Math Scores High on List of Academic Priorities

From Public Opinion Strategies

By Becky Kramer

While arithmetic may come last on the list of the “Three Rs,” recent survey data suggests that Americans think math should be a priority in our country’s classrooms.  According to data from an August 2013 Gallup survey of 2,059 adults, one-third (34%) say math was the academic subject that has been the most valuable in their life.  It rates thirteen-points ahead of the next most cited subject (English).

The importance of mathematics should come as no surprise.  Aside from the increased focus on science (+8 points from August 2002), the data has remained remarkably consistent since the last time Gallup asked this question more than a decade ago.

“Thinking about all the subjects you studied in school, which one, if any, has been the most valuable to you in your life?”  (Open End)

Sept Blog Table 1

Similarly, in March of this year when Pew asked 1,006 adults to name the subject that schools should emphasize more, one-third (30%) selected math as the most important academic focus.  English (19%), science (11%) and history (10%) round out the list with nearly identical percentages to the Gallup study.

“Thinking about what’s being taught in kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools these days, what ONE subject should schools emphasize more than they do now?”  (Open End)

Sept Blog Table 2

While there is broad agreement across the political spectrum about the need to improve education, the Gallup and Pew studies reveal a distinct partisan and ideological dimension when it comes to setting academic priorities.

First, looking more closely at the Pew data by partisan affiliation:

  • Math is clearly the top subject for both Republicans (35%) and Independents (32%).  Democrats are divided between the arithmetic and English as their first choice (24% math, 21% English).
  • Democrats place more focus on science.  Seventeen percent (17%) name it as the subject that should receive additional attention, ten points higher than Republicans (7%).
  • Republicans (13%) and Independents (14%) are more likely to select history and related subjects as an area of emphasis than are Democrats (5%).

Academic Priorities By Partisan Affiliation (Pew Data)

Sept Blog Table 3

The Gallup data reveals similar tension between the importance of math and English based on ideology.  Adults who identify as conservatives (38%) and as moderates (35%) say that math has been most valuable to them; respondents on the more liberal end of the spectrum are divided between math and English (26% and 24% respectively).

Most Important Subject By Ideology (Gallup Data)

Sept Blog Table 4

Educational attainment and gender also figure heavily into respondents’ perception of the most important academic subject as shown by the Gallup data.

  • Math is at the top of the list for respondents with a high school degree or less (43%) or some college education (33%).  Among college grads, one quarter select math (26%), while an equal number cite English (25%).  The latter fully eclipses mathematics among respondents with a post-graduate degree (19% math, 25% English).
  • Four-in-ten (40%) men name math as the most valuable subject, while women are divided (28% math, 29% English).  Looking specifically at English, women are twice as likely to say it was the most important subject (29% versus 13%).
  • The importance of science nearly doubles between those with a HS degree or less (9%) and respondents with a post-graduate education (17%).
  • Nearly equal numbers of men (15%) and women (10%) list science as the subject that was most valuable to them.

Most Important Subject By Education & Gender (Gallup Data)

Sept Blog Table 5

Perhaps additional focus and preparation in math will help to ameliorate adults’ concerns this academic area is too challenging for American students.  When the same March 2013 Pew study asked respondents why young people don’t pursue degrees in math and science nearly half (46%) said it was because students find these subjects “too hard” (22% not useful for their careers, 20% too boring).