The morning’s lesson was about polls. Among the new terms were micro-targeting, random digit dialing, confidence interval, and custom online panel.
In a classroom in the National Constitution Center on Wednesday morning, 38 teachers from 11 states listened to Ken Winneg of the Annenberg Public Policy Center give a long and involved tutorial about how polls are conducted and what people should make of them.
Near the end, Anne Olvera, who teaches 4th grade at E.M. Stanton School in South Philadelphia, raised her hand.
“I don’t want to sound like a smart aleck, but who cares?” she asked.
“Good question,” said a smiling Winneg, whose professional life as a consultant and managing director of survey research at the Annenberg Center depends a lot on the existence of public opinion polling.
In his answer, he essentially concluded that it’s about the media’s constant focus on who is up and who is down. “It’s all about the game, winning and losing.”
The morning’s session was part of a weeklong Constitutional Scholars Institute jointly sponsored by the Annenberg Center and the Rendell Center for Civics & Civic Engagement.
At this session and others, the teachers were learning techniques to help their students understand the 2016 election, presidential leadership, and the separation of powers.
Rebecca Slater teaches a 12th-grade government class at Marble Hill High School for International Studies in the Bronx. She is always looking to add strategies for increasing her students' engagement in civic life.
The bizarre aspects of this election have made that goal even more urgent, she said.
“I’d say that most of my students come to me with either a neutral or a negative view of government,” she said. She teaches in a low-income area, and students in her school come from more than 40 different countries. She doesn’t think these demographics account for the young people’s indifferent or hostile attitude about politics and government in general, but they do contribute to their feelings this year.
Most of them, she said, are afraid of Donald Trump and what he stands for. Part of her goal in attending the institute is to find ways to help her students understand why other people have a different view and why the reality of diverse opinions is a bedrock of democracy.
“Most of my students don’t know anybody who supports Trump,” she said.
She wants her students to explore why this election is unlike any other, but also to fire them up about how important it is for them to be involved.
Slater already does some interesting things in her classroom. “My students do their own little polls,” said Slater. For instance, they ask people in their neighborhood how likely they are to vote. Among the things she wants them to understand is the difference between an informal sample and a poll using random sampling techniques – something that Winneg explained in detail.
The institute is giving her “a lot of resources and new ideas,” Slater said. She was particularly struck by a lecture about the history of presidential elections and how they have changed over time.
Besides the session on polls and election history, the teachers have heard from professors about presidential power, the Supreme Court, and the inner workings of the media. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, head of the Annenberg Center, addressed them on the evolution of presidential campaign messaging.
They also heard from former Gov. and Mayor Ed Rendell, chair of the DNC Host Committee, who, with senior federal judge Marjorie O. Rendell, founded the Rendell Center to conduct educational activities that promote "an informed and responsible citizenry."
After most of the sessions, Sally Flaherty, the social studies content adviser for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, works with the teachers on how to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom.
As their culminating activity, they were divided into teams and given this assignment: Choose the three issues that the new president should tackle within the first 100 days of the new administration, and explain how he or she would tackle them – executive order, getting legislation through Congress, or regulation.
Olvera was one of five Philadelphia teachers attending, two of whom were from Stanton, a K-8 school with just over 300 students.
Stanton is built around social studies; after all, the school is a living testament to the power of civic engagement. A grassroots campaign by students, teachers, and neighbors reversed a recommendation to close it during the 2013 District downsizing, when 23 other schools met that fate. Now it is a thriving little school.
Learning by doing is a mainstay of how the school operates.
“The focus on social studies is a schoolwide initiative,” Olvera said. “We have a student government and our own constitution of rules and responsibilities.”
Joan Williams teaches Stanton 4th graders.
“I wanted to come to see what I can incorporate into my classroom,” Williams said. “This is such an important election.”
And to those who think the 4th grade is early, her answer is simple. “These students are tomorrow’s 7th, 8th, and 9th graders,” she said. “By the time they get to 6th grade, they will know how the Supreme Court works, what it means to be a liberal, how to read a case.”
Mandisa Holder taught 7th grade last school year at the Hunter Elementary School in Kensington as a long-term substitute. She said her students were extremely interested in this election – and afraid of Trump. Although most of them are Puerto Rican and they or their family members are not immigrants, they didn’t necessarily understand that in the rhetorical jumble of this campaign, she said.
“I want to be able to properly teach them about government and about this election,” said Holder, who is seeking her certification in English and social studies and would like to continue teaching in Philadelphia.
They were having lunch with Cindy Reyes, who teaches 2nd grade in San Antonio, Texas. Reyes journeyed to Philadelphia because “I want my students to be open to all cultural perspectives.”
All four teachers said they loved meeting educators from around the country, and their sessions to develop their final presentations with team members from all over are showing them that political priorities differ across the land.
And they all said they learned a lot from Winneg’s session on polling.
Winneg agreed that the omnipresence of polling can fuel cynicism that the media is only concerned about the horse race and not about the issues. He offered two lessons: First, because of the stark division in the electorate, turnout will have more of an impact than in the past, and second, most polling at this stage is fairly meaningless.
“You have to be skeptical,” Winneg said. “During a campaign, a poll is a snapshot in time. It is meaningless the day before and meaningless the day after. That’s all you need to know about polling. It’s like entertainment. It has no meaning for Nov. 8.”
At the same time, he added: “In the last 20 elections, whoever was ahead right after Labor Day tended to win.”
The institute concludes on Friday.