Michael Milone, a research psychologist who writes frequently on school issues, called my attention to an odd question — and troubling answer — on page 11 of the latest Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll on American education:

“In your opinion, is the ability to teach or

instruct students more the result of natural talent

or more the result of college training about how to


The poll’s representative sample of 1,000 American adults broke down this way: 70 percent said natural talent, 28 percent said college training and 3 percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer.

Milone shares my admiration of the late educational psychologist and press critic Gerald W. Bracey. Bracey often skewered report writers, and journalists like me, who did not think carefully about what they were publishing. This question inspired a Bracey-like rant from Milone:

“First of all, they should never have included the question because it is completely absurd. Second, how can that many Americans be that stupid. (Oh, wait, never mind.) If just about any other profession other than teacher had been substituted, the answer would have gone the other way. What I find so annoying is that by including the question, they have validated the mistaken opinion (think attributional error) that there is no special training needed to become a teacher, and that people are born to it. Given that the majority of human behaviors, particularly those that are intentional, are shaped by life circumstances, education, and experiences, the notion of ‘natural talent’ for teaching is akin to associating intelligence with race or flatness to Earth.”

I too find it interesting that the average American has this view, although I am not sure Milone is right in his assumption that if they asked about any other profession the answer would be different. It is very American to assume some kids in school are smart and some aren’t. The ones who think themselves not academically gifted tend not to work hard. Their parents and their teachers often accept that as proof of their inherent inability to do well in school. We have also noticed that Asian cultures tend to have a different view. They think success at school is a function of hard work, not brain power, and act accordingly.

William J. Bushaw, executive director of the PDK International Family of Associations, quickly agreed that the question was a clinker when Milone asked about it. Milone sent me Bushaw’s email:

“Every poll I’ve worked on, we have identified at least one question that at the time seemed like a good idea, but then did not end up being a particularly good question. This certainly qualifies as one of those questions. It will not be used again as long as I am the poll’s co-director.

“Fortunately for our readers, or in this case, maybe unfortunately, we promise to report the results of every question we ask. That keeps us from holding back on questions for which we don’t like the responses, which we believe would be unethical.

“Thanks for your e-mail, and as you can tell, we agree with you. The question was not well conceived.”

But maybe Milone, Bushaw and I have this wrong. Do the question and answer have value we overlooked? Post a comment and set us straight.