Survey Mania

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In a recent Wall Street Journal article (see http://www.wsj.com/articles/poll-california-residents-support-job-performance-over-teacher-tenure-1428884268), Californians were surveyed on how they viewed tenure for teachers.  More locally, citizens of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 have been asked to vote on end-of-career salary increases, teachers’ rights to strike, and parental input on teacher evaluations.  In every case, the public wanted to change the issue in a way that would be worse for teachers.  Californians wanted to end tenure or increase how long it takes to achieve.  District 86 voters voted to eliminate end-of-career bonuses and teachers’ right to strike as well as having more input in rating teachers on their evaluations.  This trend of soliciting general opinion on specific aspects of public education might provide elected officials some sense of constituents’ views, but it undermines both the authority of those officials and makes the teaching profession even less attractive than it already is.

Let’s face it:  Most of us have opinions on teaching and public education because we attended public schools staffed by teachers for thirteen years (K-12).  And while most of us have fond memories of at least one or two of the couple dozen teachers we had over that time, just as many of us also harbor life-long grudges against that one teacher who embarrassed us or “gave” us that unfair grade or wouldn’t cut us any slack that one time we needed an extra day for a major project or wore funny clothes or…  So when we solicit people’s opinions on educational issues, we’re additionally plumbing the depths of their dark pasts when they were vulnerable adolescents to whom the merest hint of adult disapproval would lead to paroxysms of hatred and melodrama.

Then too, the role of parents has changed drastically in the last forty years, with modern parents much more involved in their children’s lives.  This helicoptering has both good and bad elements to it, but when it comes to supporting the teacher or our precious wee ones, guess on which side parents generally come down.  This fading support for teachers is in stark contrast to the old days when my parents would take away all privileges as well as my allowance each quarter that my report card had an F on it.  And it didn’t matter how many times I explained that the only reason my report card had an F on it was because that was the initial of my middle name, “Frederick.”  Basically, when we Baby Boomers were kids, the word of the teacher was only slightly less authoritative than the word of God.  If a teacher complained about our behavior or performance to our folks, the only question most of them would ask was, “How hard should I hit him for being such a horrible child?”

Things are definitely different today.  And that’s mostly a good thing, especially the hitting part.  (And no, my parents rarely spanked us, never harshly, and never for bad grades since ours were always good.)  But when it comes to giving teachers the respect and authority to do their jobs in ways they see as best, society no longer believes they merit a whole lot.  And it doesn’t seem to matter how much education or time on the job teachers have—most in this area have Master’s degrees, and the experience level at District 86, for example, has averaged about thirteen years for the last decade.  Despite that, more and more parents and community members see teachers as essentially clerical workers to be evaluated, ordered about, and whose opinions on educational policy matter less than theirs.  But just because social media has made it more commonplace to rank things and solicit input on what song summarizes your personality based on six questions doesn’t mean you should now base your life on “Life Is a Highway” lyrics.  Yeah, it’s interesting and a wonderful procrastination tool to go through that stuff to kill a minute or two, but let’s not take that huge, unsubstantiated leap from chuckling over this lightweight fluff to seeing questions and surveys that have significant impacts on people’s livelihoods as legitimate science or a triumph of democracy.

Remember that the most important aspect of any question—be it ballot initiative, survey, or gossip—is how it is phrased.  Give experienced pollsters an issue, tell them what results you want, and they will easily be able to craft a questionnaire or referendum that will garner a negative or positive result depending on your desire.  Words were a significant part of my life for the thirty-three years I taught English, so I do have some experience with how connotation (the emotional impact of words) can often trump denotation (words’  “dictionary” definitions, with no personal bias attached).  Take the end-of-career bonus question on the ballot last November for Hinsdale Township High School District 86 voters.  State law permits up to 6% raises for four years immediately preceding retirement for qualified teachers, but the November referendum saw close to 70% of those who voted reject this practice in District 86.  But supposing the question had been put to Hinsdale South residents this way:  “All high schools in the area offer their teachers 6% increases during their last four years of teaching prior to retirement.  Should District 86 become less competitive in hiring the best teachers by not offering the same bonuses that the teachers in Lyons Township or Downers Grove High Schools now receive?”  Or, “Should teachers like Dave Fetty, Richard Doherty, Rolland Lang, and Pamn Baker receive raises in their last four years prior to retirement that are less than what teachers in other districts get?”  I guarantee you that 70% of voters would not have approved those questions.

Knowledge, experience, and expertise also play a part in one’s qualifications to make reasonable choices on complex issues.  It would be difficult to try to get the tens of thousands of eligible voters in various communities in the area to spend the time and effort necessary to assess what would make up a reasonable budget for their school districts.  To put specific multi-faceted items like that on a ballot doesn’t make much sense; that’s why we have representatives elected to make those decisions.  And we have ways to let those folks know when we don’t like the decisions they make, be it through direct contact, public forums, or elections.  Again, technology makes it easier to solicit input from society on all manner of issues, but we haven’t yet figured out a way to ensure that the input we get is informed, reasonable, or even rational.

So it comes as no surprise that these polls and referendums show a plurality of people don’t believe teachers should have tenure or be allowed to go on strike.  Yet, any survey you might administer would show that a vast majority of us believe that the bankers and Wall Street financers who caused the 2008 meltdown should have gotten jail time for their sins, maybe even tar and feathering.  But that didn’t happen.  Suppose we surveyed people for their views on specific aspects of how insurance salesmen, car dealers, lawyers, or politicians should be compensated or the benefits they receive.  Isn’t it simply human nature to see what other people do as not as difficult or worth as much as they are earning?  In order to make assessments on working conditions and job protections, you really need to understand the profession well, which has never been a prerequisite to answering a survey or voting on a referendum.

And that’s another reason teachers need their unions.  Without collective bargaining laws which require pay, benefits, and conditions of employment to be bargained with teachers’ exclusive representatives; teachers wind up being buffeted by the whims of a public which does not really comprehend the challenges of teaching.  No one would argue against making sure tax dollars used to pay teachers’ salaries are spent with care and the public does have its elected officials to oversee teachers and to bargain teacher contracts with the unions; but without laws to ensure that administrators and school boards have to reach agreements with teachers cooperatively, you wind up with people claiming that $55,000 is the highest salary any teacher should earn.

As Bruce Rauner, Scott Walker, and other “right to work” advocates gain more power and influence, it becomes even more important to resist the impulse to evaluate teachers based on the worst one you ever had or your superficial knowledge of what they do.  Teaching is one of the most important jobs in democratic societies to guarantee an informed electorate won’t be taken in by demagoguery or mob impulse.  Yet, by the very nature of these ballot questions, we are denigrating the teaching profession, making it harder to get and retain excellent teachers.  And as the quality of teaching goes down, so too does the public’s ability to understand and evaluate these questions with any degree of sophistication.

I’m sure that there will be those who see this analysis as elitist or self-serving, but these same standards should apply to all who evaluate jobs about which they know very little. I certainly am not qualified to determine the worth or specific policies which should govern other public employees like policemen or state senators.  Ask me if Governor Rauner deserves the salary he is earning as a referendum item, and I’d vote “NO” for sure.  But my antipathy to Rauner and his policies doesn’t make me an expert of the specific aspects of a Governor’s job or capable of understanding the subtleties of what Rauner does.  But would I have the maturity and restraint not to vote in favor of any ballot initiative which would reduce his power or take away his benefits?  Probably not, yet despite those same biases and knee-jerk opposition tendencies, many are touting these anti-teacher votes as the basis for reducing teacher benefits and autonomy.

Certainly, the public does have a role to play in determining how many resources it is willing to devote to those who serve it.  From electing those who can devote the time and skill to understanding those jobs to providing feedback on their satisfaction with the way those jobs are being done, we have both a right and a responsibility to weigh in on how our public institutions are run.  But when it comes to making specific recommendations on complex issues about which we have neither experience nor knowledge, we should recognize our limitations.  Political leaders, on the other hand, need to restrain from or be held accountable for using expensive public elections to pander to segments of their political base.  Every job has difficult aspects to it that few outside the field can recognize or understand—that it’s legal to ignore that reality through referendums doesn’t make it right to do so.  We should do a better job of researching and understanding the issues our representatives face in order to elect those who will best serve our interests, but we need to resist the temptation to evaluate the specifics of what other people do through surveys and referendums.

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