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Education Poll Disregards Context, Cancels Out Usefulness

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By Jeanne Allen
September 4, 2011
Huffington Post

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” said the late great Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And indeed, the PDK/Gallup poll underscores the wisdom offered by the former Senior Senator from New York, no doubt in the larger public policy context of his day.

While everyone has opinions, pollsters are supposed to provide at least a baseline of data to allow someone to offer an opinion on information that he or she may or may not have known before being asked a question. The annual PDK/Gallup poll lacks much-needed context, perhaps not unintentionally, rendering its usefulness nearly meaningless.

For example:

  • Asking someone about spending priorities in the absence of knowing what the nation spends on schools doesn’t really tell you what we believe about money.
  • Defining online learning as a way to learn at home, rather than learning in a fully integrated online environment supported by professionals, doesn’t really inform the reader about how much we know and like the new digital learning age.
  • Expecting the respondent to understand the impact unionization has had on the quality of public school education without mentioning union-supported protections relating to seniority, or performance pay, or pensions and benefits, fails to tell you what we really think about unions.

In that last example, nearly half of all Americans believe unions do more harm than good. The number might well be larger had the question provided more definition. There are dozens of such data-lacking examples contained in this year’s annual survey of Americans’ attitudes.

Therein lies a nugget of truth that is perhaps at the heart Senator Moynihan’s admonishment. If this is a world in which opinions matter but facts do not, is it any wonder we are failing to educate millions of students? There’s no shortage of opinions among Americans, even if we don’t have data to back them up. And isn’t that the difference between productive learning environments and ones destined to fail? Good policy and bad policy?

From pre-school to higher education, we are convinced that thinking and talking without real content knowledge is acceptable and that opinions matter, regardless of how well informed they are. Why try to find out the answers when your opinion counts, regardless of what you know?

If facts mattered in this survey, PDK would have provided context for its questions before concluding with authority that Americans believe certain things on certain issues. True, those questions do indeed hit issues we all care about. But the devil is in the details, and, without those details, we really do not know more today than we did the last time this survey was done.

Thankfully, Americans vote with their feet so we can see how they behave, which is a better way to understand where school reform sits in the hearts and minds of our neighbors, our colleagues, and our families. Their actions, not their words, are the real indicator of attitudes.