The American public believes that improving the nation’s high schools should be the country’s number one education priority, according to a poll released on August 24 by the Alliance for Excellent Education. According to the poll, 83 percent of Americans believe there is an “extremely urgent” or “very urgent” need to improve the nation’s high schools, compared with 79 percent for middle schools and 76 percent for elementary schools (see chart below).
“This poll is important because it clearly states that for the first time, Americans believe that high schools should be a top priority for our federal and state officials, as well as for business and community leaders,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “The poll also shows that simply improving grade school is not enough; the commitment must be made and maintained at every level.”
According to the poll, 87 percent of the American public is “extremely” or “very concerned” to learn that the national graduation rate is only about 70 percent and that graduation rates drop to 50 percent or lower in many urban areas. Most Americans believe that these low graduation rates are not without dangerous ramifications for the American economy. On question after question, respondents indicate that increasing the number of high school students who graduate prepared for college and good jobs is critical to maintaining a strong society and to assuring the competitive position of the country in an increasingly global economy. African-American respondents, in particular, indicate that the need for high school reform is urgent, with 94 percent calling it very or extremely urgent; 81 percent of whites and 82 percent of Hispanics agree with this assessment.
“If this dismal situation is to change, policymakers need to know that their constituents consider high school reform a pressing issue that must be dealt with now,” Wise said. “In fact, Americans overwhelmingly want governors, members of Congress, and the president to pay more attention to high schools.” According to the poll, 78 percent of Americans believe that the president and Congress are not paying enough attention to the state of public high schools. Fifty-seven percent say the same about their governor.
How do we solve the dropout crisis in America’s high schools? Poll respondents overwhelmingly believe that improving reading comprehension and writing is the “most important factor” in increasing graduation rates. In fact, 40 percent of respondents say that literacy skills have gotten worse over the last ten years. Respondents are also willing to invest their own money into high school reforms, with 70 percent saying they are “extremely willing” or “very willing” to pay more in taxes to ensure that all kids can read, comprehend, and write.
However, while respondents overwhelmingly believe that high school students could still be helped to succeed, they acknowledge that most high schools lack the resources to provide the necessary assistance. Eighty-five percent of Americans say that students can still get the help they need to succeed in high school, but 61 percent say that high schools are not well equipped to meet the needs of students who are struggling academically.
The poll, which was conducted by Lake Snell Perry Mermin/Decision Research in mid-August 2005, represents the first comprehensive survey of public opinion on high schools since President Bush and many governors announced major initiatives to improve the educational experience of and outcomes for America’s older students. It asked twelve hundred individuals from across the nation what they know about the state of America’s high schools, what should be done to improve schools, and who should be held responsible for the reforms needed to make all secondary schools effective centers of teaching and learning. To ensure that the views of all segments of the population were adequately represented, the poll oversampled African Americans and Hispanics. In some cases, Spanish-speaking surveyors were used.
At an Alliance event on August 24, Alysia Snell, a partner at Lake Snell Perry Mermin/Decision Research, reviewed the poll’s findings in detail. She and Governor Wise were joined by Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, Dr. John Jackson, national director of education for the NAACP, and Dr. Mel Riddile, principal of JEB Stuart High School in Virginia, to discuss the poll’s findings and the importance of public support for reform efforts designed to change policies at the national, state, and local levels, with the goal of redesigning American high schools to meet the needs of the twenty-first century.
Materials from the release event, including Snell’s PowerPoint presentation, speaker biographies, and video from the event, are available athttps://all4ed.org/events/HS_improvement.