Central Bucks Survey Mishandled By Both Sides

July 23, 2012

Stop me if you've heard this story before. Community survey results about a school district were not favorable to the administration, so the superintendent, and school board president, questioned the validity of the survey, and refused to both recognize, and release, the results.

If you said QCSD, circa 2006, you hit the bulls-eye. As has been repeatedly documented, the administration withheld the responses of parents, graduates, and teachers for 16 months, because they were so embarrassing to the district.

But QCSD has no monopoly on survey embarrassment. The latest red faces are located a few miles south of here, in the 110,000-resident Central Bucks School District. The odd thing about this one is that those red faces should be on both sides of the matter.

Of course, there are a few differences between Central Bucks and Quakertown. CB is one of the highest-performing districts in the state, invariably ranked among the top 10 by independent evaluators. QCSD has historically been the lowest-performing district among the eight in this area, and is consistently found to be one of the worst in the extended Philadelphia area by independent publications.

But despite this education gap, the two administrations share a common trait - both despise surveys, especially those that they can not control. And especially, especially, those that show community dissatisfaction. CB is jealously protecting a good reputation. QCSD is frantically trying to create the illusion of a good reputation.

CB is in the midst of a dispute with a parent group called Central Bucks Engage, which is angry about proposed scheduling changes in the middle schools. But regardless of who is "right", if, indeed, there is a "right" here, the underlying issue has been increasingly obscured by Engage, which raised the stakes by posting an on-line survey that focused not on the middle school matter, but on residents' opinions of the quality of CB education, and the direction of the district as a whole.

Engage did attempt to create survey questions that were not biased toward either the viewpoint of the administration, or the protesters. They knew that there would be eyebrows raised, because the marketing research company performing the survey was owned by an Engage member. So they partnered with The Intelligencer, and received an important bonus: the newspaper promised to publish the results, while CB refused to disseminate the findings on the district's on-line messenger system.

The Intel ran the disclosure "Editor's note: The Intelligencer agreed to publicize the survey and its results after editors reviewed the survey questions and were satisfied they were presented in a way that allowed for all points of view to be expressed."

But this attempt at fairness overlooked perhaps the most important factor in any interpersonal relationship: human nature. People invariable do what is best for themselves, and rarely go far out of their way to carry on someone else's crusade. No matter how "fair" and "balanced" the questions, the folks involved in the dispute are the ones likely to make an effort to answer the survey, and those not touched by middle school scheduling are far less likely to log on. Especially in mid-summer.

So, it was rather predictable that the survey results were positive about the quality of CB education, but negative about the direction of the district. The Engage folks were the ones likely to answer the survey, to make their point. Most unaffected residents really didn't care - if, in fact, they were even aware of it. Only 509 people responded.

As promised, The Intel reported the findings: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being excellent, about 79 percent gave the district a rating of 8 or higher. About 73 percent of all respondents said they think they quality of education at Central Bucks has stayed the same or improved in the last five years. Almost the same number said they think the quality of education in Central Bucks will stay the same or "fall off" in the next five years. About 47 percent of respondents said they have little or no confidence in the school board and 42 percent said they have little or no confidence in the current superintendent. By comparison, only about 24 percent of respondents said they had a lot of confidence in the school board and 27 percent said they have a lot of confidence in the current superintendent. About 54 percent of respondents said they did not think the school board does a good job of representing the community, and about 57 percent said they did not think district leadership is open to ideas presented by the community.

Engage considered these results to be favorable to them. But upon further review, it ain't necessarily so. The only truly overwhelming numbers are the 79 percent who feel that the CB education is near excellent, and the 73 percent who feel that it has been that way for the past five years. Clearly the community has been happy for a long time. Point for the administration.

But the questions involving the performance of the superintendent and school board, and the community's confidence in them, were the ones that Engage hoped to use to rally public support. Yet in a survey that was created specifically for Engage, the group's "preferred answers" (negative opinion of leadership) received only about half of the vote. Compare that to QCSD's 2006 survey, when about 90 percent of respondents opposed Integrated Math. This is hardly a triumph for Engage, and, in fact, shows that there was considerable support for the CB board and superintendent. Another point for the admins.

But even when handed this apparent win, the CB leaders snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of pointing out that the results were not at all what Engage was hoping for, they foolishly opted to challenge the validity of the survey. School Board President Paul Faulkner harrumphed that it had been conducted by a company owned and operated by an Engage member, and that only 509 people had responded. Point for Engage, if only because they were still in the game.

This prompted the company owner, Doug Keith, to write a guest opinion piece in The Intel a few days later, basically saying the survey results are statistically sound, and the number, and percentage, of respondents is greater than what is necessary even to predict a nationwide presidential election, let alone understand a smaller population such as CB residents. He added that the school district is basically putting their heads in the sand if they think the survey results are not valid. Point for Engage.

So, after several escalations, and a lot of publicity, the only conclusion to be drawn from this mini-episode is that both sides mishandled the entire situation, and neither won. Engage didn't get the result they wanted, and the directors and superintendent misread those results, and trashed a survey that could be read as positive for them.

And, in the end, do we know any more about the middle school scheduling? You remember - the issue that prompted this whole mess in the first place.

The past two elections in QCSD have seen the end of the old guard's stranglehold on the school board. The new board voted overwhelmingly last December to conduct another round of surveys to determine the community's feelings about our educational process. But those surveys have been delayed by certain directors who, apparently, would prefer that our 36,000 or so residents not have any input. Next week - who has been fighting the surveys, and why.