Convincing parents about the importance of high school math and science courses is necessary to improve preparation for college STEM majors

If we are going to open the doors of opportunity to careers in fields like engineering, physical sciences, computing and architecture for more middle and high school students, we are going to have to convince the parents of those students about the importance of the advanced high school courses in math and science that are necessary to prepare properly for college majors in those fields.

There is research to back this assertion up from the Wisconsin Study on Families and Work, and my experience meeting with parents at Bay County’s Mosley High School has provided spectacular confirmation of the Wisconsin results.

I tell almost every audience I visit that winning over parents is critical to success in widening students’ career options. On Tuesday, I had two visits with Pasco County educational leaders – one with staff at the county’s school district and the other with administrators at the Dayspring Academy charter school network – and told them the same thing.

Of course, teachers and educational leaders have to make it a priority for students to have access to precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics courses. That is presently an issue in Pasco County, where four of the district’s large (more than 1,000 students) high schools do not presently offer physics – and neither does Dayspring. But if leaders have the will, that can be fixed – and every leader I visited with on Tuesday seemed determined to do so.

My argument that we must convince parents of the importance of taking advanced math and science courses in high school implies that parents don’t always know what’s best for their own children, and some educators find that argument difficult to swallow. But perhaps a story about an encounter I had with the mother of an 8th grader after a presentation to a parent group a few years ago can make that argument a little easier to accept. My presentation to parent groups about the importance of taking advanced math and science courses in high school focuses on careers in engineering, health sciences and computing (a power point from one of my parent presentations is linked below). But this one evening, I happened to mention the physics and calculus required to enter graduate school in architecture, a subject about which I know a little bit because our middle child is an architect. After my presentation, the mother approached me and seemed quite upset. She told me that she had held her 8th grader back from taking Algebra 1 in middle school (which allows a student to stay in the pipeline to take a first calculus course in high school) because she thought that architecture only required artistic skills and did not require math and science. “Have I destroyed my son’s chances for being an architect?” she asked. I responded that while her son would have been better off taking the opportunity his school had offered to enroll in Algebra 1 in 8th grade, that he should take the course in 9th grade as planned and persevere through the high school math course sequence (after Algebra 1 – Geometry, Algebra 2 and Precalculus). He would then take his calculus coursework entirely in college instead of starting in high school. And he would probably be OK.

That mom didn’t know best, at least at first. But when she was provided with an opportunity to learn what was best for her son’s career ambition, she embraced it.

Not all parents are willing to accept the challenging advice on high school course-taking so willingly. Often they are hindered by their own educational and career experiences from twenty years ago, when the world and its economy were very different and math and science were less important for careers that can support middle class lifestyles. But the Wisconsin study showed that many parents are open-minded enough about the world in which their children will have to compete that they are willing to accept challenging advice and act on it by coaxing their children to take on high school courses in precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics.

Our high schools owe every parent the opportunity to learn about the realities of education and the modern economy. And those same schools owe every student access to course offerings in subjects like calculus and physics so that they can prepare for those realities.

The link to a power point of a presentation I gave to Mosley High School parents in April of 2018 is here:

My daughter Allison Peitz defending her thesis for the Master of Architecture degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2017.

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