New York City — There is growing consensus among the nation?s business, government and higher education leaders that unless schools do more to train and nurture a whole new generation of young Americans with strong skills in math, science and technology, U.S. leadership in the world economy is at risk. A new research report from the opinion research and citizen engagement organization Public Agenda concludes that Kansas and Missouri parents and students didn?t get the memo.
?Important, But Not for Me: Parents and Students in Kansas and Missouri Talk About Math, Science and Technology Education? details parents? and students? current thinking about MST education and their satisfaction with the existing curriculum which most experts see as vastly below world-class standards. According to the study, just 25% of Kansas/Missouri parents think their children should be studying more math and science; 70% think things ?are fine as they are now.? The report also explains why parents and students are so complacent in this area and what kinds of changes might be helpful in building more interest in and support for more rigorous MST courses.
?A crucial part of our ten year initiative to improve MST throughout the Kansas City area is to better understand how parents and students view MST careers, the importance of these subjects in their lives, and the value they place on these subjects in the school curriculum,? said Dennis Cheek, Vice President of Education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. ?This study resoundingly confirmed what was observed in an earlier Public Agenda national study–parents and students have not received a clear message about the importance of MST to life, learning, and earning in this new millennium despite a multitude of national reports and pronouncements by national policy makers. The challenge ahead of us is to more fully inform and engage parents and students as full partners in educational reform.?
?Important, But Not for Me? shows that parents and students are aware of the United States? slippage in international standings on MST education and recognize that students who complete advanced courses in MST education have good employment prospects and can expect a successful future. But the report also describes a disconnect between this understanding and their own personal interests and expectations.
?Students would not be motivated to take MST courses by abstract notions of international competitiveness, but could be convinced take higher level classes if they believed they were essential for the career and college opportunities to which they aspire,? said Jean Johnson, Executive Vice President of Public Agenda and Director of Education Insights.
The full report along with the complete questionnaire and topline data are available online at: http://www.publicagenda.org/ImportantButNotforMe
The findings are based on twelve focus groups with parents, teachers and students in the Kansas City region, fifteen expert interviews with local business, education and community leaders and telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,472 parents of children grade 6-12 in public school in Kansas and Missouri and 1,295 public school students in grades 6 through 12.
What parents and kids say
While 86 percent of parents agree that ?students with advanced math and science skills will have a big advantage when it comes to work and college opportunities? and 63 percent of students say ?it?s crucial for most of today?s students to learn higher-level math skills like advanced algebra and calculus,? when it comes to ordering their personal priorities, MST education looses out.
While 92 percent of parents and 83 percent of students say it is ?absolutely essential? (as opposed to ?important but not essential?) that students learn basic reading and writing and 91 percent of parents and 79 percent of students think having basic math skills is ?absolutely essential,? only 23 percent of parents and 26 percent of students believe it is essential to understand higher level math like calculus and only 23 percent of parents and 24 percent of students say it is essential to understand advanced sciences like physics.
On a positive note, the report notes that algebra is fairing well as a priority. The subject has been given significantly more national attention by leaders in recent years who have argued that it is a critically important subject for all students to master, and the Public Agenda research suggests that this emphasis is paying off. Nearly 8 in 10 parents (79 percent) and 7 in 10 (70 percent) students say algebra is absolutely essential. This suggests that parents and students may be open to arguments about the importance of advanced MST mastery for today?s students.
?In fact, this is something we saw quite clearly in focus groups for this project,? said Jean Johnson. ?As people learned more about the expanding role of math, science and technology in the new economy, the more importance they attached to students mastering these subjects.?
Satisfaction with teachers, curriculum
Both parents and students are satisfied with their schools? MST teachers and curriculum. Parents say that courses are harder than when they were in school (69 percent say math courses are harder and 51 percent say science courses are harder). This, the report contends, has lead to complacency among parents and students. When it comes to whether their child?s school should be teaching more math and science, 70 percent say ?things are fine as is.?
Asked whether all students should be expected to take advanced science classes such as physics and advanced chemistry, 72 percent of students said no, ?It should be expected only of students who are interested.? Like their parents, students give MST teachers high marks. More than 7 in 10 say that their teachers are helping them ?learn a lot? about these subjects. And only 20 percent say that low student achievement can be attributed to not having enough good math and science teachers.
In need of convincing
Some good news from the research: kids do not buy into the stereotypes that MST achievement depends on natural ability or that students who do well in these subjects are less popular or socially awkward. Seventy percent of students disagree with the statement that ?students who are strong in math and science tend to be less popular.? An even larger majority (85 percent) hold that math and science are subjects that ?kids can learn in school and develop with experience? rather than being ?something kids are mostly born with.? So, if kids believe they could do it, what would convince them to do it?
Three-quarters of students (76 percent) say that math and science are irrelevant to their lives. But when such courses are required for college, it seems to make the difference. In the survey, parents and students both said they would be most motivated by arguments that relate to future opportunities for young people in higher education or in the job market. Sixty-three percent of students say advanced math is crucial for success in college and work. Additionally, the focus group portion of the research indicated very low levels of understanding among students of just what sorts of careers involved knowledge of math, science and technology. Together this suggests that families would likely put more emphasis on advanced MST education in high school if universities and trade schools mandated MST prerequisites for a greater number of incoming students whose intended majors necessitate such knowledge.
More abstract arguments for students taking higher level MST courses are not likely to work, the report concludes. While policy leaders often invoke dire warnings about regional and national competitiveness, the research found that parents and students are less moved by this argument than they are by the idea that a strong MST background might give a leg up on college applications.
Quoted in the report, one typical student said, ?I hate math because it?s hard for me to understand how that?s ever going to come back and help me. There?s just not a point.? Another said, ?Science doesn?t matter unless you want to become a doctor or something like that.? The majority of students continue to see advanced MST education as irrelevant to their career aspirations, and few recognize just how many ?new economy? jobs require advanced math, science and technology comprehension.
The research underlying ?Important, But Not for Me? is part of a three-year public engagement project conducted by Public Agenda and funded by The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Public Agenda has prepared a public engagement toolkit including video discussion starter guides for organizers, facilitators and participants. The materials are the centerpiece of community forums on the topic of math, science and technology education that will take place in Kansas and Missouri over the next three years. The materials are also available online at http://www.publicagenda.org/ImportantButNotforMe
PUBLIC AGENDA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research and civic engagement. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is known for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public?s voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public?s views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues. It is also known for its destination web site, www.PublicAgenda.org, which has been twice nominated (in 2005 and 2007) for a Webby Award for best political site.
THE EWING MARION KAUFFMAN FOUNDATION of Kansas City is a private, nonpartisan foundation that works with partners to advance entrepreneurship in America and improve the education of children and youth. The Kauffman Foundation was established in the mid-1960s by the late entrepreneur and philanthropist Ewing Marion Kauffman. Information about the Kauffman Foundation is available at www.kauffman.org.