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Curmudgucation: Why You Can Ignore That Hot New DFER Poll

Yesterday the Democrats for Education Reform dropped a hot new pile of steaming poll results, and some media outlets, like US News, jumped right on it. The take was that Democrat voters are hollering for charters and choice, and the candidates are acting foolishly by running in the other direction.

Here's why you (and the candidates) don't need to be excitedly about any of this.

First, it's DFER. DFER was founded by some hedge funders who hoped to steer the Democratic party in a more free-marketty direction when it came to education. Their Democrat bona fides are suspect enough that some state Dems have actually demanded they un-D-ify themselves. DFER has had a bit of a tactical problem ever since Trump moved into the White House and brought Betsy DeVos along for the ride, namely that when DFER's favorite policies come out of DeVos's mouth, they're much harder to sell. Consequently, DFER has been trying hard to make the case that Good Democrats believe in charters and choice and Practical Democrats must at least act like they support these things if they want to get elected. So this is more of that.

Second, the polling company Benenson is not a polling company like Gallup is a polling company. Says their site, "We help leaders connect with, persuade and activate the audiences you need to win." They are a high-powered PR consulting firm, ready to help you anywhere "from the political war room to the corporate board room."

The poll questions are tilted (we'll get back to that), but the big clue to what's really going on here is in their own write-up of the results. Here's how one item is presented:

Message tested: “It’s time to not only start making real investments in our public schools, but fix the way we fund them so every student gets their fair share of resources, not just those in wealthy neighborhoods. Every child deserves a chance for a great education, no matter where they live, and to make that possible, we need to start funding schools fairly.”

Message tested.

This is a survey about messaging. This is not a "what do people actually think" survey, but a "what version of our message is most likely to sell" survey.

So, of course, the various tested messages are hugely biased. This isn't even a push poll (those polls that pretend to ask question but are meant to push certain ideas into the electorate ("Would you vote for John McCain if you heard he fathered an illegitimate black child?"). This is just plain old test marketing.

So yes. The example above is a good sample-- who, exactly, would respond "No, I don't want students to get their fair share of resources"? Or this one--

Politicians have failed our public schools and our children for decades by refusing to pay teachers what they deserve. We need to raise salaries for all teachers and use extra pay and incentives to diversify teaching and recruit great teachers in hard-to-staff subjects and high-need schools. Because a great education for our kids starts with great teachers in every classroom.

That polled strongly-- probably more strongly than if it had been phrased "We need to lower the base salary for all teachers and provide bonuses only for those teachers who teach students with high test scores."

The marquee result that was boosted by US News and others was

Expand access to more choices and options within the public-school system, including magnet schools, career academies, and public charter schools.

Again, a real winner that tested better than, say, "Give public taxpayer dollars to private companies that will not serve all students and which will be run by private individuals and not elected school boards." Also note that the survey question completely skips the question of whether or not charter schools are public schools or not (they aren't).

It must have been even tougher to come up with a way to sell testing, which pretty much everyone is fed up with, but Benenson gave respondents a choice between these two options:

Require each  state to measure student achievement through statewide assessments with a consistent set of benchmarks and standards, so that we can make apples-to-apples comparisons to understand which schools are succeeding and which need help.

Allow each school district in a state to set its own benchmarks, standards, and tests, instead of statewide assessments that measure every student's achievement based on a consistent set of standards.

That's not a choice that will tell us anything about how the public really feels about high stakes testing, nor does it reflect reality.

We could keep playing this game with the whole survey, but you get the idea. It's the equivalent of asking a child "Would you rather have a pretty pony or this rotting rat carcass?" It's market testing blue packaging and green packaging without asking any questions about the product in the package.

Most of all, this is a "poll" aimed at a very small audience--the Democratic candidates and their campaigns. The message is simple-- adopt our policies and you will totally be a winner. It completely avoids the complexity and costs of some issues (charters) and the settled toxicity of others (testing) in the hope that somebody with political power will be willing to be BFFs with DFER again. Here's hoping the candidates have the sense to ignore this big pile of baloney.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.