Poll Dancing

By Larry Sand
August 13, 2019

The latest PDK poll is useless, as are most.

The latest yearly poll from Phi Delta Kappa, an organization whose mission is to “activate educators and other stakeholders to elevate the discourse around teaching and learning….” has just been released, and I don’t see any elevation. In fact, the poll is ultimately meaningless, although that didn’t stop the education media from hyping it as a carnival barker would; actually, carnies are more subtle.

Using a quote from PDK president Joshua Starr, LA School Report’s headline screamed, “We have a real crisis!” Over at Education Week, the grabber was a teacher grousing, “‘I Am a Fool to Do This Job.’The Washington Post claimed that the “Poll shows widespread frustration among teachers over pay and respect.” And of course union boss Randi Weingarten weighed in and griped about not enough “investment” in public schools before taking the obligatory swipe at Betsy DeVos.

The “Frustration in the schools” poll covered many aspects of the teaching profession, including respect for teachers, money spent in education, teacher pay, et al. Regarding the latter, 60 percent of those surveyed claim they don’t make enough money. Additionally, 71 percent of all adults said they would support a strike by teachers in their community for higher pay.

The essential problem with this poll – in fact the problem with a great majority of polls – is that they are not objective. Either the questions are skewed to make the point the pollsters themselves are angling for or, as in this case, PDK assumes the respondents have enough information to give an informed opinion. Regarding the latter, a notable exception is the yearly Education Next poll which first poses a question, then offers the respondent some pertinent data and then asks the same question a second time. For example, in the 2018 survey, when respondents were asked about support for increasing salaries, almost 70 percent said teachers should be better paid. However, after being told what teachers actually make, only 49 percent gave their support.

While undoubtedly Education Next’s technique is superior, I still have to question how far they delve into the data they use. Researcher James Agresti writes that teachers are paid much more than commonly acknowledged. For the 2016–17 school year, the average salary of full-time public school teachers was $58,950 in the U.S. If Education Next uses this number, it’s not wrong per se, but it is incomplete. As Agresti explains, this figure excludes hefty benefits like health insurance, paid leave, and pensions. According to the Department of Labor, such perks comprise an average of 33 percent of total compensation for public school teachers. When they are added in, teachers’ average annual compensation jumps to $87,854. And even that amount does not include unfunded pension liabilities and certain post-employment benefits like health insurance, which are not measured by the Department of Labor.

Additionally, how many of those polled know how much K-12 educators actually work compared to other professionals? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers work 1,398 hours per year on average, whereas lawyers put in 2,036 hours per annum, almost 50 percent more time on the job than teachers. Dentists (1,998 hours/year) and accountants (2,074 hours/year) also work many more hours than teachers.

With data like that given to those polled, responses would invariably be quite different. Yet pollsters don’t go there.

As mentioned, the reporting on the PDK survey was over the top. The glaring headlines and ensuing sob stories made no mention of the fact that the poll made clear that while people favored teachers being paid more, they didn’t want to foot the bill. As Mike Antonucci quotes from page 15 of the PDK report, “Supporting higher funding doesn’t necessarily mean supporting higher taxes. Given a choice, 7 in 10 or more parents and all adults say they’d rather see cuts in other government-funded programs rather than raise taxes to provide more school funding. Sixty-one percent of teachers agree.”

Of the many pieces written about the poll, Governing Magazine was the only one I could find that included the above inconvenient data on taxes.

No matter the facts, the unions will use this poll to convince teachers that they are martyrs to be doing what they do for so little money. At the same time, it makes me wonder what teachers unions have accomplished all these years if their members think they are “fools to do this job” and that there is “widespread frustration among teachers over pay and respect.”

But more than anything, please keep in mind Antonucci’s words that polling is ammunition, not information. The overwhelming majority of the time, a poll is nothing more than an agenda-driven sales pitch or is irrelevant because respondents don’t have enough information to give an informed opinion. The latest PDK poll is a great case in point.

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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network– a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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