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AMERICANS SPEAK ON HIGH SCHOOL REFORM: 51 Percent of Americans Say High Schools Need “Major Changes” or a “Complete Overhaul”

"Americans view our public education system as central to our country's success in the world," says ETS President and CEO Kurt Landgraf.

One-third of the American public believes that America’s public education system is most responsible for the country’s success in the world-even more important than the democratic system of government or military strength-but two-thirds believe that America’s ability to compete will be threatened if American high schools do not improve in the next twenty-five years. In fact, according to Ready for the World: Americans Speak on High School Reform, Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) fifth annual nationwide survey, 43 percent of respondents think that if high schools do not improve over the next twenty-five years it will have a “very negative effect” on America’s ability to compete in the world, and 33 percent of respondents said that no improvement will have a “somewhat negative effect.”

“Americans view our public education system as central to our country’s success in the world,” says ETS President and CEO Kurt Landgraf. “But they also believe that after nearly two decades of reform efforts, the key to success continues to reside in rigorous learning for all students and improved teacher quality. Americans believe in standards and accountability. And, they want reform efforts expanded to address pressing quality issues with our nation’s high schools.”

When asked how well prepared they thought ninth-grade students were for high-school-level work, 25 percent of all adults and 27 percent of high school teachers said students were not at all well prepared. Meanwhile, 55 percent of all adults and 55 percent of high school teachers said that students were somewhat prepared, but had gaps in certain areas. Overall, 51 percent of Americans think that high schools needed “major changes” or a “complete overhaul.” Only 5 percent of those surveyed believe that high schools work well now.

According to the survey, most Americans (64 percent saying this was a “good explanation”) believe that the central problem with high schools is associated with broader societal issues and the fact that high schools and high school teachers have to address too many outside problems. Other good explanations for problems in high schools were a lack of resources and funding (51 percent) and inadequate preparation by elementary and middle schools (50 percent).

Although they believe that high schools are central to the nation’s future, when asked what should be the highest priority for reforming education, half of the adults surveyed indicated that elementary schools should be the number one focus, compared to 20 percent for high schools and 16 percent for middle schools.

“This report confirms the results that we’ve seen from our own polling,” said Alliance for Excellent Education President and former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise. “While the American public believes that high schools could be better than they are, they are hard-pressed to say high schools are in a ‘crisis.’ However, when we tell them that a third of our young people aren’t graduating from high school, and another third are graduating without the skills they need to succeed in postsecondary education or the workforce, they see the crisis and realize that something has to be done.”

The ETS survey was conducted April 5-17 among 2,250 adults nationwide, including a sample of 1,009 adults. Additional groups, including high school administrators, high school teachers, and parents of K-12 students, were oversampled to provide statistically significant results. Other resources, including survey results and methodology, and a PowerPoint presentation, are available at

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