THOUGH the United States spends more on education than any other country, the American public is disappointed with the current educational system. Public schools nationally receive a median grade of ``C'', and only 2 percent of Americans give the schools an ``A.'' Problems are not seen as isolated to certain types of children or communities, nor does the public perceive any recent improvement in the condition of the schools. Fifty-six percent say that public school teachers were better 30 years ago, while only 14 percent say they were worse. That this attitude is not simply a matter of nostalgia is shown by the 50 percent of even the youngest group (18- to 29-year-olds) who say teachers used to be better.
College professors, too, see shortcomings in secondary education. In a 1989 Carnegie Foundation survey 75 percent of faculty members said that undergraduates with whom they had close contact were seriously underprepared in basic skills. Interestingly, faculty in education departments were least likely (50 percent) to agree with that negative assessment.
Drugs and lack of discipline are seen as major stumbling blocks to learning. What's needed to make the system better are ``the basics'' (more and harder tests, more homework), not gimmicks.
The idea of allowing parents and students to choose among public school has strong support, especially among non-whites, whose children are often the victims of inadequate schooling, and young adults. Choice is seen as an opportunity for potential gains in student achievement.
Public support for choice lessens, however, when the concept is extended to private and parochial schools. Controversy over the issue of choice will be a central element in the debate over educational policy in coming months.