The National Assessment of Educational Progress recently released a report on the science achievement levels of 8th graders in the US: The Nation’s Report Card: Science 2011: Executive Summary.
The results are pretty dismal, with only 2% of students scoring at an “advanced” level (which is pretty much where they need to be if they are going to go into a science or engineering program in college) and only 31% scoring proficient or better (which is where we as a society need our politicians and voters to be in order to make reasonable decisions about issues like pollution, climate change, and funding of medical programs). With fewer than a third of our students having the science understanding that they should have entering high school, our high school science teachers are reduced to doing remedial education, teaching middle school science, and our college teachers then having to teach high school science.
California is in even worse shape than the nation as a whole, with only 1% of public school 8th graders scoring advanced, and only 22% proficient or above. There are a few states doing worse by this measure, but not many: Alabama, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia, with Hawaii tied. If we set the bar very low, and just look at what fraction of students are “below basic”, California ties with Alabama at 47% below basic, and only Mississippi and the District of Columbia do a worse job of education.
The report provides a comparison of mean scores between public and private schools (scale score of 163 for private, 149 for public, where “proficient” is 170 or above), but does not give the distribution of scores for private schools. Since their mean is still below proficient, I think that even the private schools are not doing a good enough job in teaching science. (That was our experience at one of the best of the local private schools for middle school, though the private school our son was in for 4th–6th grade was quite good in science, thanks to a teacher who has now left the school.)
I believe that a proper job of science education would have >10% advanced, >70% proficient or advanced, >90% basic or above. None of the states comes close to this in their public schools. Massachusetts comes closest, with 4% advanced, 44% proficient or advanced, and “only” 25% below basic. If one concentrates less on the top and more on the bottom, then North Dakota is doing best, with only 18% below basic, and 44% proficient or advanced (but only 1% advanced).
Nine states have 42% or more proficient or advanced: Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont. Some of these have very low populations and harsh climates, so I doubt that they will become new centers for tech innovation, but Colorado, Massachusetts, and maybe Minnesota are worth watching for the next “Silicon Valley”. Massachusetts already has a big presence in technology companies and I suspect that Colorado (particularly around Boulder) will become a hotbed for tech companies over the next 10–20 years, when today’s 8th graders are starting their own companies.
With California doing such a poor job of educating kids and now gutting their world-class university and community college systems, I suspect that the tech industry in California will fade slowly over the next 30 years, sustained for a while by those already in it and a few immigrants attracted by the climate, but gradually destroyed by the difficulty of maintaining a tech industry in the face of one of the worst-educated populations in the country.
It doesn’t have to be this way. California once had a government that functioned well and that built the best school and university system in the country. That investment paid off handsomely, but the anti-tax advocates managed to neuter the government and the corrections industry managed to divert much of the funding to pay overtime for prison guards, so California has been spiralling downward for some time now.
I think that the only hope for California is to split into 2 or 3 separate states, each with its own new constitution. The state is simply too large to manage as a single entity, and the California constitution has become overloaded with junk that has no business being in a constitution. It would be an interesting exercise to apply various clustering algorithms to California’s counties (or even precincts) based on voting records for the past 40 years, to see what natural groupings arise. I wonder where I could get such records in an easily machine-readable form.