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High School: Worst of Times or Best of Times?

High School: Worst of Times or Best of Times?

Most wish they'd hit the books a little harder

by Heather Mason Kiefer

As another school year draws to a close, many of the nation's high school seniors are graduating, signing each other's yearbooks, and reflecting upon their experiences of the past four years. When they look back on high school later in life, are their memories more likely to be positive or negative?

A recent Gallup Poll Panel survey* asked 1,000 U.S. adults to describe how much they enjoyed their high school years. The results suggest most enjoyed them. A small percentage of panel respondents, 7%, described their time in high school as "the best time" in their lives. A little more than half (54%) said high school was "a great time" in their lives, while a little more than a third (35%) described that period as "a so-so time." Only 4% said their years in high school were "the worst years" of their lives.

Importance of High School

Academically and socially, high school is a transition period between childhood and adulthood. Academic responsibilities increase, and students are given more freedom than they had in middle school to navigate their own way through the school day and interact with peers. The importance of a high school education is obvious in today's society, but which high school learning experiences are particularly essential for turning schoolchildren into productive, self-sufficient adults?

Responses to the panel survey reflect the idea that being successful in high school is about more than just getting good grades. When respondents were asked in an open-ended question to name the "single most important thing" they learned in high school, the largest percentage gave answers related to "social skills" or "getting along with others." Academic pursuits weren't disregarded -- 12% mentioned various academic subjects, 13% study habits, and 8% the importance of getting a good education.

If I Could Do It All Over Again …

Although many people don't feel academic skills were the most important things they learned in high school, a majority do wish they'd hit the books a little harder. Six in 10 respondents (60%) said they wish they'd spent more time on their grades in high school. In contrast, just 16% said they wish they'd spent more time "partying and having a good time." Fifty-one percent wish they'd spent more time on music and art -- two subjects that tend to receive a minimal amount of emphasis in high school. Thirty-five percent wish they'd spent more time playing sports.

Bottom Line

Some popular movies about high school, such as Mean Girls and Heathers, portray students who experience extreme angst and unhappiness, while others such as Bring It On illustrate teenagers enjoying their time in high school. Gallup data suggest most people experience something in between these two extremes -- they don't see high school as the best time in their lives, but very few see it as the worst time either.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,000 adults in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 18 and older, conducted March 1 to March 22, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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