The Atlantic & education: “Thank God for Massachusetts”

The December 2010 edition of The Atlantic has an article “Your Child Left Behind” that looks at how students in individual American states compare with students in other countries. Measuring the percentage of students who scored Advanced in standardized math proficiency tests, the study that’s the subject of the article found the top five countries and their percentage of high math performers to be:

  1. Taiwan – 28.0%
  2. Hong Kong – 23.9%
  3. Korea – 23.2%
  4. Finland – 20.4%
  5. Switzerland – 19.1%

The top ranking US state was Massachusetts which tied with Slovenia for 17th place with 11.4% of students scoring advanced in math. Minnesota was the next state with 10.8% and then a bunch were grouped at the 6-7% level, wedged between Norway and Spain. The lowest scoring state was Mississippi with only 1% advanced. It was in ahead of Chile and Thailand.

An interactive graphic showing all the scores in the study is on The Atlantic website.

Given the chronic bashing of our public schools here in the Commonwealth, I thought this paragraph from the article was worth sharing:

Reading the list, one cannot help but thank God for Massachusetts, which offers the United States some shred of national dignity – a result echoed in other international tests. “If all American fourth- and eighth-grade kids did as well in math and science as they do in Massachusetts,” writes the veteran education author Karin Chenoweth in her 2009 book, How It’s Being Done, “we still wouldn’t be in Singapore’s league but we’d be giving Japan and Chinese Taipei a run for their money.”

4 Responses to The Atlantic & education: “Thank God for Massachusetts”

  1. Renee Aste says:


    Massachusetts is doing something incredibly right. I can’t help but point out the trade off. Because each child is such an economic investment, our model educates fewer children because in Massachusetts people have fewer children. Our smaller pool of children, come from homes where the mothers and fathers are more likely educated themselves.

    What percentage of highly educated parents grew up in Massachusetts themselves, or are they the originally from other parts of the U.S. compared to the states with lower results? For example a gifted student from Mississippi comes to Boston for college, but doesn’t return back. Effectively we’re draining the brains of that state, and the brains’ offspring too.

    Would our numbers change if only we compared students of non-college educated parents in Massachusetts to those in Mississippi and to those other countries. Sure even those Massachusetts students would probably still come up on top. Massachusetts is doing something right, but cultural and academic enrichment carries a heavy price tag.


  2. DickH says:

    Unfortunately, the full article is not yet online because the author directly addresses the points you make and pretty much dismisses them. She writes that while Massachusetts is “slightly better-off than the US average”, the state still lagged behind similar states in the 1990s. “It was only after a decade of educational reforms that Massachusetts began to rank first in the nation.”

    And it’s not just a consequence of spending more money: New York spends more per pupil than any other state and it’s score on this measure, 6.3%, is only slightly above the US average of 6%. The author says that “Massachusetts began demanding meaningful outcomes from everyone in the school building . . . an idea that remains sacrilegious in many US schools.”

    Still, money remains important and given the enormous cut in resources imposed on our public schools over the past few years (and continuing into the future, it appears), whatever gains we have made will quickly erode, another casualty of the collapse of our economy.

  3. Renee Aste says:


    I was thinking along the investment a parent can give a child. Parents can devote more energy to one or two children vs four or five. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to have my husband take the three youngest over his parents, just so I would work on a science project with my eight year old daughter. Each child only gets one after school activity. Unless a child is truly gifted in his/her own right, it takes more then good teachers.

    For example in Taiwan the total fertility rate for each woman is 1.15, in Massachusetts it is 1.6. We’re producing smarter students, but we’re not ‘reproducing’ smarter students. At least we should be able to have a replacement level to replace the college educated couple.


  4. stevets says:

    One must remember that public schools in the U.S. educate “The Public”; that is, we take everyone. The majority of the schools in the “top ranked” countries cited in the survey above are select schools. I spent three years teaching in Taiwan, and would suggest that the scramble in certain areas of our beloved Commonwealth to get one’s little darlings into “prestigious” private schools here would be seen as a joke in other countries.

    I haven’t read the survey (or even seen its parameters), but I suspect that it compares apples and mangoes (or lingonberries, or chocolates)