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Science Ed: Waiting Too Long, Settling For Too Little?

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

No sooner did President Obama call for a new focus on math and science education in the State of the Union than new test scores showed how big a challenge this will be. The new edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released the day after the speech, showed only 21 percent of American high school seniors are "proficient" at science.

This isn't the first time American political and business leaders have sounded the alarm about students' poor performance in math and science, particularly compared to other countries. There's a whole range of theories about why this might be. The most recent one is that Chinese students perform better because Chinese parents are more strict and goal-oriented than American ones the so-called "tiger mother" theory.
Whatever the virtues and weaknesses of that theory, we'd point out that in science, American students also lag behind nations like Hungary and Russia, so that can't be the whole explanation.

In Public Agenda's surveys, what we've found suggests the real issue for American parents may be complacency and priorities.

Most parents we surveyed want their children to take advanced science in high school (54 percent) but even more (70 percent) also say science can wait until middle and high school.

In addition, most parents may also believe their children are doing better than they really are in this area. About half (52 percent) say that the amount of math and science their child is getting is "fine the way it is."

The way to change those attitudes may be to talk about opportunity particularly the opportunities that might be missed if Americans don't do better in this area. Some 84 percent believe there will be a lot more jobs in the future for those with math and science skills, and even more (88 percent) say those skills are an advantage in getting into college.

When it comes to improving math and science education, parenting may matter but parents' priorities may matter more.


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