Serious Misconduct

A recent Monmouth University poll of New Jersey residents is being widely touted by Governor Chris Christie and his supporters as evidence that people support his education reform plans. It’s hardly unusual for politicians to ignore the limitations of polling, but I’d urge caution in interpreting these results as a mandate.

Others have commented on how some of the questions are worded in a manner that could skew responses. These wording issues are inherent to polling, and that’s one of the major reasons why they must be interpreted carefully. But one of the questions caught my eye – the question about teacher tenure – and it’s worth quickly discussing.

The Monmouth poll gauges the public’s approval of current NJ tenure policies using the following question:

After working in a New Jersey public school for three years, a teacher is either given tenure or let go.  A teacher who gets tenure after this trial period is basically given a permanent job unless they engage in serious misconduct.  Do you approve or disapprove of giving school teachers tenure?
52 percent of respondents disapproved, 42 percent approved and six percent said they weren’t sure. Based on these results, the governor and his supporters claimed that most people oppose tenure.

The first thing to note about these results is that the poll’s margin of error is +/- three percentage points, which means that the 52 percent isn’t properly considered a majority opinion. But we can let that slide.

The more important problem is, as you might have guessed, the wording. Many people aren’t sure what tenure actually means, and so the manner in which the poll describes it plays a huge role in shaping responses.

Putting aside the superfluous and fully loaded phrase “permanent job,” the Monmouth poll’s description of tenure is, put simply, factually inaccurate.

They say teachers can only be dismissed for “serious misconduct." According to New Jersey’s tenure statutes, teachers can be dismissed (after hearings) for “inefficiency, incapacity, or conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member or other just cause…”

Regardless of what one thinks about the difficulty of the process of removing a teacher who is accused, a poll that describes tenure is describing the law. And the New Jersey law clearly dictates that teachers can be dismissed for a wide variety of reasons, including “inefficiency” and “other just cause." These reasons need not necessarily represent “serious misconduct." The description of tenure is therefore wrong.

Look – questions are never worded perfectly, and there is almost always a degree to which even the slightest variations in phrasing can affect responses. But when a major polling organization asks respondents about a policy, especially one that few people understand, it must at least ensure that the description of that policy is factually correct.

That the Monmouth poll failed this basic test is, frankly, a little surprising.

Moreover, the fact that, even with this incorrect wording, two in five respondents approved of tenure would seem to suggest that a fairly large proportion of New Jersey residents actually supports the policy.

- Matt Di Carlo