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The Kids Are Alright. Or Are They?

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In the debates on the issues facing education in America, we hear a host of prominent voices. President Obama expresses concerns about education and research spending in the midst of deficit reduction, Mark Zuckerberg chats with Oprah about entrepreneurial approaches, and Geoffrey Canada talks about a block-by-block approach to renewal.

But as pundits, influencers and personalities debate, shouldn't we hear more from the minds to be molded? As the "adults" discuss issues like national testing, teacher compensation and the effect the state of our education system has on our economy and society, how do our students feel about their ability to compete, our ability to compete and the role of the education system?

We decided to ask them directly, polling more than 1,000 U.S., students between the ages of 13 and 18 about science and math education. The complete results can be found here. Some of the findings are startling, indicating a significant disconnect between how U.S. students feel about their own abilities and our nation's abilities, and the global rankings that try to measure how we stack up.

Here are a few of the key data findings to consider:

  • Students get the importance of science and math: 99 percent of teens believe it is important to be good at math and science and 69 percent believe it will be required of most jobs in the future. Almost 60 percent are interested in careers that rely on math and science.
  • Most students are confident in their own math and science skills: 85 percent of American teens are confident in their own math and science abilities
  • American teens have low confidence in our nation's ability in math and science: When asked which country is best at math and science, 90 percent selected a choice other than the United States, with 67 percent choosing Japan or China
  • American teens blame a lack of U.S. work ethic: 51 percent of teens who are not confident in the United States' math and science abilities say Americans do not work hard enough, and 44 percent of those who do not think the United States is the best at math and science blame a lack of discipline.
  • They don't really blame the system: Just a third of teens blame lack of funding or school emphasis for poor math and science abilities in the United States.

These findings offered interesting insights that I didn't expect. They not only raised further questions we really need to ask, but also pushed me to reflect on how these findings relate to the Intel Education Initiative to improve math and science education in the United States and worldwide.

First and foremost, why do our students have such high confidence in their math and science skills when the United States falls below 20th in global rankings of these subjects? Somewhere in the equation is a perception gap that needs to be closed. My reaction is that it indicates a strong need for standards like those promoted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Intel has voiced its support for the organization and will continue to do so as it is a collaborative endeavor of national importance that we are proud to be a part of. We believe that to raise the bar on education, we first need to establish the bar and ensure our students understand where they really stand.

Secondly, given their confidence in their own abilities, why do they have such a dim view of the nation's math and science abilities? And who are teenagers speaking of when they say that "Americans lack work ethic and discipline?" Do they really see the problem as resting in others, not themselves? If so, how do we remind them of the role they play in America's future?

While the challenges are big and there is no quick fix, American students need to see things change for themselves and as "the system," we need to bring new energy and engagement to the ways that we teach science and math. Intel has taken steps to inspire students and teachers alike, with programs that provide millions of teachers with the tools and training they need to energize the classroom and reward students who excel in science and math. There are of course many more students and teachers to reach with these sorts of programs, but we believe they are a step in the right direction.

I'm glad we asked American teens what they think as it gave us a chance to hear directly from those we debate about. But the big question is what do we say, and do, to respond?

If you are so inclined, please join our conversation at Inspired by Education.