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Polls, Politics and Education

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by Jeanne Allen
Huffington Post
August 27, 2012

In politics, poll results are often fleeting, but they are paid much attention as a gauge on public attitudes and often influence how a candidate or leader might tackle a particular issue. With convention season here and all eyes on the presidential candidates, anyone interested in education — and the economy (which should be everyone) — should take heed to view some polls with a grain of salt.

Last week, an annual survey of public attitudes toward the schools was released by the Gallup Organization in partnership with an ivory tower group called Phi Delta Kappa. It provides additional evidence that our task is a daunting one, for despite the popularity and importance of programs that support and advance parental choice and accountability in education, this poll’s findings would have you believe otherwise.

Respondents are questioned without being given critical facts, data, and context, resulting in responses that contradict today’s current climate and demand for reform. For example, while support for scholarships (aka vouchers) increased in this year’s poll, its findings mask the true strength of public support, evidenced by other polls, by using a question that is factually incorrect and contains a built-in bias against such programs. Gallup asked if respondents favor parents being able to choose a private school “at public expense.” But parents who use scholarships to move a child from a public school (failing to meet their needs) to a private school (that will meet those needs) are certainly part of the “public!” They are targeting funds designated to educate their child to a school that will actually do so.

With nearly 6,000 charter schools in existence in 41 states and the District of Columbia, and credited with a competitive push that has finally made school districts begin to address decades-old failures, PDK says that support for charter schools is falling. Our own polling shows that when people have a full and accurate definition of public charter schools, they overwhelmingly support them as an option for families. Thankfully, it’s those families and their lawmakers who govern what occurs with this public education reform and not the ivory tower!

Demonstrating that art can indeed influence reality, we are glad to see the poll recognize the growing importance of parent trigger laws to education reform. The upcoming, much publicized feature film, “Won’t Back Down,” chronicles the story of two moms who use a kind of parent trigger to improve their children’s school. Support for a parent trigger was 70%, yet another signal of the high demand for more choice in education. However, the poll question presented just one option: removing leadership of a failed school. Support would likely have been even higher had the poll included other options available to parents, such as taking over their school, or turning it into a charter school.

There are more issues that the Gallup organization surveyed which are legitimate and important to the improvement of US schools. When it comes to teacher evaluations, most people get queazy. We know people love their teachers. We do, too, but that’s not really the point. Even teachers we really like can be bad at their jobs. That’s why strong evaluations of teacher performance are a key to addressing our education crisis. The poll asks simply whether student performance on “standardized tests” should be part of teacher evaluations. Yet evaluating teachers is not just about test scores. It’s about how well students are performing against a variety of measures of academic performance, and whether a teacher is actually increasing student achievement. Had the question been posed in that way, support for teacher evaluations would be near unanimous. Indeed what effective schools offer parents is not only an extraordinary group of teachers, proficient in their field, but the confidence to know that when their kids have problems, they will be acted upon, even if that means an adult needs to be moved out.

The bottom line is parents want and need power and most states do a poor job of providing it. Parent power in education is not only a matter of public interest, but it’s a matter of public right. It’s also the only thing that is going to fix our economic problems for good. As NBC’s Rehema Ellis put it in her own Huffington Post piece this time last year, “What is surprising is that we, as a nation, aren’t fully making the connection between education, local, state and federal budget matters, and the economy.” Polls and survey aside, let’s hope that these next two weeks of convention mania yield the understanding that education reform is central to our future solvency.