Cherry Picking Facts + Bad Polling = Demagoguery

Teacher union boss cherry picks from a biased poll and ends up with the pits.

Cherry picking is a phrase that has become quite popular these days. The term simply refers to advancing a certain point of view by using only data which supports that POV and omitting any contradictory or mitigating information.

A recent illustration of this phenomenon is on display in an article written by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. The ironically titled Back-to-School Reality Check is, in fact, quite short on reality. The article, primarily a pep talk for teachers, uses a recent Phi Beta Kappa/Gallup poll as its motivating source. Early on, Van Roekel tells us,

“73 percent (of the poll’s respondents) said teachers should have flexibility in the classroom.”

I’m all for that. But what the union boss leaves out is that for teachers to have more flexibility they would need to tear up the telephone book-size union contract that dictates every little move a teacher makes.

Question 10 of the PDK poll says,

“Most teachers in the nation now belong to unions or associations that bargain over salaries, working conditions, and the like. Has unionization, in your opinion, helped, hurt, or made no difference in the quality of public school education in the United States?”

Cherries jubilee here! Mr. Van Roekel didn’t acknowledge this question. Why? Because 47 percent of those polled said unionization has hurt education, while only 24 percent said it helped.

Also conveniently ignored by Van Roekel were the responses to the charter school question. That’s because, of those polled, a whopping 70 percent were in favor of charter schools — a major union bugaboo — and only 27 percent were not.

Then, he reverses the cherry picking process,

“In fact, a majority of those polled (52 percent) side with teachers unions and educators who have been under attack as a new crop of governors – Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich – declared war on public employees and the middle class.”

Van Roekel is editorializing here. The poll itself did not name states or governors, nor did it say anything about war on the middle class. This is actually an example of reverse cherry picking: including information that doesn’t exist in the poll.

On the voucher question,

“…gimmicks like vouchers, (which the responders) opposed nearly 2 to 1.”

This is true. Sixty-five percent opposed vouchers, with just 34 percent in favor. But here we see a flaw in the question itself, which reads,

“Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?”

As Jeanne Allen, president of Center for Education Reform noted in a criticism of the poll’s poorly constructed and biased wording,

“Choosing a private school at public expense is not only poorly received, but of course, it is poorly worded and a fictitious scenario. Parental choice dictates where the monies allocated for one’s education go and unless those parents can’t be considered part of the public, their rights are not an expense to anyone but the school that loses their funds, presumably for failing to meet their needs.”

Regarding education funding, Van Roekel says,

“The public’s primary concern about education is funding, which ranks far above any other topic.”

While the PDK poll does indeed report that 36 percent said that lack of funding was the number one problem, the question is flawed. When the public is asked about the current level of school funding, it is incumbent on the questioner to find out if the responder knows anything about what the current level of funding is. The PDK poll was highly negligent in this area, but a new poll by conducted by Education Next asked the question correctly.

“When the public was asked whether government funding for public schools in their district should increase, decrease, or stay the same, 59 percent selected the first option, only slightly less than the 63 percent that gave that opinion in 2010, and dramatically more than in 2009 (46 percent). Affluent respondents were less willing to spend more for their district schools, but even among them a clear majority (52 percent) preferred an increase in expenditures.”

“A segment of those surveyed were asked the same question except that they were first told the level of per-pupil expenditure in their community, which averaged $12,300 for the respondents in our sample. For every subgroup considered, this single piece of information dampened public enthusiasm for increased spending. Support for more spending fell from 59 percent to 46 percent of those surveyed. Among the well-to-do, the level of support dropped dramatically, from 52 percent to 36 percent. Among teachers, support for expenditure increases fell even more sharply—from 71 percent to 53 percent. (Emphasis added)

In fact, that kind of clarity and honesty was evident throughout the entire Education Next poll. When people have the facts clearly presented, they can give informed opinions which are obviously more meaningful.

The bottom line is that a poll which is biased and does not take into account the knowledge of the people being polled is misleading and dangerous. The public is led to believe that the responders are perceptive and knowledgeable, when in reality so many are not. Combine the inevitably distorted poll results with a teachers union president’s cherry picking and editorializing the data, and you wind up with nothing more than a heaping pile of demagoguery.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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