recognize higher standards are an important part of helping kids succeed in college and in their careers," Karen Nussle, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, said in a statement.

The press release from March 21 is available on line (h/t to juliannnc for the link). So let's take a look at the "accurate, straightforward information" that the pollsters used to collect this data.

After hearing the following sentence, respondents were asked if they support or oppose the Common Core Standard.
"To ensure that all students are prepared for success after graduation, the Common Core Standards establish a set of clear, consistent guidelines for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level across subjects."

Following that statement, the poll found total support of 64%, total opposition of 24%. And you know what? If that's what the CCSS actually were, I'd probably support them myself. Hell, like many current opponents, back when I thought that this was all that CCSS were, I did support them. But back then it didn't occur to me that the absence of phrases like "research based" or "teacher tested" might mean that the standards, while clear and consistent, were also created by non-teachers without a basis in research or best practices. And as has been noted elsewhere, these standards do not meet the standards of standard standard standards.

Again-- no manipulation of statistics needed. If I wanted fewer people to express support for the Core, I might have them hear this statement:

The federal government has forced states to accept the Common Core Standards, which were written in secret by people with no educational experience, in order to create large, profitable testing programs.

If the pollsters wanted to get even better numbers, they might have had their respondents hear this statement:

The Common Core Standards will guarantee that every small child will get a free pony.

The poll also exposed the responders to three specific statements:

The standards emphasize real understanding of mathematical concepts-- not just memorization.

The standards focus on fewer topics and allow teachers to cover them all in greater depth.

The English Language Arts standards focus on critical analysis and thoughtful complicated ideas.

These also resulted in large CCSS support. "The more information that the public has about the Common Core State State Standards, the better off those standards are viewed," Brian Tringali, a partner at The Tarrance Group, said. I'm pretty sure he meant to say, "The more carefully selected hand-picked scrubbed and filtered information that the public has..." The only miracle here is that a percentage were still opposed to the CCSS. Pure conjecture on my part, but I'm going to guess that those numbers represent "People Who Believed That The Pollster's Statements Were Not The Whole Truth."

But why construct a poll like this? Why ask questions that are so completely guaranteed to draw a particular response? I'm betting the answer is in the last question:

Respondents were also asked if they would be more likely or less likely “to support a candidate for public office that supported the use of Common Core Standards in your area?”

There are polls that are meant to gain insight and understanding of what is actually happening, to glean some clearer picture of the truth. But sometimes polls are set up to send one message, "Hey! Our side is winning!!" These are meant to swing momentum, rally the faithful, encourage the pack. These types of polls can be dangerous-- just ask any GOP stalwart who was certain that Romney was going to win the White House.

This poll appears to be a focused version of the latter. The message here? Politicians who want to win should back our brand! The poll made particular note of Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Michigan or Illinois, states that need all the CCSS rallying they can get.

This is not polling. This is not even remotely an attempt to discover what the truth on the ground is. This is, once again, CCSS well-financed salespersons attempting to build momentum by buying the illusion of public support. People tend to have a magical belief in polls (kind of like their magical belief in standardized tests) and will assume that even if someone has monkeyed around with the statistical analysis, the poll itself was sound. This poll is a reminder that if you take the truth out of your questions, you don't have to lie about the answers at all.

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