Which school subjects do Americans say are most relevant to their lives?

Oana DumitruContributor
August 31, 2023, 2:03 PM GMT+0

One of the most discussed topics in the context of education reform in the U.S. is whether the subjects currently taught in schools adequately prepare students for employment after graduation. Some have argued that current subjects are not practical enough and that school curricula should strive to include more of what are intended as life skills. A recent YouGov survey asked Americans to look back at their time in high school in order to say which subjects they considered their favorites and which are most useful for current students.

Majorities of Americans say they liked or loved the six categories of high school subjects polled: English language arts or literature, social studies or history; math; science; foreign language(s), and physical education or health. Men are more likely than women to say they liked or loved math, science, and physical education. By contrast, women are more likely to say they liked or loved English language arts or literature. Adults under 45 are more likely than older Americans to say they liked or loved foreign languages.

Among Americans who say they liked or loved at least one subject in high school, about 20% say their favorite topics were English language arts or literature, and similar shares name social studies or history, and science. Fewer Americans say math (17%), physical education (15%), or foreign languages (5%) were their favorite topics. Men are more likely than women to say their favorite topics were either science, physical education, or health, but similar shares of men and women say math was their favorite subject. Women are far more likely than men to say English language arts or literature was their favorite.

Are the subjects Americans favored in school the ones they consider to be most relevant in their current lives? For at least about two-thirds of Americans whose favorite subjects fall in each of the six polled, that is the case. Among the six subjects polled about, science has the greatest share of people who say it was their favorite subject who say what they learned in science class is not relevant to their life today (22%).

Among the top categories of subjects Americans wish they had paid more attention to are math, science, and foreign languages. However, math places second among the six subjects in terms of share of people who wish they had paid less attention to it; No. 1 is physical education or health.

Americans have positive attitudes regarding the usefulness of each of the six subjects for today’s students. Majorities say learning each of the six subjects polled is somewhat or very useful for K-12 students. The category that the lowest share of Americans say is useful is foreign languages (76%).

Aside from the subjects most often included in school curricula, there are other skills that Americans say would be useful for students to learn in grades K-12. More than nine in 10 Americans say that each of the skills of spelling, cooking, typing, and writing a check are somewhat or very useful for students to learn. Among the skills that larger shares of Americans find to be not useful are learning to do a pull-up, memorizing the periodic table, climbing a rope, and playing the recorder — though majorities of Americans still say each of these are somewhat or very useful.

See the results for this YouGov poll

— Linley Sanders, Taylor Orth, and Carl Bialik contributed to this article.

Methodology: The YouGov poll was conducted online on March 15 - 18, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. For both polls, the sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample also was weighted by baseline party identification, which is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

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