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Apathy, Confusion, and Survey Data: What the Numbers Really Tell Us

I was going to write about an interesting article I read on ADHD, school choice, and blended learning today, but then I was distracted by a very interesting blog post on Americans’ understanding of education policy—or lack thereof. The irony of being distracted from writing about and ADHD article is not lost on me, but I choose to ignore it.

Never fear, fellow policy explorers; we will revisit ADHD school choice later this week. Today, we talk survey. Yes, again. No, I can’t be persuaded otherwise.

As you well know—and possibly as you have come to hate—I have an unhealthy fascination with surveys and the data they produce. Happily, the last couple of months have served up a veritable smorgasbord of tasty survey data for me to munch on in addition to my normal thinkin’ snacks of M&Ms and pretzel sticks. I even got to join Martin West last week for a delicious re-analysis of data from Education Next’s big survey this past summer. Now, Dr. Morgan Polikoff, a young researcher at the University of South Carolina’s Rossier School of Education, has chimed in on the issue with a blog post written for the Fordham Institute.

Polikoff takes a closer look at data gathered from the Education Next survey, the PDK/Gallup survey, and a survey of California voters conducted by the Rossier School itself. He notes some pretty wide discrepancies between the survey’s results, including the near-opposite results of EdNext and PDK on the issue of using test scores in teacher evaluations that I wrote about when the survey data was first released. He also points out that Americans are frequently wrong or uninformed about education policy issues. This is, he implies, due to widespread disinterest in the topic of education. He concludes:

The beliefs of the average voter probably aren’t a good guide for ed policy when a large proportion of the information underlying those beliefs is just plain wrong. Indeed, given the overwhelming evidence that American voters are uninformed and hold substantial misconceptions about numerous policies, incoherence may well be the defining characteristics of Americans’ attitudes toward our public schools. That is, it may not be that Americans’ views on education are all that nuanced after all; rather, they may reflect profound ignorance and misunderstanding of our education system and the policy efforts we have pursued over recent years.

Ouch. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Polikoff is fully wrong. I do, however, think he is misdiagnosing the root cause of the problem. After pointing out Martin West’s analysis, which indicates that Americans “get” their own schools but are rather oblivious when it comes to the complex machinery behind them, policy buddy Ross Izard used comment section to offer another perspective:

I’m not sure that Americans’ misunderstanding of education policy is as much a function of disinterest or apathy as you imply, though that may certainly be the case in many instances. Rather, I think what we are seeing is stark evidence of just how bloated, overwrought, and cumbersome the “education system” has become. Even politicos and policy analysts (myself included) often find themselves awash in vast seas of Kafkaesque bureaucracies and incredibly complex, often broken policy webs.

I have no idea what “Kafkaesque” means, but I think Ross is saying that the education policy world is too darn complicated. And although Polikoff seems to advocate for the exclusion of the uncaring masses, Ross provides a kinder, gentler solution:

I believe information provision, streamlining, and further reform are the answers to the problems you outline in this article. More importantly, I believe our focus ought to be enabling more Americans to productively participate in the education policy world rather than simply excluding them on the basis of ignorance.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. See you next time.