Parents See Bigger Problems than Math and Science

Published May 1, 2006

Over the past year, several prominent education and business groups have warned American students must improve their mastery of math and science if they are to compete successfully in an increasingly globalized economy.

In response to those warnings, President George W. Bush proposed in his January State of the Union address an American Competitiveness Initiative, an effort to encourage “children to take more math and science, and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations.”

While raising math and science standards might be a high priority for the president, a February report from the survey organization Public Agenda suggests it is not nearly as important to the parents of public school students.

The report, titled Are Parents and Students Ready for More Math and Science? indicates parents are much more concerned about nonacademic problems. While 15 percent of parents surveyed by Public Agenda said the “most pressing problems facing the high schools” in their communities came from “low academic standards,” 73 percent fingered “social problems and kids who misbehave.”

Low-Income Parents Worried

Concerns about nonacademic issues were especially pronounced among low-income parents. The report notes, for instance, that in a 2002 Public Agenda survey 73 percent of low-income parents, compared to 46 percent of high-income parents, said they worried “a lot” about protecting their children from drugs and alcohol. Similarly, 65 percent of low-income parents worried a great deal about their children being physically harmed or kidnapped, while only 39 percent of high-income parents shared that concern.

Despite placing social and behavioral problems at the top of their list of concerns, parents did see a need to reform American math and science education. Seventy-one percent of parents said “updating high school classes to better match the skills employers want” would improve high school education in the United States, and 67 percent said “greatly increasing the number and quality of math and science courses students take in the high schools” would be helpful.

Still, when it came to their own schools, parents were relatively unconcerned about the quality of math and science instruction. When asked whether they thought their child’s school should be teaching “a lot more math and science,” 57 percent of parents said the instruction was fine as is, and only 37 percent called for increasing math and science learning.

Concern about whether their schools were teaching enough math and science decreased between 1994 and 2006, with the percentage of parents identifying insufficient math and science instruction as a serious problem dropping from 52 to 40 percent.

Boredom a Factor

In reaction to these findings, Jay Feldman, director of research at the Coalition of Essential Schools–an education reform group based in Oakland, California–said the poor math and science performances that concern Bush, and the discipline problems that worry parents, have the same roots: bored kids in impersonal schools.

“One of our main problems is large, comprehensive high schools,” Feldman said, where it is “really easy for kids to fall through the cracks.” Feldman said the key to fixing both problems is to let schools be flexible enough to “do interesting things with the curriculum” and make them small enough to “meet the needs of kids.”

Politics Plays Role

Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, DC, which has pushed hard to improve math and science standards across the country, agreed with Feldman that solutions to discipline and academic problems are not mutually exclusive.

Noting that “of course parents are going to be concerned, first and foremost, about the safety of their children,” Petrilli explained, “our education system should be able to keep our children safe and help them reach high academic standards too, and if you look below the data, of course parents want both.” Petrilli suggested a combination of rigorous national standards and school choice would be a good way to solve both problems.

Public Agenda’s advice to policymakers was a little different from Feldman’s and Petrilli’s, focusing mainly on politics. The report said Bush and other advocates of bolstering math and science standards will have to build a “consensus to act,” which will require doing a better job of making “American families understand the economic and educational challenges the country faces.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

Are Parents and Students Ready for More Math and Science? Public Agenda,

Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of The National Academies, 2006,

Tapping America’s Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, July 2005,

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,

Coalition of Essential Schools,

American Competitiveness Initiative,