Are We Beginning to See the Light?

Public And Parents Buy Into The Need To Ramp Up Math And Science Education But Most Still Think Their Local Schools Are Doing Fine

NEW YORK, June 2, 2010 – Americans are convinced that math and science skills are crucial for the future, with strong majorities who say there will be more jobs and college opportunities for students with those skills, according to a new Public Agenda survey. But while there's broad support from parents and the general public for K-12 national standards, more than half of parents (52%) say the math and science their child is getting in school is "fine as it is."

These are just some of many surprising realities facing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in public schools, according to "Are We Beginning to See the Light?", a new Public Agenda survey exploring the views of more than 1,400 individuals nationwide, including 646 parents of children grades K-12. The national survey was underwritten by the GE Foundation.

Preparing For Tomorrow's Jobs

While only 3 in 10 Americans see a demand for science and math-focused jobs in the current economy, 84% agree that there will be a lot more jobs in the future that require math and science skills. And 9 in 10 Americans say studying advanced math and science is useful even for students who don’t pursue a STEM career. Additionally, 88% of the public agrees that students with advanced math and science skills will have an advantage when it comes to college opportunities.

Overall, the general public favors a “national curriculum” as one way of improving STEM education: 8 in 10 Americans say establishing a national curriculum in math would improve STEM education, with more than half (53%) saying it would improve it “a lot.” And 78% say the same about a national curriculum in science, with 48% saying it would improve it “a lot.”

"Giving today's students a world class science and math education is the key to maintaining our country's economic prowess,” said Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “Parents are beginning to envision the opportunities for their children in the STEM fields, and I am especially heartened by their receptivity to having high national standards in these critical subjects.”

Strategies For Improvement

At the same time, parents agree with the general public on the value of STEM education. Most parents surveyed want their own children to take advanced math and science courses in high school (60% and 54% respectively). Parents would also like to see their local schools spend more money on up-to-date and well-equipped science labs (70%), more equipment for hands-on learning (69%) and more equipment to help students learn computer and technology skills (68%). A plurality of parents with children in grades 6-12 say they want to see more emphasis in their child’s school on STEM topics such as computer programming (65%), basic engineering principles (52%), and statistics and probability (49%).

“The public is open to many different strategies for improving STEM education, and they’re enthusiastic about the overall goal, but much more has to be done to help them understand what’s needed for kids in their local schools to have a world-class science and math education,” said Jean Johnson, director of Education Insights at Public Agenda. “The problem is particularly acute in science. Many parents don’t realize the importance of starting children in science early on. Many think it can easily wait until high school.”

National Competitiveness

There is a growing body of research suggesting Americans are falling behind in math and science education. U.S. students rank 25th in math and 21st in science skills internationally, according to a recent OECD report, and the 2007 ACT College Readiness Report points out that only 43% of graduating seniors are ready for college math and 27% are ready for college science.

Last November, President Obama launched an “Educate to Innovate” campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in STEM fields. "Are We Beginning to See the Light" provides insight into how Americans perceive the problem and how they identify solutions that could help solve the nation’s STEM education problem.

For example, 71% of those surveyed believe in having local businesses provide internships and other business partnership programs, so high school students can gain practical job skills.

While parents and the public understand the value of STEM skills, there’s still a gap between the way the leaders and public see the problem. Few Americans think it is absolutely essential for students to understand advanced sciences like physics (28%) and advanced math like calculus (26%). When it comes to their own child, few parents want more emphasis on advanced math and science like physics (42%) and calculus (42%). Additionally, nearly 7 in 10 Americans say science can wait until middle and high school.


Methodology And Full Survey Results

"Are We Beginning to See the Light?" is based on a nationally-representative sample of more 1,406 adults, with oversamples to achieve interview with 646 parents of children grades K-12. Telephone interviews were conducted from December 1 – 15, 2009, and respondents had the choice of completing the interview in English or Spanish. The margin of error for the report is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. However, it is higher when comparing subgroups or question items that weren't asked of all respondents.

Survey data were weighted to (1) adjust for the fact that not all survey respondents were selected with the same probability, and (2) account for gaps in coverage and nonresponse biases in the survey frame. Weights were applied to balance region, race, Hispanic ethnicity, income and marital status.

Results of less than 0.5 percent are signified by an asterisk. Results of zero are signified by a dash. Responses may not always total 100 percent due to rounding. Combining answer categories may produce slight discrepancies between numbers in these survey results and numbers in the report.

More Education Reform Resources

Education reform is a major focus for Public Agenda's researchers and our public engagement team. Here are a few other studies and papers which might be of interest to policymakers and others considering the issues examined here:

Math & Science Education

Opportunity Knocks: Closing The Gaps Between Leaders And The Public On Math, Science & Technology Education

Ready For 21st Century Careers: A Choicework Discussion Starter guide and video to help communities work together to provide students with the education they need for tomorrow's jobs

Out Before The Game Begins: Hispanic Leaders Talk About What's Needed to Bring More Hispanic Youngsters Into Science, Technology, And Math Professions

A Matter of Trust: Ten Key Insights From Recent Public Opinion Research on Attitudes About Education Among Hispanic Parents, Students and Young Adults

Important, But Not For Me: Kansas And Missouri Students And Parents Talk About Math, Science And Technology Education

Other Education Issues (K-12)

A Great Education Begins At Home

Nearly Three In Four Americans Say Bullying Is A Serious Problem In Their Local Schools

A Time To Learn, A Time To Grow: California Parents Talk About Summertime And Summer Programs

Convergence & Contradictions In Teachers' Perceptions Of Policy Reform Ideas

Supporting Teacher Talent: The View From Generation Y

Teaching For A Living: How Teachers See The Profession Today

College And Access To Higher Education

Can I Get A Little Advice Here? How An Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students' College Aspirations

With Their Whole Lives Ahead Of Them

Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost, Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run

Campus Commons? What Faculty, Financial Officers And Others Think About Controlling College Costs

Media Contact

The pdf version of this news release and the Powerpoint slide show illustrating key results of this survey are available for download without charge. For further information about this report, or to schedule an interview with one of our report authors, please contact Allison Rizzolo at or (212) 686-6610.

About Public Agenda

Founded in 1975 by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Public Agenda works to help the nation’s leaders better understand the public’s point of view and to help average citizens better understand critical policy issues. Our in-depth research on how citizens think about policy has won praise for its credibility and fairness from elected officials of both political parties and from experts and decision-makers across the political spectrum. Our citizen education materials and award-winning web site offer unbiased information about the challenges the country faces. Recognized by Library Journal as one of the Web’s best resources, we provide comprehensive information on a wide range of policy issues.

About The GE Foundation

The GE Foundation, the philanthropic organization of the General Electric Company, works to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. In coordination with its partners, it supports U.S. and international education, the environment, public policy, human rights, and disaster-relief around the globe. In addition, the GE Foundation supports GE employee and retiree giving and involvement in GE communities around the world. In 2007, the GE family including businesses, employees, retirees and GE Foundation contributed more than $225 million to community and educational programs, including $93 million from the GE Foundation. For more information, visit

Download the Slideshow

Are We Beginning to See the Light?

Five Key Trends in Public Opinion, on Science, Technology, Engineering & Math Education in Public Schools

Media Type: Slideshow

Americans are convinced that math and science skills are crucial for the future, according to "Are We Beginning To See The Light?", a Public Agenda survey.


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