Survey Reveals Public Perceptions of Science Education, Conflicting Views

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Publication date: 
17 August 2010

A survey released in June of more than 1,400 adults (including 646 parents of children in kindergarten through 12th grade) finds a broad public consensus on the importance of science education and mixed opinions on how well schools are preparing students on the subject.

They survey, conducted from December 1-15, 2009, revealed respondents general unease about the state of the economy. Survey participants said that the creating “more/better paying jobs” is the “most important thing the United States can do to make sure its economy is healthy” (37 percent of parents, 35 percent of all respondents). “Don’t know” and “need healthcare/healthcare insurance/reform” tied among parents at 10 percent. Six percent of parents and five percent of all respondents cited “need a better education system.”

Echoing the prior figures about the need to create more/better paying jobs, 83 percent of parents and 84 percent of all respondents called local job opportunities “difficult to find.”

The population surveyed split on the question, “are there more jobs available for people who have good math and science skills than there are other jobs…?” Thirty-three percent of parents and 31 percent of all respondents said that there are more math/science jobs versus other jobs. However, 44 percent of parents and 40 percent of all respondents said that there were “about the same number of jobs” available for people who have good math and science skills as per those without.

Fewer parents and general respondents said that extra money for schools should go towards “improving math and science education” (28 and 27 percent) than “reducing class size” (35 and 33 percent). “Making pre-school available to all children” and “paying teachers more” had less support.

Parents and general respondents mildly disagreed on how well local schools are doing at preparing students in science courses. Half of parents said that schools are “doing a good job preparing students” while 41 percent said that schools “need to be doing a lot better.” Among the larger pool of all respondents 44 percent said that schools are doing a good job, while 45 percent felt schools need to be doing a lot better.

Sixty percent of parents and 56 percent of all respondents said that it is “absolutely essential” that schools teach “basic scientific principles” before students graduate high school. Interestingly, those figures are lower than the “absolutely essential” need to teach “basic reading and writing skills” (90 and 91 percent), “basic math skills” (87 percent for both), and “being able to work well as part of a team” (80 and 74 percent). However, the need to teach basic scientific ideas and principles rated higher than “being able to use concepts taught in algebra” (55 and 50 percent), knowing how to speak a foreign language” (36 and 31 percent), “understand advanced sciences, like physics” (31 and 28 percent), and “advanced math, like calculus” (28 and 26 percent).

Survey participants were asked to explain what the phrase “21st century skills” means to them in their own words. A plurality at 27 percent of parents and all respondents said that phrase means “computer literacy.” Three percent of parents and all respondents answered “science/science literacy.”

Parents were asked if their children should be taught “more math and science, less, or are things fine as they are?” A majority (52 percent) said that “things are fine as is.” Forty-five percent of parents said that their children should be taught “more math and science.” Two percent said that their children should be taught “less math and science.”

Those statistics contrast sharply with respondents who are not parents. A stronger majority (68 percent) said that students should be taught more math and science. Twenty-six percent said that things are fine as is. While one percent said that students should be taught less math and science, a larger percentage (5 percent) said that they did not know.

A majority of parents (51 percent) and respondents (52 percent) believe that education standards in their local schools are “about the same” as the rest of the U.S. Twenty-eight and 26 percent of parents and all respondents respectively believe that their local education standards are better. Eighteen percent of both groups believe that their standards are lower.

An overwhelming majority of parents (77 percent) and all respondents (78 percent) believe that the following statement is true; “In order to teach science in high school you have to either majored in science or passed a test that shows you are qualified to teach.” Thirteen percent of both groups believe that statement is false.

Similarly, an overwhelming percentage of parents (80 percent) and general respondents (81 percent) believe that ability in math and science is “something kids can learn in school and develop with experience.”

Among parents, 49 percent believe that the science their children are learning is “harder” than the science they were taught in school. Thirty-eight percent believe the science is “about the same.” Eight percent believe the science is “easier.”

A large majority (70 percent) of parents with children in middle and high school believe schools should spend more on “having science labs that are up-to-date and well-equipped.” It is important to note that parents recommended spending more on every area asked.

The survey was conducted by Public Agenda which describes itself as resource for policymakers on issues in the public interest. The GE Foundation, a philanthropic organization under the General Electric Company umbrella underwrote the survey.

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. Additional results and methodology can be found here.