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Assessing Public Opinion

Module by: Elvis Auterbury. E-mail the author

Summary: The content in this module is aligned with the Educational Leadership Constituent Council (ELCC) Standard 4 and the Texas State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) Competency 002. ELCC Standard 4.0 - Candidates who complete the program are educational leaders who have the knowledge and ability to promote the success of all students by collaborating with families and other community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources. SBEC Competency 002 – the principal knows how to communicate and collaborate with all members of the school community, respond to diverse interests and needs, and mobilize resources to promote student success.



This module has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and sanctioned by the National Council of the Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a scholarly contribution to the knowledge base in educational administration.


The goal of this module is for students to learn the value of measuring the attitudes and opinions of the public in order to understand how people think and feel about a school system.


At the conclusion of this module the student will be able to:

  • identify basic research questions for a community survey
  • understand the critical steps in conducting a community survey
  • develop conclusions and recommendations based on survey data
  • reflect on the value of opinion research


The efforts of a school district to improve its ability to address the needs of the community and gain greater connectivity with its citizens should be based on reliable data. More and more school leaders have come to understand that cooperation between the community and the school creates the most constructive environment for implementing positive change.

Opinion research started in the field of marketing but soon spread to other organizations including public schools. The most prominent public opinion poll on education is the one conducted each year by the Gallup Organization. It surveys the public concerning their opinions about current issues impacting the elementary and secondary schools in the United States, and the results are reported each year in the September issue of Phi Delta Kappa’s professional publication The Kappan. A similar type of survey at the local level could reveal the following:

  • the public’s level of knowledge about issues facing the district
  • the public’s attitudes toward addressing the issues
  • the public’s perception of district effectiveness

Types of Opinion Research

Gallagher, Bagin and Moore (2005) identified six methods of surveying in their book entitled, The School and Community Relations. Each method has advantages and limitations. The methods and some of the characteristics identified are:

  • Personal Interview: It ensures a high percentage of returns and is more likely to provide correct information; however, it is time consuming and creates safety issues for the interviewers.
  • Drop-Off/Pick-Up Questionnaire: It provides a high percentage of returns and minimal training of people; however, it is time consuming and creates safety issues for the interviewers.
  • Mailed Questionnaire: Mail costs are cheaper than transportation costs and reaches most groups; however, it produces a low percentage of returns and may produce biased results.
  • Automated Telephone Questionnaire: This method covers a wide area and interviewers are not needed; however, a representative sample is difficult to attain and technical expertise is needed. There is also a higher percentage of “hang-ups”.
  • Internet Surveying: It is fast and inexpensive; however, it produces a low return rate and may fail to obtain a representative sample.
  • Telephone Interview: It is inexpensive and requires little training; however, unlisted telephones and caller identification may make it difficult to attain a representative sample.

An assessment of the pros and cons of the six methods of surveying indicates that the telephone interview is the most appropriate approach for graduate students enrolled in an Educational Leadership Program.

Purpose of the Survey

The instructor will contact a school district superintendent and develop an agreement for the class to conduct a community survey for the district. This process requires the instructor to maintain a working knowledge of area school districts in order to have some indication of the appropriateness of a survey for a district. The superintendent usually obtains board of education approval before final authorization for the survey is granted to the instructor and the class.

The instructor visits with the superintendent about the basic purpose for the survey. Often the district needs to know public opinion concerning a proposed facility improvement program. If the class conducts a survey of this type, it is imperative that the data produced be accurate and reliable. The students must understand their responsibility to exhibit conscientious and dependable work habits for this entire effort in order to produce reliable results. More importantly, the superintendent and the board of education will make definitive and important decisions for their district based on the product produced from the survey.

Occasionally, a district will want a community survey to determine public opinion about the academic programs and potential changes such as changing the grade configurations of campuses. Districts have also requested surveys of public opinion about the performance of the board of education, administration, faculty, and the staff. Other topics of interest have been student safety, discipline, extra-curricular activities, dress codes, length of the school day and many other program related issues. Regardless of the reasons a district wants the survey, the instructor and the class must exhibit the highest level of professional behavior during the entire process.

Opinion Research Technique

The reliability of this type of research has been proven over and over. This survey research can reveal the type of program improvements desired by citizens, their willingness to financially support facility improvement programs, the type of information they have about the school district, and which groups of individuals within the general population support district efforts. Therefore, the results from properly conducted community surveys become invaluable to school district leaders.

There are two requirements to ensuring valid results from an opinion survey. Number one is to be sure everyone understands the research questions. Generally, the most important research questions evolve around the issue of age. Large numbers of senior citizens often “turn out to vote,” and their attitudes toward financial commitment to the school district may be different from individuals in younger age groups, especially those with children.

There are frequently differences of opinion about school district actions between the people who have lived in the community for several years and those who have recently moved into the area. Another basic difference of opinion may evolve between those who have children or grandchildren attending the schools and those who do not have children in school. Age, educational attainment, income, ethnicity, and the area of the district in which a person resides are factors that may generate valid research questions. It is important for the instructor to involve the students with the school district administration in the identification and development of the research questions.

The second requirement for ensuring valid results from an opinion survey is the selection of the sample. An assumption that is often made is that the population surveyed should include only the registered voters of the school district. Within that group of individuals, it is imperative that every person has an equal chance of being selected to respond to the survey questions. Only when this scientific method is used does it produce results that we can assume represents the thinking of the larger group.

Working with the Material

Student Assignments

The instructor will divide the students into small work groups in order to complete the survey process. It is important to give each student an equal opportunity to work on his/her preferred aspect of the total effort. The instructor may develop criteria for the work groups that include age, sex, ethnicity, or current work location. Occasionally a flip of a coin may be necessary to break a tie between students who want to perform the same task. The small group assignments and the percent of the class needed to complete the task are:

> Survey Preparation (10)

> Press Conference ( 5)

> Selection of Sample (20)

> Secure Telephones ( 5)

> Script, Outside Cover and Inside Cover Pages ( 5)

> Telephone Calls (Total Class)

> Analysis of Data (15)

> Description of School Setting/Report Writing (15)

> Summary, Conclusions, Recommendations (10)

> Compilation and Editing ( 5)

> Printing and Binding ( 5)

> Presentation to the District ( 5)

1) The survey preparation requires extensive interaction between the students and the school district administration. The survey questions need to reflect the purpose and intent of the school district. The survey questions are categorized as follows:

  • research questions
  • communication questions
  • program questions
  • facility questions
  • informative questions.

Research questions and their vital role have been addressed previously. Communication questions seek information about how the interviewee hears/learns about “what’s going on in the district”. Program questions seek information about how the interviewee feels about academic and other district programs. Facility questions seek information about whether the interviewee is aware of the current status of the physical plants, facility plant needs, and whether he/she would vote for a tax increase to pay for bonds to fund needed improvements. Informative questions increase public awareness. This type of question is usually stated in a “yes or no” format. This type of question might ask the interviewee if he/she knows that the taxes for people age 65 and older are frozen and would not increase if the bond issue passes.

The small group will bring draft questions to the class, and each question will be analyzed carefully to make sure it communicates the intended message. This requires a considerable amount of class time. It is the responsibility of the class to ensure the validity of each question. We may want to describe how to validate the questions.

The final task for survey preparation is a determination of the average length of time required to respond to the questionnaire. It is desirable to keep the response time at approximately eight or nine minutes, and this dictates a survey length of no more than seventeen or eighteen questions.

2) The purpose of the press conference is to inform community members of the impending survey and the possibility that he/she could receive a telephone call. The amount of press coverage for each survey varies greatly. The last survey conducted by the author attracted two television stations and two daily newspapers. Other press conferences have not attracted anyone. Local newspapers will usually write an announcement of the survey even if they do not attend the press conference. The superintendent and the board of education president are the most logical persons to conduct the press conference. The school district’s objective for the survey needs to be communicated along with the names and numbers to expect on caller identification.

It should be noted that the local educational television channel is an excellent communication tool for the survey regardless of local media coverage.

3) The importance of the selection of a valid random sample has been previously stated. This is the most difficult and time consuming task for a small group. The process begins with a member of the group securing an official voter registration list from the court house. The cost for attaining the list is normally paid by the school district; however, the group must receive approval from the superintendent before requesting the list.

The number of telephone exchanges that are shared by nearby school districts is a major factor in determining how difficult it is to identify the telephone numbers of registered voters in the school district. The group must mark out each name in the phone book that is not on the voter registration list. If all names from an exchange are on the voter registration list the process moves quickly. Otherwise, the process requires a considerable amount of time. Regardless of the time required to complete the task, it is absolutely necessary that it be done correctly.

The group must then determine the number of surveys that need to be completed in order to have a statistically significant sample of the survey population. Students can normally complete fifteen to twenty questionnaires in less than three hours, and that usually exceeds the acceptable criteria. The instructor will make the final decision concerning how many completed surveys are required for each student.

The final list of the registered voter telephone numbers should be counted. The count of telephone numbers is then divided by the number of students in the class, and that number is divided by the number of completed surveys expected for each student. For example: 5,671 registered voter telephone numbers, divided by 29 students in the class, equals 195 divided by 17 completed surveys for each student, equals 11.

The small group returns to the marked telephone book containing the numbers of registered voters and using a random number table selects a phone number from among the first nine numbers listed. Counting down eleven phone numbers from the randomly selected number, the group will highlight the number and proceed to highlight every 11th phone number in the phone book. The group will prepare a unique group of 17 sets of telephone numbers for each member of the class. The small group will maintain a master list of the phone numbers provided to the class members.

4) There are three issues to be addressed when securing telephones for the evening of the survey. There must be enough telephone instruments to provide an individual phone for each member of the class. The site providing the telephones must have as many outside lines as there class members, and the issue of any potential long distance charges needs to be resolved prior to making calls to school district patrons.

5) The small group preparing the script and inside and outside cover pages does not have a demanding task. The script is the introductory statement each student will make when the interviewee answers the phone. It is short and identifies the caller as a graduate student at the university, the purpose of the call, and the approximate response time required to complete the survey. The student does not provide his/her name to the interviewee.

The group usually develops an outside cover page that reflects the “district signature” and/or the high school mascot and colors. A template can often be secured from the district. The inside cover page may be a duplicate of the outside cover page or some other appropriate format.

6) All members of the class make telephone calls to district patrons. Each student has a designated number of survey instruments to complete (17 in the above example). The students should be courteous to all interviewees regardless of what may be said to them. It is not uncommon for patrons to use inappropriate language or make disparaging remarks about the school district and/or an individual staff member. Students may begin to make phone calls as soon as the regular user of the phone completes the work day. All calling to patrons should cease at 9 pm.

As previously stated, each student will have a unique set of telephone numbers that highlight every 11th number. The student will call the first highlighted number. If a person does not answer, the student will dial the next number in the group of eleven and proceed to call numbers in that group of numbers until a person answers and responds to the survey questionnaire. The number of the person that answered should be placed at the top of the survey form. The student should place a check mark by each number that “did not answer” for use in the event additional numbers are needed later in the evening. After a survey form is completed, the student will proceed to the next highlighted number and repeat the process outlined above. This will be repeated until the student completes the designated number of survey forms. (Students finishing their calls before other classmates often volunteer to make additional calls)

Class members should be cautious when using the person’s work area and telephone to which they are assigned for the evening. The students should avoid leaving candy wrappers or other debris on the desk. The standing rule is “leave the desk and work area the way you found it”.

7) The small group preparing the data analysis should collect the completed survey instruments from the students as they finish their patron calls. The group generally needs to prepare a draft copy of the data analysis within one week because timelines are always short. The survey data should be presented in a bar chart or pie chart form. Color is preferred because it presents the data more vividly. Survey Monkey is an online service that students may find helpful in completing this task. The survey instruments should be filed for a period of time after the survey project is completed because the school district may receive an open records request. It is desirable to be able to prove that the sampling was done correctly and all areas of the district were equally represented in the survey.

8) The small group with the responsibility for writing an introductory description of the district and a report that reflects the data must also prepare a document in a short period of time. The introduction should list the names of board members, administrators, and other important individuals. Correct spelling is imperative. Statements that describe the pie chart and/or bar charts should be appropriately placed on the page with the chart(s). The statements should be factual and not include the opinions of the students.

9) The summary, conclusions and recommendations are the most important section of the report. The instructor should work very closely with the small group responsible for this assignment. The recommendations need to be consistent with the goals and direction of the board of education and superintendent. Failure to complete this task correctly will negate all of the good will that this project may generate for the university.

10) Compiling and editing the document is routine but important. Pages that are out of order ruin the positive impact of the report. Misspelled words or incorrect grammar cast a negative cloud on the students and the program. The students need to be careful and accurate.

11) The printing and binding of the report is another routine task. Color is desirable for the reports presented to the school district. Upside down pages or other errors ruin the positive impact of the report. The students need to be careful and accurate.

12) The presentation of the survey report to the district is very important. The small group needs to be well prepared and professional in approach and appearance. A practice session with the class prior to the actual presentation is desirable. The press is invited to the presentation and all students should be prepared to talk with media representatives. Students often receive newspaper and television coverage as a result of this activity. The instructor should be alert to the fact that various members of the press may call prior to the presentation and want you to reveal survey results. Do not release any information to the press before the presentation to the district.

Class Reflection

The purpose of this module was for the student to learn the value of measuring the attitudes and opinions of the public in order to understand how people think and feel about a school system. Place the students in groups of four or five and ask them to reflect on the survey process and decide how valuable it was to the school district. Students will also discuss the value of this activity to them as future administrators. The group will then share their conclusions with the rest of the class.

The objectives of this module were for the student to be able to understand all aspects of the community survey process and reflect on the value of the process. Place the students in groups of four or five and ask them to reflect on:

  • the aspect of the survey process that was most important to the final product
  • the aspect of the survey process that was contrary to their thinking
  • the aspect of the survey process that they believe will most impact the school district
  • the aspect of the survey process that will alter their administrative approach

The groups will share their thinking with the rest of the class.

The groups will prepare a written synopsis of the two reports to the class and submit it to the instructor.


It is appropriate for the instructor to monitor the actions of the school district surveyed and assess the results in relation to the community survey conclusions and recommendations. Survey results are normally accurate within a few percentage points of the results of a community vote on a bond issue. If that does not occur the instructor may want to investigate why the deviation occurred. If it does occur, it encourages the instructor and another class to encourage a school district to participate in an opinion research project with the university.


Gallagher, D., Bagin, D., and Moore, E. (2005). The School and Community Relations (8th ed). Boston: Pearson.

Kowalski, T.J. (2004). Public Relations in Schools (3rd ed). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.

Meek, A. (1999). Communication with the Public. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Smith, R.D. (2005). Strategic Planning for Public Relations. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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