There are, and will always be, polls to predict what Americans think is the most important issue facing our nation/society/world at the present moment. A great many of the responses has to do with job security, the economy, recessions, etc. There are a lot of issues that people will voluntarily give as "important" but when the real issues come down to the ballots boxes or candidate platforms, other things get in the way. These issues include education, the environment, social reforms. Things that people espouse as important issues they give weight to, but ultimately fail to do so.
The more I have had a chance to contemplate it, the more and more education seems to be the most important issue facing our country right now. Education plays into such a wide spectrum of other problems facing us as a nation that we cannot afford to be lax in our support and criticism of the US's educational system. An educated populace creates more innovative young people, highlights more awareness about other problems (as well as fostering solutions), brings history to bear so that it may not be repeated ad naseum, and more. It is imperative, if we wish to maintain our own place in history on this planet, that we improve our educational system to be bar noone the greatest in the world. And there are a lot of issues facing our educational system.
First and foremost, you have to make education an attractive profession. Right now, the teachers are so abysmally compensated that they are only there for the love of teaching. While that is admirable, you have to entice those people who would like to teach and would be good teachers, but can't afford to be teachers, to come into the fold. When you have college graduates, saying to themselves that they can make 25% more being in industry and can payback loans faster than if they were a teacher, it is usually a no-brainer. You have to pay teachers what they are worth.
However, built into that compensation system is accountability. You have to have a system that allows the administration to cleanse itself of teachers who are inadequate at their jobs. I have had countless teachers who were obviously not fit to educate our next generations, but were still in their place after 20+ years due to limitations placed on hiring and firing of teachers. That is not acceptable, especially if you're giving them more money. You have to hold them to certain standards that they must uphold, or else they're gone. No questions asked.
Also, one aspect of teaching that is very overlooked is making it engaging, dynamic, and relevant. The stereotypical teacher is one of those pedantic boors who stands and drones on and on all day long about stuff the students don't care about in the least. That happens enough at the college level. But at the junior high and high school level you need to get students involved with what you're teaching. Rather than dry facts, dates, numbers, delve into the background of a particular subject. There are numerous ways to make education fun, from chemistry labs to juicy historical gossip. And it can still be relevant information. Teachers need to be encouraged to expanding the minds of their students. And with initiatives like No Child Left Behind, which mandate teaching to the test mentality among teachers, I fear this will only become more of a lost art with time.
Thirdly, we need to let teachers do the teaching, and stop trying to interfere. Teachers and schools are not the place to moralize your children. They are not the place to combat delinquents either. They are a place to learn. Also, debates like the intelligent design/creation/evolution debate are irrelevant. Modern science has dictated where the majority of evidence lies, and leave it at that. In a philosophy classroom or a historical science class, one is more than able to discuss these options. However, in biology, the way has been paved with nearly 150 years of strong science. Let it be at that.
The most important function of a teacher is not to drill into their heads the names of capitals from the world, but rather instill in them a desire to learn on their own; to read, to learn, far beyond their time in the classroom. That is what makes an educational system successful, far more than high SATs or other dogmatic measuring systems. Instill in your children that education is fun, useful, and a good use of time, and your society will reap the benefits for generations to come.