Editorial: Value of teacher survey depends on response rate

Published Feb 28, 2014 at 12:01AM

If most teachers and principals respond to a new state survey, it could provide useful insight for policymakers. But results might be highly misleading — and damaging to good discussion and effective policy — if a smaller portion of eligible educators participate.

The 30-minute online questionnaire is available until March 24 to teachers, principals, assistant principals and other professionals, such as counselors, psychologists and social workers. Called the Teaching, Empowering, Leadings and Learning (TELL) Oregon Survey, it’s designed to reveal anonymously what these educators think of the teaching and learning conditions at their schools. It’s costing the state $250,000, with an additional $25,000 paid by the National Education Association.

Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Education Rob Saxton said in a news release the data from the survey will help inform planning and policy at schools, districts and the state.

Developed by the national nonprofit New Teacher Center, the survey asks for opinions about time, facilities, resources, community involvement, student conduct, leadership, professional development, instructional support and more.

Unlike scientific polling, however, there’s nothing to guarantee that results from a limited number of possible respondents is representative of the larger group. A small number could make it appear that educators take one position when in fact they hold another.

And it’s all but inevitable that results will be discussed as if they represent the positions of teachers at large, even if small turnout means they don’t. We’re reminded of the unscientific survey conducted about Bend’s Mirror Pond. Despite response from a small portion of Bend’s population, results were repeatedly referenced as if they reflected the will of the community.

That said, we think it’s wise of the state to try to understand the views of the educators closest to students, and a survey is one of the few methods with the potential to reach all of them. If most of those who are eligible take the survey, the information will have value. But if percentages are low, policymakers need to be careful about how the results are interpreted.