Majority Support Public Education?

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In a time of what seems to be fading enthusiasm for public education, a poll conducted by Democrats for Public Education (DPE) claims this perception is incorrect.  These articles from the NJToday.net (http://njtoday.net/2014/10/02/poll-says-voters-back-public-education/) and The New Jersey Newsroom (http://www.newjerseynewsroom.com/nation/those-slamming-public-education-out-of-step-with-parents-and-voters) review this poll’s conclusions, and make some interesting observations.  According to the poll, a significant majority of Americans feel that their schools are doing a good job and are satisfied both with teachers and how their tax dollars are being spent.

Teachers and their unions, however, have been large donors to the Democratic Party and its candidates over the years, which definitely casts a shadow over any results coming from a political source.  So, yeah, there’s a slice of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” going on here. (If it feels true in your gut, then it is true.  For all of you unfamiliar with that now-in-the-dictionary concept from our dearly beloved and recently deceased Colbert Report, you can check out Stephen himself explaining the concept at http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/63ite2/the-word—truthiness.) Of course, there will be those whose truthiness feelings will tell them that this poll is total nonsense, entirely contrived by slick pollsters hired to prove a foregone conclusion.

So where does that leave us?  I can’t deny that I like the results of this survey—that despite all the negativity toward our whole education system which has been featured so prominently in the nation, in our state of Illinois, and by school board of Hinsdale Township High School District 86; a sizable majority of people in the U.S. like teachers, public education, and the value they get for their school tax dollars.  But at the same time, there certainly does seem to be a great deal of criticism, talk of accountability, and attempts to restrict some of the rights teachers have attained in the last thirty or so years.  For the people who see public education from that perspective, it’s hard to believe their views will change in the least based on a survey promoted by a Democratic group.

And that’s the sorry state of our political debate these days.  We evaluate the source of any news, assume the most cynical attitude toward that news if it comes from a political orientation not to our liking, assume the most noble motives (including veracity) if it comes from a bastion of sainthood (translated: a source we like and agree with), and keep our minds firmly closed when it comes to any ideas that don’t fit our preconceived notions.  I have to admit that were there a survey published by an anti-teacher Republican group, I’d be extremely skeptical of the results, especially if those results showed that teachers are hated by the public, a majority favors private over public schools, and most begrudge every cent of education money on their tax bills since they believe it’s money wasted (all opinions I don’t share).

Who am I kidding? I’m sure there is a published survey out there somewhere that attests to those last three supposedly hypothetical suppositions.  That’s another aspect of the problem—we have good reasons to be cynical about our news sources.  Not only do groups with political agendas try to distort the news with their various hired experts’ spins, but the science of psychology has “progressed” to the point where it isn’t particularly difficult to design a survey in a way that will get you whatever results you want.  How questions and directions are phrased can have a significant impact on a poll’s results.

Just think about a few years ago when some government officials claimed that it wasn’t “torture;” it was “enhanced interrogation.”  What we should have been having back then was  the difficult, nuanced debate on whether the ends justify the means when there’s a possibility of saving lives, countered by those who would point out we’ve completely lost our values when we resort to the inhumane behavior we find so reprehensible in others.  Instead, we attacked those who disagreed with our view on that issue either as enemy-loving traitors or Nazi-esque monsters.  It was never advanced that both sides had points worth considering and that we should be openly working to find a compromise between such different approaches.  Instead, we got to read about what actually happened with horror over a decade later in a Senate report.

So this is definitely a much bigger issue than citizens’ attitudes toward public education.  Rather, articles like these illustrate the difficult times we live in when it comes to information.  These are two mainstream media sources.  Can we assume that they have investigated how the survey was constructed, how connotatively neutral the survey questions were, and were all types of Americans adequately represented in appropriate percentages?  That’s a pretty high standard; but anything less leaves us with a compromised understanding of what this survey means.

I’m sorry to have wandered so far from the original lead in this article, but insisting that our sources strive to reach a much higher level than we’ve seen in the recent past is significantly more important than a snapshot of a fickle public’s opinions on public education this week.  It’s also incumbent upon all of us to do our best to shunt our biases to the side so we can better assess the facts our media outlets provide.  That I have to go through such mental gymnastics just to read a simple analysis of a recent poll shows the difficulties in finding fair and balanced news sources out there, not to mention the struggles to overcome personal opinions when doing so.  Here’s to more objectivity and impartiality in our news sources with much less reliance on “truthiness.”  And may we as citizens be better able to consider all points of view reasonably without succumbing to our own emotional biases.

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