NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 9/26/2010 3:52:47 PM ET 2010-09-26T19:52:47

A majority of Americans are pessimistic about the public education system with nearly six out of 10 saying schools need either major changes or a complete overhaul, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Only 5 percent of those surveyed thought the school system in the United States was working well, according to results of the telephone survey of 700 adults. The findings come as NBC News on Sunday kicked off a weeklong special conversation about the state of America's classrooms, called "Education Nation," to explore the challenges and opportunities facing students today.

National statistics show that 68 percent of 8th-graders in the United States cannot read at their grade level and American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science compared to 30 other industrialized countries.

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The poll shows most Americans don't think enough is being done to close that achievement gap with 70 percent of those polled giving schools either a "C" (45 percent) or "D" (25 percent) grade.

Yet even as many people give the overall school system in the United States a poor grade, they were more optimistic about the state of education in their own communities, with 45 percent giving them either an "A" (13 percent) or "B" (32 percent.)

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In trying to determine the cause of the problems, most blamed elected officials (53 percent) or parents (50 percent). When asked who could most effectively improve the system, 48 percent said teachers.

Overall, when asked about the best ways to improve America's school system, 75 percent pointed to recruiting and retaining better teachers. Other strategies include reducing class sizes (64 percent) and requiring teachers to pass a competency test (54 percent).

And nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those polled said they would be willing to pay higher federal taxes to improve America's schools.

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