Mike the Mad Biologist

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:

  1. Low child poverty rates as measured by school lunch subsidies (a common proxy for poverty).
  2. Low divorce rates.
  3. 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)
  4. High incomes. Overall, these are healthy state economies (as good as one can get anyway).
  5. 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)


  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    August 28, 2009

    While being proud of my state (and yours,) I am also worried that those elements with a correlation to the higher scores in Minnesota, excepting divorce. I don’t know were divorce is trending.

    The budget situation for K-12 funding is precarious. In his bid for the presidency, Gov. Tim Pawlenty refused to negotiate with the House and Senate on the biennial budget and mis-used an emergency provision in state law instead to make his own chosen cuts in funding. He maintained current funding for k-12 by borrowing from future budgets, and the next budget session will have to deal with a $6 billion dollar deficit. Any Democrat who proposes using enough taxes to catch up to pay and meet this will be crucified because of the way that Republicans scream and holler about it. There will be no way that we will be able to maintain our schools beyond then without either massive cuts or large increases in either income or property taxes.

    Budgets for our public health system are also under attack, and one of the most successful programs that we have had have been in-home well-baby visits to ensure proper development and nutrition at the stages which are crucial for long-term development and school readiness.

    Minnesota may not be able to produce such able students in the future.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2009

    Mark Decker, Randy Moore, Sehoya Cotner, Greg Laden, PZ Myers, Gil Tostevin, a few others have personally taught the only college biology class that about a fourth of our state’s residents ever took in college over the last decade or so.

    Thank you very much. Thanks you, thank you. Just doing our jobs. Thank you very much. (Applause dies slowly away in background….)

    I know you are talking fourth grade test scores and all, but the point is we are doing our part to raise science knowledge generally. (Too bad the science fair posters displayed at our state fair seem to be mostly creationist projects…)

  3. #3 Al Cracka
    August 28, 2009

    This explains why I thought Creationism was a myth until I finally moved out of Massachusetts.

  4. #4 rick
    August 28, 2009

    As a current consumer of the Canadian education system and former consumer of the Worcester, MA system (parent of 3 kids) all I have to say is OMG! if the MA system is as good as it gets, then I’d hate to see what the worst is. (Actually, I can sort of guess based on the Texas school curriculum ‘discussions’)

    There were significant inequalities in the MA system that just aren’t to be found in the Ontario system. Forget charter schools. Look north and see that province (state) wide standards and funding is the way to go.

  5. #5 Edward
    August 28, 2009

    On the divorce issue – the nature of the divorce matters greatly. I’ve been through one myself and, while it certainly took it’s toll on me, both my ex and I made an effort not to bring our kids into our disputes and tried to continue to provide them with a loving environment. We also went to mediators rather than lawyers and negotiated everything in a fairly calm fashion.

    A couple of years ago, one of the kids elementary school teachers, who also knows my kids fairly well outside of school, commented that usually divorce takes a year off kids academically, but that my ex and I had done a fantastic job in keeping it from affecting our kids.

    So yes, divorce rate DOES affect school performance, but it doesn’t always have to. I happen to think that the adversarial nature of the legal profession does harm to kids involved in divorces.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    August 28, 2009

    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)

    I think I understand the sentence fragment. In any case, I suspect that divorce and poor educational outcomes are more likely to share common causes than to be related by direct causation.

  7. #7 Edward
    August 28, 2009

    D.C. – I think that the stress many kids feel as their parents are fighting during a divorce can directly cause a poor educational outcome. My conversation cited above with an elementary school teacher gives anecdotal support to this hypothesis. Now, if the parents are fighting without getting divorced, that is also bad for the kids. But from what I’ve seen, the fighting between parents and the hostility can increase as the divorce process goes along. I have talked to a few dads who were falsely accused of molesting their daughters by their ex as a negotiating ploy to get child custody. Often, after a divorce is over, one of the parents winds up withdrawing more than the other from the child’s life, which leads to self-esteem issues. There are many ways in which an adversarial divorce can directly lead to a poor educational outcome. The legal system we have in place encourages divorce to become more adversarial than it needs to be. It takes a great deal of effort on the part of both parents to keep things calm. As I’ve seen with my own kids, it’s possible for kids to come through a divorce without having their education hurt. However, there are many incentives within the system to do things that can directly harm a child’s education.

  8. #8 Duane Hampton
    August 28, 2009

    Mike: Could you back up your 4 or 5 explanations for why the four states did well with data? Would you post the statistics for those items you cited? I would like to see the data before I buy the explanation. Is that not fair? Is that asking too much? Duane

  9. #9 Sam C
    August 29, 2009

    … Massachusetts, along with several other U.S. states, including Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, blows away all of Europe.

    Is better then every single country in Europe or is better than than the aggregated score for the whole of Europe? (Or Yurrp as it appears in Texan textbooks, with the gloss “Here by Dragons”).

    The fact that the states don’t have any voices on the world stages (because the US government handles all foreign affairs stuff) means that it’s easy to forget just how much each state is a semi-independent, largely self-governing country. And in a big continent, one would expect differences.

  10. #10 frank mayer
    August 30, 2009

    >>Keep in mind that MA, MN, and NJ have larger populations than Norway<< hey! you forgot to make the comparison with the vatican! come on people, norway, with a population of ca. 4 million (perhaps about the size of chicago?), is far from a typical european country. a more honest comparison would be to take spain: sizeable, but with its 40 million still just half the size of germany. ___________ another point to think about: even the best of lot, namely MA, shares with less stellar states the characteristically steep US fall-off in test results between ages 10 to 14. yet MA (like many others) continues to focus its attention on fixing what's already working (arguing over reading acquisition strategies for first graders), while paying scant attention to the causes for the steep drop off between grades 4 and 8.

  11. #11 Mhlia
    September 1, 2009

    Re: Divorce… What I don’t think any one has said so far is that divorce is also often a predictor of poverty. Women who divorce often suffer a significant decrease in income and women are predominently awarded custody of children in a divorce. Men, often but not always, see an increase in income post-divorce. But, even if you take that aspect out, if you think of it as taking one family’s income and now splitting it between two households you’ll see a decline in discretionary spending. Now if only I could remember which study those figures came from…

  12. #12 Edward
    September 2, 2009

    Mhlia – The poverty and divorce is more complicated than that. Some studies indicate that poverty is a cause of divorce – which makes sense if you consider all the additional stresses that poverty can place on a relationship. Speaking as a custodial father after a divorce, I’ve seen a decrease in my income and I have a lot less discretionary income now. The stats are often presented as “Women are usually awarded custody and usually see their income go down.” Based on my own experience and what I’ve seen, I suspect it is that women usually see their income go down in large part BECAUSE they are awarded custody of the children. It’s hard being a single parent and working full-time and you have to make compromises.

  13. #13 JuliaA
    September 2, 2009

    when i saw this entry linked in google reader, i immediately thought that massachusetts would be one of the four states.

    i lived there when i was in middle school. we were in a wealthy suburb, and it wasn’t considered all that geeky to be on the math team. a couple of the “popular” kids were on the math team with me.

    it was socially okay to be smart at the age of 13.

    when i moved to illinois that year i got a rude awakening.

    that’s just a tiny bit of personal experience, but growing up in different regions of the US during my childhood gave me an interesting perspective on common attitudes in these regions. all were affluent areas with excellent public schools–my parents based their moving decisions on getting me the best education. but there was a dramatic contrast between massachusetts and everywhere else we moved.

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