Be Careful What You Think The Public Thinks About Tenure

Posted by on September 19, 2011

Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray offered this response to my criticism of how he described tenure in a recent poll of New Jersey public opinion (see my brief reply and Bruce Baker’s as well).

I’m not particularly keen on arguing about the wording of poll questions. As I stated in my original post, wordings are never perfect, and one must always take this into account when trying to interpret polling results. I took issue with Monmouth’s phrasing because it is demonstrably inaccurate, nothing more.

But I do want to quickly add that, as is often the case, responses to poll questions about tenure are very sensitive to the nature of the description offered. A 2009 PDK/Gallup poll provides an illustration.

The poll split the sample into halves, with each half offered a different description of tenure.

One half of those polled were asked:

Most public school teachers have tenure; that is, after a two- or three-year period, they receive what amounts to a lifetime contract. Do you approve or disapprove of this policy?

Based on this description, 73 percent of respondents disapproved of tenure.

To the other half of respondents, the question was:

Most public school teachers have tenure; that is, after a two- or three-year trial period, school administrators must ensure a policy that a teacher be given a formal legal review before they can be terminated. Do you approve or disapprove of this policy?

With this phrasing, the distribution of responses flipped: 66 percent approved of tenure.

The takeaway here: What people think of tenure is in no small part a function of how it’s described to them. So, when it comes to polls of people’s opinions of tenure, one should interpret results – and arguments about what those results really mean – even more cautiously than usual.

- Matt Di Carlo


1 Comment posted so far

  • Great point… you can manipulate polls to say whatever the people paying for the poll want to say… the spin doctors and their politician puppets will do anything, unethical, dishonest, it doesn’t matter to them, they have a product to sell… oops I mean a candidate to promote

    Comment by Joe Sullivan
    September 19, 2011 at 4:15 PM

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