Gene Expression

Mike the Mad Biologist points out that Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota and New Hampshire do better on math scores for elementary age students than most of Europe, and are competitive with Asia. Here are Mike’s factors for why this might be:

-Low child poverty rates as measured by school lunch subsidies (a common proxy for poverty).

-Low divorce rates.

-Effective public health departments. MA, NJ, and MN have very good public health systems, and NH has some excellent programs (e.g., electronic syndromic surveillance)

-High incomes. Overall, these are healthy state economies (as good as one can get anyway).

-Educated adult populations.

I’ll add a sixth: they’re all close to Canada. I pointed out last year that being close to Canada also prevents murder. Being close to Canada also persuaded whites to vote for Barack Obama. It even seems to have a salubrious effect on life expectancy. I wonder if American xenophobia can explain the long neglect of the critical “Canada factor” in our social outcomes? And why aren’t Canadians trumpeting the positive social effect of their proximity? Is it because they want to maintain relative advantages and prevent possible overcrowding on the Canadian border? Isn’t it a bit suspicious that Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and North Dakota are so underpopulated? That Potsdam is dwarfed by New York City?


  1. #1 Tony P
    August 31, 2009

    I discount your Canada theory. Here in RI public education consistently falls below grade. Why? Because of mainstreaming of those with learning disabilities or whose first language isn’t English.

    We’re not all that far from Canada ourselves.

  2. #2 eNeMeE
    August 31, 2009

    Shut up, damn you!

    You’ll give away the plan!

  3. #4 Greg Laden
    August 31, 2009

    Interesting idea and I made a similar remark the other day when I noted that both Washington and Minnesota had Canada as tourist attractions.

    But, having lived in states near Canada most of my life, I’m not sure if the connection is meaningful. But worth looking into. Maybe we should just take over Canada for a while and see how that goes.

  4. #5 Joshua Zelinsky
    August 31, 2009

    While there is a valid point about correlation v. causation here, there’s at least one important distinction between Mike’s suggestions and your South Parkian hypothesis: All the suggestions Mike gives have plausible causal mechanisms.

    There’s an additional issue that some of the things mentioned by Mike have been shown to matter in previous studies. For example, the fraction of students at a school which are getting some form of federal food subsidies is inversely correlated with school performance on a large variety of different standardized tests. (I don’t unfortunately have a citation for this off the top of my head).

  5. #6 Ikram
    August 31, 2009

    In the meantime, Canadians agonize about the supposed “brain drain” of our best talent to the USA, especially the warm, sunny states far from the border. Which supplies an obvious hypothesis — Canadian Emigration to the USA improves average social indicators in both countries.

  6. #7 John Emerson
    August 31, 2009

    NH is a bit of a freak state with a lot of private schools and a weird population profile.

    Speaking for Minnesota where I live, while the state is pretty religious the fundamentalist presence is negligible (except in Michelle Bachman’s district, I suppose). You also have very little of the anti-government, anti-school sentiment that’s pretty common in a lot of the rest of the US.

    Low divorce rates and non-fundamentalism correlate with Catholicism, strong in both states. Even conservative Catholics are not anti-education.

  7. #8 bioIgnoramus
    August 31, 2009

    Where did the “close to Canada” lark begin? With waggish Mr Sailer?

  8. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    August 31, 2009

    I live in Maine. I’ve actually had people outside of the state ask me, in all seriousness, what part of Canada we’re in.

  9. #10 Mike the Mad Biologist
    August 31, 2009

    Maybe all the people were EATED! by Canada?

  10. #11 Ken
    August 31, 2009

    shhhh eh!

  11. #12 razib
    August 31, 2009

    Where did the “close to Canada” lark begin?

    daniel patrick moynihan.

  12. #13 Blacula
    September 1, 2009

    The key variable here is level of mayonnaise consumption, which promotes brain growth. Crunch the numbers, it checks out.

  13. #14 gcochran
    September 1, 2009

    I suspect a lot of people don’t get the joke.

  14. #15 Garth
    September 1, 2009

    I think you should control for state IQ before you start theorising about proximity to Canada (or Mexico). Most of the characteristics of the states you mention are characteristic of high IQ states everywhere.

  15. #16 John Emerson
    September 1, 2009

    I found Razib’s joke a bit heavy-handed.

    Conservatives like to scream about bad schools ruined by teachers’ unions and liberal ideology, but when you examine performance the conservative non-union states don’t show very well. When I looked up the well-performing states and the poorly-peforming states awhile back, there were only two conservative states that performed very well: Utah and North Dakota, and ND has a strong teachers union.* (And talk about two examples that are going to be hard to follow! ND really is what conservatives want America to be, and nobody wants that, not even conservatives). Most of the well-performing states were liberal states.

    WHen you hear someone from Mississippi, Alabam, or Tennessee shouting about how disgraceful American schools are, you might consider the source before agreeing or disagreeing.

    * Call this anecdotal. I was relying on the World Almanac five to seven years ago. If someone has solider research to bring forward, bring it on.

  16. #17 John Emerson
    September 1, 2009

    SAT discourages state-by-state comparisons, partly because different proportions of the graduating seniors take college-entry tests in various states — partly because the ACT is favored in some areas.

    It shouldn’t be that hard to kludge together an adapter comparing the top 10%, top 20%, etc. of each state, on the assumption that in every state it’s the brightest students who are more likely to take the SAT. Bringing the ACT results in would be harder, since many students take both. But coverting ACT to SAT isn’t too hard, so presumably you could use the converted ACT score to rate the states where the ACT is predominant.

    If such a comparison exists on the internet I didn’t find it.

  17. #18 bioIgnoramus
    September 1, 2009

    Thank you, Razza.

  18. #19 Paul Jones
    September 1, 2009

    Yankees are just better.

    Perhaps too merciful, but better none-the-less.

  19. #20 Eromsnid Flor
    September 3, 2009

    Since when is New Jersey close to Canada. You have to pass through New York to see our northern friends:)

    I think that a difficult climate results in greater intelligence. I never met a stupid Eskimo. Having lived a few years in Australia, I was impressed by how smart the aboriginals were. And jungle folk are usually rated extremely high in intelligence (especially at very young ages).

    I cannot explain how New Jersey gets high grades… We moved from Pennsylvania last year and the schools are definitely a downgrade.

  20. #21 Rhinanthus
    September 3, 2009

    I can assure you that being close to us Canadians is irrelevent. Forget it. Ignore us. We can’t help. Don’t look north. Now the Mexicans…

  21. #22 Li'l Innocent
    September 3, 2009

    It’s very hard to make accurate generalizations about NJ, where I’ve lived most of my life (tho born in Minnesota). NJ is small, very densely populated, and a jumbled mix of climates, terrains, and socio-economic realities. It’s not surprising that the school systems and their qualities vary accordingly.

    Close to Canada we ain’t. And if we were, we’d be a lot less populated. Anybody who’s been thru a peri-Canadian winter knows that.

  22. #23 Garth
    September 4, 2009

    McDaniel 2006 published good estimates of state mean IQs. (I can send a PDF of the article if you like Razib). The states bordering Canada are generally in the top third of the IQ rankings and MA(104.3), MN(103.7), NH(104.2) and NJ(102.8) are right at the top. Those IQs are pretty close to East Asian levels. States furtherest away from Canada are generally at the bottom of the list with mean IQs some 5-6 points below the Canadian border states.

  23. #24 Patrick
    September 4, 2009


    Is Ikram saying that when a Canadian moves to the states, he improves the IQ of both countries?

  24. #25 Immunologist
    September 4, 2009

    We have a border with Canada that’s 3000 miles long. Before I bought the Canadian effect I’d want to expand the analysis to cover all of the border states. I’m pretty sure the effect will disappear if you do. My vote is for SES. I’d need to see the divorce rates for myself, but definitely agree that a very significant determinant of educational achievement is parental involvement in their children’s education (and I don’ mean in a fundamentalist, home-schooling, teach the controversy sort of way).

  25. #26 gcochran
    September 4, 2009

    Razib, these reactions are consistent with something you recently said about the prevalence of a particular piece of knowledge among graduate students in biology.

  26. #27 E. Robinson
    September 5, 2009

    Canada must work like a magnet whose attraction pulls up measures of all the social indicators mentioned in the article (it is, after all, where the north magnetic pole is located). This attraction is confirmed by Detroit, which has some of the lowest social indicators in the U.S. and is bordered on the south by Windsor, Ontario.

  27. #28 gennette
    September 5, 2009

    Is Canada secretly a proponent of global warming, so its weather will become more attractive?

  28. #29 Renee
    September 5, 2009

    Detroit is close to Canada, and has more crime and STDs (and sucks educationally) than most states.

  29. #30 Julie Stahlhut
    September 5, 2009

    Well, I’ll do my part to equalize the brain drain, since I’m moving on to a job in Canada next month.

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