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Something Else to Worry About on Energy: Most Parents Think Science Can Wait Until Junior High

In his State of the Union address, President Obama declared that we’re going to solve our energy problems by “out-innovating” the rest of the world. But there’s a key question we’ve got to figure out:  who’s going to be doing all this innovating?

The President made it clear what he thought the answer should be, namely a new generation of American scientists and engineers. But the day after his speech, new test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called “nation’s report card”, showed how far we’ve got to go. Only 21 percent of American high school seniors are rated “proficient” at science.

That’s bad for the country’s ability to find energy solutions, and frankly, it’s not good news for democratic government overall. We’re living in an era when making sound public decisions in many areas—energy, environment, health care, and others—depends on having an electorate that can grasp basic scientific issues.

In his speech, President Obama suggested recruiting better teachers and setting higher standards, and he’s not alone in backing that approach… It’s certainly part of the problem.

But another hurdle is complacency among parents, and for some perhaps, over-confidence in how good local schools really are.

Our organization, Public Agenda, recently surveyed parents on science and math education, and here’s the picture:

Despite what some commentators believe, very few parents reject the importance of science in the modern world. In fact, more than half (54 percent) say they want their children to take advanced science in high school.

But most parents also believe their children are doing better than they really are in this area. Six in 10 parents with high-school age children say they believe their child will be ready for college-level science – and, of course, the nation’s report card results suggest a lot of those parents are mistaken.

About half of all parents (52 percent) also say that the amount of math and science their child is getting is “fine the way it is.” Even more (70 percent) also say science can wait until middle and high school. On the whole, American parents are much more worried about basic skills and school discipline than whether students are getting world-class science and math skills.

Parents make a huge difference in education. You can’t have a good school – or turn around a bad one – without their support. But so far American parents just aren’t focused on the math and science challenge, which means efforts to improve science education are only going to get so far.

The way to change those attitudes may be to talk about opportunity – particularly the opportunities for their own children if they excel in science and math. Most are pre-disposed to believe it.  Some 84 percent of Americans 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.

Most parents are very quick to act if they fear their child isn’t learning to read or is having trouble making friends at school. The trick may be to convince parents that having their children love and do well in science early on is just as important to their future—not to mention the future of the rest of us.