skip to main content
Americans' Education Priorities Start With the Basics

Americans' Education Priorities Start With the Basics

by Steve Crabtree

What do today's public school students need to learn to become successful adults in the 21st century? The hottest debates in American education today, such as standardized testing and funding for charter schools, question the fundamental goals of the nation's school system. It's a sign of the times -- social and technological progress continually alters what American society needs from its education system (the current focus on ensuring each and every American child receives a rigorous academic education would have seemed strange prior to Horace Mann's novel ideas about universal education in the mid-19th century), and the current revolution in information technology is no exception.

These debates will continue to rage among education pundits. But what attributes and abilities does the public think American children should attain in school?

What Are We Aiming For?

In a November 2004 poll*, Gallup asked Americans in an open-ended format what they think the major goal or goals of public education should be. Responses vary, but by far the most common theme -- touched on by 37% of Americans -- is mastery of essential academic skills such as reading, writing, and basic math. Seventeen percent said education and teaching students more generally is the major goal, 11% gave a response involving preparation for life after school, and 7% cited preparation for higher education.

Next, Gallup read respondents a list of 12 proposed goals for public education and asked them to rate the importance of each on a 1-to-5 scale. Though most of the 12 goals receive high ratings, the highest-rated items are: Students should be prepared to participate as responsible citizens, students should know how to use computers, students should be able to communicate effectively, and students should have learned how to learn. Less highly valued goals are: Students should have opportunities to discover themselves, students should accumulate facts from the social sciences, literature, and sciences, and students should develop an appreciation of the arts. 

Bottom Line

Mastering basic academic skills and being prepared to participate as responsible citizens are goals that address the fundamental, unchanging role of schools in society, and it's no surprise that Americans gravitate toward these goals. In contrast, that computer skills are ranked second on the list is a testament to a relatively new development: the impact of technology in all circles of American life.

More generally, the data seem to reflect the "back to basics" sentiment that holds sway in education policy today. The Bush administration's current call to increase math and reading testing in high schools has some educators concerned that other opportunities -- such as those in the arts or sciences -- will be closed off to students. But the general public may well support the idea that whatever the cost, the current overriding priority is seeing that all students have basic reading and math skills.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,019 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 3-29, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. 

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030