Is American education failing to stress "essential" topic areas? It's a question that arises periodically in the context of multinational comparisons, such as the 39-country study released this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). OECD's 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measured the performance of 15-year-olds around the globe and found that U.S. students scored toward the middle or bottom half of the group in all three subjects: 16th in reading, 19th in science literacy, and a woeful 24th in math literacy. Scores among U.S. 15-year-olds did not change significantly from 2000, while scores among 15-year-olds in several other countries showed improvement.
Do the PISA results suggest that American schools need to get back to basics and put more emphasis on the core academic subjects of math, reading, and science? The 2004 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools* assessed the public's view. The survey asked Americans if placing greater emphasis at all grade levels on English, math, and science (as some states have already done) would serve all, most, some, or only a few of the needs that public school students in their communities have.
Most Americans feel that putting greater emphasis on core subjects would meet at least some of these students' needs. Twenty-nine percent (29%) of respondents feel that "all" students would benefit from such an initiative, while similar percentages report that "most" (32%) or "some" (28%) public school students' needs would be served. Only 9% of survey respondents said the approach would serve "only a few" of the students' needs.
However, there are some educators who worry that narrowing the focus of their education could limit options for students whose abilities lie elsewhere. Says Roseanne Liesveld, managing partner in Gallup's Education Division, and a former music teacher: "I would hate to see public schools not recognize the value of measuring a student's success in areas that are not considered 'core' subjects, when in fact, they could be the 'core' of that person's value and talent."
Four Years of High School Math, Science, and English?
Still, the American public seems confident that greater emphasis on core subjects is a positive step. The PDK/Gallup survey also asked Americans for their opinions about a specific proposal: requiring students to complete four years of math, science, and English in order to graduate. Most Americans agree that English, math, and science should form the core of a high school education. More than three-quarters (78%) would favor a requirement that all high school students in their local communities complete four years of these subjects. Only one in five (20%) would oppose such a requirement.
*This article contains findings from the 36th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, released on Aug. 24 in Washington, D.C.The findings of the survey are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,003 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted from May 28 to June 18, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.