In a bunch of different contexts, I keep reading about how poorly the U.S. is doing in science. And that’s true at the national level–we do fare poorly in comparison to other countries. But it’s worth remembering that the U.S. is a really large country, geographically and in terms of population, and that certain regions do very, very well. I don’t just mean the occasional affluent county, but entire states.
A while ago, I discussed a re-analysis of math test scores that compared individual U.S. states’ scores to other countries–in other words, states in the U.S. were treated as if they were separate countries. Here’s the abbreviated summary:
Looking at the fourth grade scores, MA, with an average TIMSS score of 572, is surpassed only by Hong Kong and Singapore, and is tied with Chinese Taipei and Japan. In eighth grade, MA, which still is significantly higher than other U.S. states, falls behind Hong Kong, Singapore, S. Korea, Taipei, and Japan. To put this another way, Massachusetts, along with several other U.S. states, including Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, blows away all of Europe.
Keep in mind that MA, MN, and NJ have larger populations than Norway–these are not a smattering of a few affluent suburbs. So what do these four states have in common? They are child healthy and have stable families:
- 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.
The point is that some educational systems at the state level do very well. It can’t be geographic proximity (except maybe for MA and NH). I doubt these states have standardized their curricula either. But, if you don’t screw up the kids outside of school, they’ll learn stuff in school. In contrast, if you look at the states that do poorly, poverty, high divorce rates*, and poor parental education are hallmarks.
If we want to improve education, and science education, a critical element is to improve the quality of life for children in general.
*I don’t mean to bash anyone’s decision to get a divorce. It’s unclear to what extent divorce (or any of the other factors)