It's not much of a report card.
Half of Americans say U.S. schools are doing only a fair to poor job preparing kids for college and the work force. Even more feel that way about the skills kids need to survive as adults, an Associated Press poll released Friday finds.
"A lot of kids, when they get out school, are kind of lost," said Jamie Norton, a firefighter in Gridley, Calif. "When you get out of high school, what are you educated to do?"
The views of the general population echo concerns from business and college leaders, who say they have to spend a lot of time and money on remedial education for people who completed high school but don't have the skills to succeed at work or in higher education.
Education ranks behind the economy and gas prices as a top issue for Americans, the survey said. However, nearly all those polled said the quality of a country's education system has a big impact on a country's overall economic prosperity.
Education was generally viewed to be as important as health care and slightly ahead of the Iraq war. Among minority parents, education is just as important an issue as the economy.
Minorities and whites rate schools differently. Fifty-nine percent of whites rate their local school as good or excellent, compared with 42 percent of minorities.
Minority parents are more likely to think their children are getting a better education than they received as children. Overall, the majority of those surveyed said the quality of U.S. schools has declined over the past 20 years.
Three-fourths of those surveyed believe schools place too much emphasis on the wrong subjects. Asked what subjects should be given more time in school, more than a third said math. English was a distant second, at 21 percent. A tiny fraction picked art, music and the sciences, such as biology and chemistry.
Parents don't want to teach math at home
Parents may want more math in school because they feel unprepared to help at home, said Janine Remillard, who teaches math-related courses at the University of Pennsylvania's education school.
"Math is the subject that parents are often intimidated by," she said. "We've allowed a lot of kids to just say, 'I'm not good at math,' .... and those kids become parents."
Most think the United States is just keeping up or falling behind the rest of the world in education. On some recent international tests, U.S. students have posted flat scores and landed in the middle to bottom of the pack when compared with other nation's children.
Americans have mixed views about standardized tests, which have grown in importance. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law judges schools based on math and reading tests taken by their students. Schools face increasingly tough consequences for scores that miss the mark.
About half of those polled said standardized tests measure the quality of education offered by schools well, while the rest disagree.
The vast majority think classroom work and homework — not standardized tests — are the best ways to measure how well students are doing.
Testing seen as a waste of time
Larry Michalec, a computer programmer in San Diego, called the testing a waste of time. "They're standardized and people aren't standardized," he said. "Children get taught to the test. They get taught to take the test. They don't get taught to learn."
School districts are increasingly tying student performance to teacher pay. Americans seem to support that trend. Sixty percent said the amount of pay teachers receive should be based at least in part on the performance of their students.
The nation is split over whether teachers should be allowed to strike, with half thinking strikes should be allowed. Whether strikes are allowed is governed by state law.
The AP survey of 833 adults and 854 parents of school-aged children was conducted June 18-23 and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for each sample.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.
The research was financially supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Associated Press had sole editorial responsibility for the design of the survey questionnaire and the analysis of the survey results.