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Parents, Students Feel Less Urgency for Math, Science Upgrades

By Michelle R. Davis — September 19, 2007 4 min read
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Though education experts, business leaders, and government officials have largely embraced the drive to raise the level of math and science courses across the country, students and parents are apparently satisfied with a less-rigorous level of instruction in those subjects.

That’s the conclusion of a new study of the views of parents and students in Kansas and Missouri by the New York City-based research organization Public Agenda, which found a degree of contentment with current math and science curricula that contrasts sharply with the dissatisfaction expressed by experts.

“What we found when we looked at the views of parents and students was much, much less urgency,” said Jean Johnson, an executive vice president and the director of education insights at Public Agenda.

In the past few years, business leaders have stepped up their complaints about the state of math and science education, and federal lawmakers have ratcheted up their efforts to use legislation to force improvements. Last month, for example, President Bush signed into a law a bill that pushes for improved teacher recruitment and training to bolster math and science education through the use of federal grants. (“’Competitiveness’ Bill to Aid Math, Science Is Signed by President,” Aug. 15, 2007.)

But that heightened concern has not reached parents and students, according to the new report, “Important, But Not for Me: Parents and Students in Kansas and Missouri Talk About Math, Science and Technology Education.”

‘Fine as They Are’

The survey of about 2,600 students and parents found that, overall, only 25 percent of parents think their children should be studying more math and science, and 70 percent think things “are fine as they are now.”

However, minority parents were less satisfied with the math and science education their children received, with 44 percent of African-American parents and 64 percent of Hispanic parents saying they were satisfied, compared with 73 percent of white parents.

Among students, 72 percent said all students should not be expected to take advanced science courses like physics or advanced chemistry.

“There is room for concern here,” said Jodi Peterson, the assistant executive director of legislative and public affairs for the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va.

Ms. Peterson cautioned that the survey was limited to one city and results might differ in other areas. Still, she added: “We have a big challenge ahead to educate parents as to why math and science is important for their kids.”

The survey found that parents believe math and science education is rigorous, Ms. Johnson said, because they see their children doing more challenging lessons than they did in school. Sixty-nine percent of parents said math is harder today, while 51 percent said science is harder than when they were in school.

However, both parents and students do believe that basic math and science is critically important, with nine in 10 people surveyed calling it essential. Parents saw algebra as a priority, with 79 percent of parents and 70 percent of students saying algebra is essential.

Knowledge Opens Doors

Margo Quiriconi, the director of education research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which cooperated with Public Agenda on the project, said students need to understand that a good grounding in math and science can lead them into high-tech companies in a wide variety of industries, including the animal sciences industry, which has roots in the Kansas City area.

“We need a workforce able to support that generation of new companies,” Ms. Quiriconi said. The Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Foundation runs a program in five counties in the Kansas City region to improve math, science, and technology education, and also provides funding to Education Week for coverage of those topics.

Francis “Skip” Fennell, the president of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said it’s critical that teachers help students understand where intense studying of advanced math and science can lead them, such as to jobs with starting salaries above $75,000, for example, or those in which they crack codes for the U.S. government.

“Students need to know that knowledge of this subject really opens doors,” he said. “A challenge for teachers is always to make this subject interesting and viable to kids.”

A majority of parents surveyed said they believe their children’s teachers make math and science relevant in the real world. Only 20 percent of students blamed poor teaching for students who do not achieve in math and science courses.

One bright spot in the survey: 85 percent of students surveyed said they believe students can learn math and science if they spend the time, instead of seeing that ability as simply a result of innate aptitude.

And students said they were motivated to take advanced math and science courses in high school by several factors, with a majority saying they were spurred on by college requirements, the possibility of scholarships, and the prospect of good jobs and career opportunities.

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