Market Research in Public Education

AASA keeps its ear to the ground to devise strategic messages by Michael A. Gross

Most likely, as you are reading this, survey research is being conducted somewhere in your state, city or even neighborhood. Political candidates are conducting surveys to uncover the attitudes of their constituents; the corporate world is conducting research to test the desirability of new products and services; and academics are commissioning studies on all manner of topics.

We can gauge the importance of marketing research simply through an examination of the wide range of organizations that use research. These organizations include small and large businesses, manufacturing and technology companies, policymakers, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.

Marketing research focuses on the identification of customer needs. To determine these needs, researchers gather information that subsequently can be used for various purposes, such as positioning an organization against its competition or strategic planning. While the customers, products and needs in the area of public education differ from business, marketing research principles can be equally useful.

A Pressing Issue

Each quarter, Ipsos-Public Affairs asks a sampling of Americans: “In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing the United States today?” The most recent results, gathered from Jan. 5-7, 2004, demonstrate that despite concerns about unemployment, terrorism and health care coverage, education was identified as an important problem by nearly one quarter of respondents (22%), on par with the number of respondents selecting war (20%) and the economy (26%) as the key issue of the day. Despite the overwhelming amount of news coverage devoted to the economy and terrorism, a significant proportion of Americans still believe education is a pressing problem in this country.

While clearly important information, by itself this does not produce a conclusion that educational leaders can act on. To understand the needs of parents and voters regarding public education, AASA contracted Ipsos-Public Affairs to conduct education research on its behalf. This research program is designed to discover public attitudes about education, track these opinions across time and help develop a strategic information campaign.

One of the most useful marketing research tools that has been applied to education research is the qualitative focus group. Focus groups are an excellent means to uncover the ways in which parents and voters think and speak about education. Focus groups allow researchers to ask why people think the way they do on a certain issue.

In focus groups conducted for AASA last summer, Ipsos-Public Affairs found that among the parents and voters we spoke with, perceptions of the education system were mixed. Teachers received a lot of sympathy and were seen as dealing with circumstances beyond their control. Administrators received some sympathy as well. Participants were not likely to blame administrators but were likely to hold them responsible for increasing communication with and involvement of parents.

Public Thinking

More important to the development of a strategic communications campaign, the focus groups helped uncover how people think about public education and why they think that way. Specifically, we wanted to understand what people were seeing, reading and hearing about education in the news. In addition to awareness of the education news, we also discussed the specific content in order to see what types of news people thought of as positive and negative. Further, we discussed the various sources of news.

Overall, participants reported seeing little positive news about education. Most negative stories focused on funding problems and safety issues and came from state and national sources. Any positive news came mostly from local news sources and focused primarily on improving test scores and higher graduation rates. More importantly, from a communications point of view, was the finding that parents absorb news about schools; nonparents ignore a lot of news about education, both good and bad. This clearly has implications for delivering a positive message about public education to the general public.

The findings from the focus groups conducted in July were used to develop two quantitative telephone surveys, one administered in late August and the other in late October. Both surveys were administered to roughly 1,000 adults nationwide. The margin of error associated with these surveys was 3.1 percent.

The importance of the telephone surveys lies in their ability to determine in a statistically reliable way where the attitudes of the American public fall on issues of importance to education leaders. Quantitative surveys permit education leaders to see the distribution of public support on critical issues and determine, in a meaningful way, how effective their efforts are at swaying public opinion. Quantitative surveys provide concrete means for measuring progress (or lack of it).

To address the needs of AASA, namely understanding the dynamics of public opinion on education in order to develop an effective strategic communication campaign, the Ipsos-Public Affairs surveys in August and October focused on the American public's awareness of education news, the sources of education news, the credibility of news sources and the content of education news. These elements define the needs of education consumers (parents) and the public at large (the majority of voters who do not have children in school). By determining the needs of the public in regard to public education, AASA has critical information that enables the association to tailor messages for education leaders to use to influence attitudes on public education in a positive way.

Negativity Rules

The findings from the two Ipsos-Public Affairs surveys indicate that evaluations of public education in this country are holding steady. Nearly half (48 percent) of those surveyed rated public education as “good.” In addition, news about public education has high recall. Nearly three in four respondents indicated seeing, reading or hearing education news in the last month. Print (49 percent) and television (35 percent) were the most prevalent sources of education news with local newspapers (82 percent) and local news programs (70 percent) providing the bulk of education news.

However, positive news about education is overshadowed by negative news. Sixty percent of respondents recalled seeing, reading or hearing negative news items and more than 60 percent stated the most recent news made them feel worse about public education in this country. Despite the sizeable majority that feel affected by negative news about education, only a slim majority (51 percent) believe public education is headed in the wrong direction.

This information indicates that for the purposes of getting out a positive message about public education, the local media is the best avenue to use to maximize recall and influence opinion. The findings also indicate that education leaders have significant challenges ahead in turning the news cycle to their advantage. However, this provides a clear benchmark against which communications campaigns can be judged.

Another theme that directly addresses the needs of the public regarding education is the credibility of news sources when it comes to education. On this front, education leaders can be much more optimistic. Teachers and principals have the most credibility when it comes to public education, indicating that positive messages originating from school-based staff carry enormous weight in the American public. Eight in 10 respondents rated teachers as credible; nearly seven in 10 rated principals as credible news sources.

In addition, a majority of people view school administrators, school board members, superintendents and their local media as credible sources. The national media, as well as state and federal officials, are seen as much less credible sources of education news by the public. In October polling, 48 percent reported the national media was a credible source of education news; only four in 10 reported state and federal officials were credible sources of education news.

In AASA’s focus groups, we were able to hear how parents and voters talked about issues related to public education. Hearing the words and phrases they use to describe the main issues was invaluable in developing messages that could be tested in a quantitative manner to gauge support for public education measures among the public.

For example, funding issues were raised by both parents and voters. Specifically, any cutbacks in public education funding were perceived as a negative. In the August polling, we asked respondents to rate their approval or disapproval of a number of measures that could be taken if a public school in their community was not making progress toward meeting state-approved standards for student learning. Echoing the focus group findings, only a third of respondents indicated approval of withholding state or federal education funds. Conversely, nearly three in four indicated approval of awarding additional state and federal funding to these schools.

Message Formulation

Another set of discussions in the focus groups centered on goals for public education. By using the language of the participants when talking about goals, we developed a set of goals for respondents to rate. Many of the goals were similar but were worded slightly differently. The results were striking. Only half believed “basics as a foundation for critical thinking” was an extremely important goal, but nearly seven in 10 reported that “mastery of the basics” was an extremely important goal. Similarly, only a quarter of respondents reported “meeting state targets” as an extremely important goal. Nearly four in 10 believed “meeting high expectations” was extremely important.

Greater acceptance of the more general formulation of education issues was seen in a number of messages. In addition to the goals, we tested a number of messages about student learning. Overall, “student progress” was preferred over “meeting achievement goals,” particularly when referring to students with disabilities. This finding is extremely important for formulating a strategic communications plan.

Our previous work in education has discovered that when it comes to funding issues, Americans have a strong desire for more specificity. For example, funding for education or schools meets with only modest approval. However, when funding issues are raised with specificity, such as “additional funding for teacher salaries” or “additional money for school renovations,” much more support is garnered in the American public.

Another example from recent polling completed for AASA dealt with broad messages for supporting public education. One message posed to the survey participants was: “Public education—while being asked to do more for more children with fewer resources—also faces threats and attacks from those who would divide supporters of public education into narrow, special interest groups.” A strong majority (71 percent) agreed with this statement. However, a more general message, “We need to stand up for public education to make sure that public schools continue to fill their role as a cornerstone of the common good, providing the foundation for the civic society that is critical to our democracy” garnered virtually unanimous agreement (96 percent).

Generating Support

Market research is invaluable in helping determine customer needs. In education, as in any other business, there is a need to understand where the public stands on issues of importance. Knowing this permits education leaders to address the expectations of the public in ways that are meaningful. In addition, marketing research can help identify specific areas of progress and avenues for improving attitudes on education in the general public.

Finally, marketing research can provide insights into messaging strategies that work well in the general public, allowing education leaders to provide a concise, targeted message that will affect the public in a positive way. Information is clearly the key to preparedness in the business world, and is no different in education. Being armed with information on the public’s likes, dislikes, attitudes and opinions is an invaluable tool in fashioning and delivering key messages to increase support for public education.

Michael Gross is research manager at Ipsos-Public Affairs, 1101 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036. E-mail: michael.gross@ipsos-na.com