Americans' faith in the public schools is shaky. Recent Gallup polling shows only 37% of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in public schools, and a slim majority, 51%, are dissatisfied with "the quality of education students receive in kindergarten through grade 12 in the U.S. today." Attitudes are more negative than what Gallup observed last year, but they are generally in line with opinion in recent years.
That sense of uneasiness has persisted for years amid reports such as the one the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OCD) released last week, which finds the United States is losing ground to the rest of the world in education outcomes such as international test scores and high school and college graduation rates. This relative decline is taking place even though the United States spends more per student than any other country except Switzerland. OCD Director Barry McGraw concludes that the U.S. school system is "clearly inefficient."
A new Gallup Youth Survey* asked students (teens aged 13 to 17) a series of questions about how well they feel their schools are preparing them for life. Teens were first asked to assign an overall grade to the school they attended last year; 28% give their school an "A," while about half (49%) give a "B." Just 5% of teens say their school earned a "D" or "F."
Teens are positive about several specific ways in which their schools may be equipping them for the future. Asked to rate their level of agreement on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) scale with several statements on this topic, a majority of teens assign a "4" or "5" to each. Teens are particularly likely to agree that they're mastering what their parents would consider "the basics," and that their teachers maintain high academic standards. Teens are less certain about their school's ability to aid in self-discovery; just 53% agree "my school is helping me figure out who I really am."
Finally, teens were asked perhaps the most important question in terms of their future happiness as U.S. workers: Is their school helping them figure out the type of work they would love to do as a career? About two-thirds (65%) say yes. Interestingly, though boys and girls respond similarly to each of the other items in the survey, boys are more likely than girls to answer positively on this question. Nearly three-fourths of boys feel their schools are helping them determine what kind of work they would love, compared with 56% of girls.
When teens were asked in an open-ended format what their school could be doing better to help them narrow down that important career choice, more than a third of respondents suggest simply adding more class options. Many teens also suggest expanded career counseling assistance and a "Career Day" in which community professionals come to the school to discuss their fields.
One 15-year-old girl suggested schools should offer individualized classes in career development: "I would like my school to offer courses that show a variety of careers based on a class we do well in. For example, I like my English class. I'd like for there to be a class that was offered that was called 'Career Choices for Those Who Enjoy English' or something to that effect."
*These results are based on Web surveys with a randomly selected national sample of 600 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted July 6 to Sept. 4, 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 ±4 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.