Math Crisis? Students Don't Get It

teacher writes math problems on a blackboard
AP
If improving science and math education is suddenly a national priority, someone apparently forgot to tell the parents and the students.

In a new poll, 57 percent of parents say "things are fine" with the amount of math and science being taught in their child's public school. High school parents seem particularly content: 70 percent of them say their child gets the right amount of science and math.

Students aren't too worried, either, according to the poll released Tuesday by Public Agenda, a public opinion research group that tracks education trends.

Only half of children in grades 6 to 12 say that understanding sciences and having strong math skills are essential for them to succeed in life after high school.

This is not what the people in charge of the country want to hear.

Congressional leaders, governors, corporate executives, top scientists — all of them have urgently called for schools to raise the rigor and amount of math and science taught in school. In his State of the Union address, President Bush made the matter a national priority.

Yet where public officials and employers see slipping production in the sciences as a threat to the nation's economy, parents and students don't share that urgency. Such a disconnect could undercut the national push for more science and math.

"There's energy and leadership at the top, but there is a task to be done in getting parents and kids to understand some of the ideas," said Jean Johnson, executive president of Public Agenda. "You can do a lot from the top, but you can't do everything. Schools are local. The leadership needs to reach out and help the public understand the challenge."

In theory, parents and students say, more math and science education is a good thing.

For example, 62 percent of parents say it is crucial for most of today's students to learn high-level math, like advanced algebra and calculus.

The story changes, though, when parents talk specifically about their kids' schools, and when the children relay their own experiences.

Students put a lack of science and math near the bottom of problems they see at school. They are much more worried about bad language, cheating or the pressure for good grades.

Most parents, meanwhile, say their kids are getting a better education than they did. Only 32 percent of parents say their child's school should teach more math and science.

If anything, parents are less worried about math and science these days, not more.

In 1994, 52 percent of parents considered a lack of math and science in their local schools to be a serious problem. Now, only 32 percent say the same thing. During that time, states have ramped up standards and testing, which seems to have affected parents' views.

"They are assuming schools are providing enough. That's the part that is problematic," said Susan Traiman, who oversees education and work force policy for the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers from major U.S. corporations.

Her group leads a coalition of businesses that has launched a public relations campaign, hoping to give math and science the same urgency it had during the Cold War space race. But to reach parents, Traiman said, local leaders must talk up the subject at community events.

"We have to get beyond talking to people who have the same mindset of business leaders and public officials," she said.

The poll results came as the Education Department released a study reaffirming that students who take rigorous high school courses are more likely to earn a bachelor's degree.

Making high school more challenging is a big part of Bush's agenda. Employers and college professors say huge numbers of high school graduates do not show up with enough skills.

Yet here, too, parents have quite a different perspective, the new poll finds.

A total of 69 percent say their children will finish high school with the skills needed to succeed in college, and 61 percent say their kids will be ready for the work world.

The findings are based on phone interviews with a nationally random sample of 1,342 public school students in grades six to 12, and of 1,379 parents of children in public school. The interviews were done between Oct. 30 and Dec. 29. The margin of sampling error was 3.4 percentage points for the children and 3.8 percentage points for the children.