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Americans List Biggest Challenges of U.S. Schools

Americans List Biggest Challenges of U.S. Schools

by Josephine Mazzuca

Concerned about the education your child is receiving? Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa recently asked Americans their opinions on many issues related to education in public schools*. When respondents were asked what the biggest problems are that the public schools in their communities must deal with, "lack of funding/financial support" topped the list for the third year in a row. Rounding out the top five biggest problems were "lack of discipline," "overcrowded schools," "use of drugs," and "fighting and violence."

Lack of Funding

The most frequent response to this open-ended question, named on an unaided basis by almost a quarter of Americans (23%), is "lack of funding." That figure has increased substantially since last year, when 15% of respondents mentioned lack of funding. Not surprisingly, urban schools appear to be faring worse than their rural and suburban counterparts in this area: while 30% of urban residents mention lack of funding as one of the biggest problems, 22% of rural residents do so, and the figure drops to 20% of mentions by suburban residents.

Lack of Discipline

Seventeen percent of respondents mention "lack of discipline" when asked about schools' biggest problems. This number has increased only slightly over the past few years. Interestingly, Americans who do not have children in school seem to view the problem of discipline as more serious than do parents of children in public school. Eighteen percent of adults with no children in school mention this problem, compared to 13% of those with children in public school.

Overcrowded Schools

A topic that those without children currently in school are less likely to mention is "overcrowded schools." While 23% of public school parents mention overcrowding as one of the biggest problems facing schools today, parents without children in school mention it only 14% of the time. For both the overall population and for public school parents, the percentage of mentions for overcrowding has increased over the past 3 years.


"Use of drugs" was mentioned by 13% of respondents. Mentions of this problem have increased over the past 3 years. Adults who do not currently have school-aged children more often mention drugs (14%) as one of the biggest problems for schools than do public school parents (11%). As in the case of discipline problems, it may be that drug problems among students are played up by the media and therefore are perceived as more significant than other school problems.


Violence in schools received slightly fewer mentions this year than it did the past 2 years. In 2000, shortly after the shootings at Columbine, 11% of Americans mentioned school violence as one of public schools' biggest problems. This year, the figure stands at 9%. Adults with and without public school children are equally likely to mention violence as one of the biggest problems, but urbanites are more likely to feel violence in schools is a problem than are suburbanites or rural dwellers. Violence was mentioned 14% of the time by urban residents, compared to 9% of suburbanites and 6% of rural inhabitants.

Key Points

Interestingly, many of the issues that are mentioned as among the biggest problems facing public schools today are not directly related to academics. The three ‘Rs' are not the only topics concerning Americans when they think about the public schools in their communities. Today, your child's classroom may not be simply a "haven for learning," but a place that faces many of the same issues that confront society at large.

*The findings from the 2002 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,000 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 5-26, 2002. 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%.

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