It Says What? Facts, Fiction, and NEA's Foot-in-Mouth Disorder

(Update: The statistic in question was indeed released with the second half of the PDK survey’s data in September. That makes the third scenario at the end of this article the correct one, and it raises the question of why NEA was allowed to access and use a politically advantageous statistic long before the full data was released to the public. Perhaps it had something to do with NEA’s backing of the survey?)

Everyone suffers from foot-in-mouth disorder at some point in their lives. You know the situation: You’re in the middle of an important conversation, things are going well, and you’re looking pretty smart.  Then, with no warning at all, you blurt out something silly. Maybe it was offensive, confidential, or ill-advised. Or maybe it was just plain wrong.

Fear not, my friends. The National Education Association is right there with you.

As you likely know, the results of two major, nationally representative surveys on education policy issues were released recently. I wrote about the PEPG/Education Next Survey just yesterday. Today, I got to dig into the second survey, conducted by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup. Careful readers will note that I’ve outlined some issues with previous iterations of this particular survey, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. No, today I’d like to talk about what the survey results do (and do not) say.

On the whole, the survey’s results were seldom surprising. People like charter schools, but they still grossly misunderstand them. Common Core is increasingly unpopular in a variety of demographics, and people like local control. Also, the sky is blue and grass is green.

Apparently similarly unexcited about the survey’s real results, NEA saw fit to add some new material. In a press release today, NEA proudly proclaimed that:

“As opposition to the overuse of standardized tests increases, so has opposition to connecting those tests to teacher evaluations. According to the poll, 61 percent say they oppose the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluations.”

That is a truly fascinating assertion—especially because the released survey results say nothing of the sort. In fact, there isn’t even a question regarding teacher evaluations. Being the studious young policy scholar that I am, I followed up with the media relations coordinator for the survey to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Her response?  “The data point cited…was not part of today’s release.”

Oh. So, where did it come from? I’m especially curious because the PEPG survey, which is also nationally representative, appears to contradict NEA’s assertion:

“We [asked] whether teachers should demonstrate that their students are making adequate progress on state tests in order to receive tenure. Overall, 60% of the public liked the idea. Even 65% of respondents who favor tenure say it should be based on student performance. Only 9% of Americans favor “giving teachers tenure” and oppose using student performance on state tests to determine tenure.”

Interesting, right? The way I see it, there are three possible explanations for this slip:

  • NEA simply made up a statistic. In this case, shame on them.
  • NEA misread the survey’s results. If this is true, I’m obligated to point out that an organization raking in hundreds of millions of dollars every year ought to be able to afford a bit more skill and diligence.
  • NEA has access to results we don’t. The organization did, after all, serve on the advisory panel that created the survey, and there is more data due out in September. But if NEA gets early access to information that supports its particular political bent, shouldn’t that information be available to everyone?

In any event, I think it’s fair to say that NEA has some splainin’ to do. In the meantime, the organization may want to see a doctor about that foot-in-mouth issue. It appears to have gotten quite severe.