Educational Divide

Exploring Over 1,000 People's Perception of Grade School Subjects

School stress isn’t limited to students: Parents often have immense anxiety about their children’s education and achievement. As children and adolescents face more pressure to perform academically than ever before, parents can feel – and fuel – their worries. Many parents struggle to support their kids without pushing them too hard, seeking a challenging balance between encouragement and overload. 

Moreover, many mothers and fathers are concerned about the content of their children’s classes. Some parents bemoan the elimination of the arts from school curricula, while others hope their kids will learn to code. Simultaneously, long-standing debates about teaching controversial subjects (including evolution and climate change) rage on.

We surveyed over 1,000 Americans about which educational subjects are most important and which specific topics should be taught in schools. We also asked the 703 parents within this group about their strategies for supporting their kids’ academic success and their hopes for their children’s educational futures. For a refreshingly honest look at Americans’ opinions, aspirations, and anxieties about the education of our children, keep reading. 

Significant Subjects

When it comes to what kids learn in school, which subjects matter most? In the eyes of roughly a third of respondents, English was an essential subject. Math took second place: A quarter of respondents regarded it as the most important class.

most important classes infographic

Beyond these foundational classes, however, our findings were far more surprising. For example, approximately a tenth of respondents said business was the most important school subject. While many teachers aim to incorporate entrepreneurship skills into their lesson plans, business classes are hardly universal in American schools. Similarly, 9% of respondents said the arts were the most important subject, despite recent funding cuts to arts education around the country. Interestingly, the teachers surveyed were twice as likely as other respondents to value the arts – and only half as likely as parents to feel business was the most important subject. 

Interestingly, few respondents identified science classes, such as biology, chemistry, and physics, as the most important subjects. This finding may not bode well for America’s long-standing shortage of STEM talent: Many fear the U.S. is doomed to fall behind other nations in terms of scientific innovation. China, for example, produces far more college graduates with expertise in science, even accounting for population differences.

Teaching Tense Topics?

Among our respondents, there was broad consensus that certain topics should be added to school curricula. For instance, nearly 9 in 10 felt schools should add instruction in personal finance, perhaps in response to the widespread elimination of home economics classes. More than 71% felt privacy rights should be incorporated into class content, as well, reflecting Americans’ deep discomfort with how companies use their personal information.

Controversy in the Classroom Infographic

Interestingly, some topics that might be perceived as hot-button issues were actually broadly supported. More than two-thirds of respondents thought sex education and climate change should be added to school curricula. These views, of course, could encompass several distinct stances. Someone could support the addition of sex education, for example, but only if these classes take an abstinence-only approach

Certain topics generated far less agreement, however. Respondents were split fairly evenly on the prospect of talking about gun control or terrorism. Additionally, a plurality of respondents thought content about religion and hate groups should be addressed in schools. While each of these issues raises specific ideological differences, these findings speak to a broader challenge in teaching: How can schools prepare students for a world that is often divided and deeply troubling without frightening or discouraging them? Our findings indicate that there are seldom easy solutions to this challenge.

Helping With Homework: Assistance and Arguments

Among the parents surveyed, most helped their kids with homework at least once a week. A majority reported helping with math and English, although around 37% also lent a hand with history. Conversely, relatively few advised on science content, such as physics, or more specific areas of expertise, like music.

In-home Influence on Homework - Infographic

In academic circles, homework help has been surprisingly controversial. Whereas some see it as a crucial way for parents to support their children’s learning, others say it might be counterproductive, robbing kids of the chance to work through challenges themselves. Indeed, nearly 4 in 10 parents admitted they’d done their kids’ homework at least once in the last month. Perhaps even more would do so if they could surmount tech challenges. A third of parents said they struggled with the devices their children used, making it difficult for them to help with homework.

Additionally, most parents said they fight with their kids about homework, and nearly a third reported doing so at least a couple of times each week. Just 25% said they never had altercations involving homework. Experts acknowledge that homework conflicts are common but suggest that kids thrive with a structured approach. For example, it might be helpful for kids to determine the order and timing of assignments before getting started, reducing anxiety and the urge to procrastinate. 

Perplexed Parents

Despite their best efforts, many parents get stumped by their kids’ school assignments. In fact, almost half of parents said they sometimes couldn’t help with their kids’ homework because they don’t have the necessary knowledge. This forgetfulness seems natural given the passage of time: It’s been a while since most parents took biology. But parent-child knowledge gaps could also reflect curriculum reform in recent decades. Thanks to nationwide initiatives like Common Core, many kids are learning different content than their parents did.

Parents Can't Help with Homework - Infographic

A fifth of parents reported hiring a tutor to help their children succeed in school. Many of these parents said they didn’t have the time or patience to provide the help their children needed, or that they didn’t understand the material well enough to assist. But the most common justification for tutoring was related to productivity: Roughly 74% felt a tutor was more efficient than they would be themselves.

On average, parents paid $152 for tutoring each month. Although that’s no small sum, it pales in comparison to what some parents shell out for tutoring services, especially in the high-priced realm of test prep. Interestingly, a significant percentage of respondents said they’d pay more if the tutor could guarantee their kid would receive an “A.” In fact, over 20% said they’d be willing to pay between $100 and $199 if their child could earn a top grade.

Making Major Plans

The rate of college enrollment has increased modestly since the turn of the century, and experts project that by 2028, over 20.3 million Americans will be attending college each year. Among the parents surveyed, 92% hoped their kids would go to college, perhaps because a college diploma can dramatically expand one’s job prospects. Despite record levels of student loan debt, it seems most parents remain certain that college is a good investment.

College Expectations - Infographic

Of course, not all college degrees are equally coveted: Many parents preferred their kids major in specific (and potentially lucrative) subjects. Engineering, computer science and mathematics, and business were most preferred by parents overall and particularly by dads. These majors (or closely related variations) can certainly lead to high-paying positions, suggesting that parents are concerned with their kids’ financial futures. However, many parents were also open to fields not typically associated with high pay. Nearly 20% were supportive of their children majoring in education, and almost 19% were open to their children earning a degree in the visual and performing arts.

From Helicopter to Healthy: Finding a Balanced Parenting Approach

Our findings indicate that American education remains rife with competing perspectives and controversy. Parents differ in their views of the importance of core subjects, let alone politically charged topics, such as immigration and gun control. At home, moms and dads take contrasting approaches to helping with homework, from hiring multiple tutors to being completely hands-off. 

But our results also reveal plenty of common ground, including shared goals and challenges. Most parents help their kids with homework whenever possible – and fight with them about it at least occasionally. Furthermore, the majority hope their children will attend college. Perhaps parents can find a basis to support each other, normalizing their feelings and fears. While we may have differing views on our children’s education, we are connected by our aspirations for the next generation.

If you’re a parent seeking to support your kid’s learning, we may be able to help in one small way. Check out our Word Finder, a fun and handy way for everyone in your family to expand their vocabulary. Whether your child is looking for the right word to use in an upcoming assignment or you’re facing off in Scrabble, our tool is the perfect way to help your family get a bit more verbose. 

Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we conducted a survey of 1,002 American survey respondents on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform – 703 parents with children aged 5 to 18 and 299 nonparents – to learn perceptions of grade school subjects. A list of majors was taken from Act.org. 2018 college enrollment statistics were taken from BLS.gov. 

These data are survey-based and depend on the self-reported recollections of respondents regarding their everyday life. Limitations with such data include telescoping, selective memory, and exaggeration. To help prevent this, an attention-check question was included. Respondents who did not successfully answer the question were excluded from the survey.

Fair Use Statement

Know a parent or student who might enjoy this project? We’ve got good news: The graphics and information found on this website are available for use in any noncommercial capacity. Feel free to share them as much as you’d like across the web and on social media, but please make sure to link back to this page to attribute our team appropriately. Thanks in advance for your help!