Bad Questions

I don’t often agree with Jay Mathews.

Mathews was the long time education reporter for the Washington Post and now writes a weekly column for the paper. I’ve written many posts about his adoration of KIPP charter schools, the unrequited love of the Advanced Placement program, and especially his Challenge Index, his annual ranking of high schools based solely on the number of AP tests taken by students.

However, his post from last week, which is not really about education, is one I can get behind. In it, he highlights two popular questions used by polling companies that produce little to no useful information, calling them dumb and deserving of ridicule.

One comes from the annual poll done by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators. It asks people “What grade would you give your local public schools, the nation’s public schools and, if you have children at home, their schools?” The results are pretty much the same every year.

Since 1985, the results have been consistent. Respondents award their children’s specific schools the highest grades, with about three-quarters giving A’s and B’s. About half of them give their local schools A’s and B’s. About a fifth give A’s and B’s to the nation’s public schools.

My kid’s school is great. But those other schools, and the national education system, are crap. Of course PDK asks other questions about many aspects of education (in 2015, 64% of respondents said there was too much emphasis on standardized testing) but it’s that top number that is most widely reported by the headline driven media. And it’s too often used to perpetuate the “failing public schools” narrative. If people tell a survey taker something, it must be true.

The other poll question Mathews ridicules is even worse.

The right-track-wrong-track question is even more aggravating because it is so often extolled as a mark of voters’ desires. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll uses this question: “Do you think in this country things are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?”

Over the 44 years that polling companies have asked that question “results have been on the negative side nearly 90 percent of the time”. Again, the surveys include other related questions but it’s the right-track-wrong-track number that gets put into the headlines and analyzed by pundits who probably haven’t bothered to read any of the supporting data or metrics used to select the sample.

Both of these examples are why K12 math instruction needs to include a whole lot more statistics. Maybe if more people reading these headlines actually understood something about polling methodology they might push back and question both the results and the reporting of them. Some of those better informed graduates might even become presenters on those talking heads channels and bring those questions to their jobs.

Blame the Technology. Or the Students.

From the New York Times

There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, according to two surveys of teachers being released on Thursday.

An English teacher quoted in the story complained “I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention.” and later asked “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”.

However, is technology the problem? Or what it’s “doing to” kids?

Although I can sympathize to some degree, the English teacher’s statement and the opinions of a majority in the survey are a little disturbing. The whole foundation on which these studies are based* assumes that whatever is being done in the classroom is right and the kids are “wrong” in some way, due, of course, to their “constant use of digital technology”.

I wonder if anyone – researchers or subjects – seriously questioned whether what the students were asked to learn, the assignments they were given, the instructional methods might, just might, be a major factor in their “shorter attention spans”.

Is technology to blame?

Or is a large part of the problem that our education system is largely unwilling to take a reflective look at itself, to reevaluate what today’s students need to know and how to best help them learn it?


*Admittedly I haven’t read either report so it’s possible I’m completely wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Fear the Web

Journalist and media critic Jeff Jarvis has a great post on the results of a survey about privacy and Facebook from Consumer Reports. He says the magazine is suggesting that the large numbers should shock us, when they simply reflect a new openness in today’s society. And progress.

He also makes this excellent point about how our attempts to “protect” kids from the web is doing them no favors.

Last night, a good friend of mine complained on Twitter that Google had knocked his 10-year-old son off when he revealed his age. My friend got mad at Google. Oh, no, I said, get mad at the FTC and COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and its unintended consequences. It makes children lie about their ages and puts us in a position to teach them to lie. It has made children the worst-served sector of society online. The intentions are good. The consequences may not be. [emphasis mine]

In the end, Jeff is very correct in his belief that the fear mongering which comes from reports like this too often leads to inappropriate, overly-restrictive, and even dangerous legislation.

More Crap Public Policy Polling

According to a recent survey, only 21% of those polled supports “net neutrality”, which really doesn’t make much sense until you read past the headline find more than a little crap in this so-called “research”.

The worst part was that the poll really didn’t ask about net neutrality in the first place.  Instead the polling company asked “Should the Federal Communications Commission regulate the Internet like it does radio and television?”

Neutrality is NOT about the government regulating the net in the same way they do with scarce spectrum used in traditional over-the-air communications.

It’s about preventing big media companies from controlling traffic and making sure everyone gets equal access to any and all resources they choose to use.

However, it’s not surprising the survey was phrased in a way that would benefit the corporations that own the wires, not the content producers.

The poll was conducted by Rasmussen, whose work is widely known in the industry as being “biased and inaccurate“, and is a favorite of Republican candidates and their pet cable channel.

Of course, too many of our congress critters (not to mention most of their constituents) are totally clueless when it comes to public polling, and rarely look even this deep into the statistics before accepting the findings and making their policy decisions.

As always, research of any kind should be approached with a large degree of skepticism and some understanding of basic statistics, two skills kids do not learn in most schools.