“Obsolete” is the word Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates used to describe the nation’s high schools in his speech to the nation’s governors and education leaders at the 2005 National Education Summit. Gates explained his concerns crisply: “By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. … Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year.”
Gates is not the only one advocating major reform. The American Diploma Project, an influential consortium that includes Achieve, Inc., The Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, believes that expectations about what youngsters learn in high school must be raised and raised dramatically. According to the group, “the diploma has lost its value because what it takes to earn one is disconnected from what it takes for graduates to compete successfully beyond high school – either in the classroom or in the workplace.”
Much of the concern centers on continuing gaps in achievement between white and minority youngsters and the high dropout rate among disadvantaged students. But some of the most dramatic critiques focus on the need to ramp up science and math education among students across the board. The Business Roundtable and United States Chamber of Commerce, for example, are leading voices for dramatically increasing the focus on science and math in the nation’s high schools. The concern here? That U.S. leadership in science and technology is at risk unless high schools do more to train and nurture a whole new generation of young American scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
According to reports issued by these and other business organizations, American high school students are not sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable about science and math in general. Far too few have the preparation and desire to enter engineering and other careers that are critical to the nation’s economic competitiveness.
Earlier editions of Reality Check surveys from 1998 through 2002 showed that while most employers and professors were dissatisfied with high school graduates’ skills, most families were confident that their own schools prepared their youngsters well. But given the passionate and high profile calls for high school reform, have parent and student views changed? Just how ready are American families to take up the challenge these leaders propose? New results from the 2006 Reality Check surveys suggest that parents and students come to this issue from very different starting points. These results are part of Public Agenda’s multi-year Education Insights initiative designed to address communication and engagement problems that could stall or derail progress in improving schools. The work was supported by the GE Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and The Wallace Foundation.
In the following pages, we summarize attitudes about high school reform and math and science education from our new round of Reality Check surveys. While neither parents nor their offspring underestimate the role science and math will play in the future world of work, the research suggests that leaders working for major high school reform need to do their homework. Families are aware of the challenge in a general sense, but relatively few see this as the pre-eminent issue facing their local high schools. More important, relatively few seem to absorb its implications in their own personal lives. That is, despite parents’ lip service agreement that U.S. schools should be competitive, proposals to increase math and science coursework for their own kids could come as something of a surprise. As leaders in government, business and education move forward to address this issue, as they build a strong leadership consensus to act, they may be well advised to reach out to parents and students directly as well. Based on this research, they have one more agenda item to add to their list – helping American families understand the economic and educational challenges the country faces and involving them in strategies to find effective solutions.
The first in a series of Reality Check reports finds that parents and students do not share the concern of business and government leaders about flagging math and science skills.