THE BLOG
10/08/2014 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Polling Alone

Recent findings from the well-regarded Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll elicited snappy interpretations and familiar laments about the public's lack of confidence in public schools and dissatisfaction with teachers. But before we rush to yet more negative judgments about the condition of American education, we need to remember that while the results of opinion surveys in general are often tantalizing, it's not always clear what to make of them.

Consider public attitudes about the origins of our species. In their 2006 analysis of the General Social Survey, sociologists Michael Hout and Andrew Greeley found something startling: the percentage of respondents who think we did not develop from earlier species of animals "is actually higher for high school graduates and people with some college than for dropouts..." More recently, over 40% surveyed by the Gallup Poll this year believe that God created humans "pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years..." As surprising as this result may seem, it has been fairly steady since 1982 (when the question was first asked). What explains these attitudes? And what do they portend for the future of education--or science? The data alone don't provide simple answers.

In education, links among attitudes, evidence, rhetoric, and policy are no less murky. Some commentators and professional groups have ballyhooed the finding from this year's PDK/Gallup poll that 81% of adults now favor board certification for teachers. But thirty-five years ago, when the poll asked if teachers should be required to pass a state board exam, 85% said yes. What may look like a "turning point" in attitudes is more likely the continuation of historical tradition.

Does this fairly steady support for board certification suggest a general malaise about the quality of teaching? That's a take-away from some of the commentariat. But the story is more complicated. While the percentage of public school parents who said they had "trust and confidence" in public school teachers did decline slightly, from 72% in 2013 to 64% in 2014, two-thirds is still an impressive plurality. And last year, when the Pew Research Center asked adult Americans to rate various professions, a whopping 72% said that teachers contribute "a lot" to society's well-being. They came in second to the military, were ranked slightly higher than medical doctors and much higher than journalists, business executives, and lawyers.

What about teacher professional development? In what might be viewed as an abrupt rebuke of programs like Teach for America, the latest poll showed 44% of Americans wanting new teachers to spend at least a year working under the guidance of a certified teacher before assuming responsibility for their own classrooms (28% favored a two-year minimum). But that's not really news either. In 1980, when PDK/Gallup asked a similar question, 56% favored a one-year internship. A majority of Americans continue to favor significant preservice experience for beginning teachers, although alternative pathways may have gained in popularity.

How to evaluate teaching is a hot topic in the current reform environment. According to the PDK/Gallup poll, support for using students' standardized test scores declined from 52% in 2012 to 38% in 2014. As testing proliferates it seems the public may be growing more skeptical. But related findings--about reasons for evaluating teachers (improving their performance, weeding out the worst performers, etc.) and the benefits of performance-based compensation--deserve attention. Merit pay, or using performance to determine teachers' salaries or bonuses, was rated as very important by 46% of the respondents, which is an interesting echo from polls in 1970 and 1983, when a majority said that teachers should be paid on the basis of the quality of their work. Many Americans apparently value the principle of linking teacher pay to performance (even if they're not sure how performance should be measured).

Finally, 57% of Americans in the 2014 poll, compared with 62% in 2005, said they would like their children to become teachers. This drop may have more to do with the lifetime economic opportunities and overall status of the profession than with parents' perceptions of the integrity or personal rewards of teaching, but one cannot glean that from the raw survey results alone. One wonders, too, what the answer would be if Gallup asked parents whether they want their child to become a lawyer or journalist!

A distressing finding from the poll is the percentage of Americans who say that a college education is very important--down from 75% in 2010 to 48% today. Maybe the decline reflects concerns about the costs of higher education and the amount of student indebtedness. If so, then this suggests that the abundant evidence about economic benefits of a college degree and the nature of student debt has not penetrated public understanding. More meticulous media coverage and more thoughtful policy development might help.

Are there lessons from polling data alone? The main lesson, which may seem obvious but is worth restating, is that looking at trends is almost always more interesting than relying on a single snapshot. Following that basic principle, the recent PDK/Gallup results appear to be less an expression of sudden or increased disgruntlement with teachers than a continuing endorsement of teaching as a complex--and noble--profession.