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Educational Rankings of the United States

Update (2011/09/20): U.S. News has published updated data, so I have created an updated version of this article. This has also become my most popular article.

Technology companies need workers with above-average education.

For many years, I have followed U.S. News and World Report's National Universities Rankings, so I was pleased to discover its Best High Schools: State by State Statistics.

In reading its rankings, I became curious about the spatial relationships between the states with the best and worst high schools. So, on the following map, I numbered the states in order of rank and applied a spectral color code to each 10% tier of top performers, using red and brown for below-average and worst performers, respectively.

thumbnail preview of United States Ranked and Tiered by Quality of High Schools
United States Ranked and Tiered by Quality of High Schools
with Locations of Nation's Top 10 Universities
(Click to enlarge.)

Exceptional Performers

States with high schools outperforming those of their neighbors significantly (by at least one 10% tier) include:

  1. California and Virginia (both in tier 1),
  2. Illinois and Ohio (both in tier 2),
  3. Colorado (in tier 3), and
  4. Florida (in tier 4).

California allegedly spends less to educate each student than nearly any state, yet its high schools rank among the top 10% of states.

Performance Versus Population

As summarized in the table below, of the most populous 10% of states, only Texas's high schools do not rank above the national average.

Population Size RankStateHigh Schools Rank
1California4
2Texas27
3New York11
4Florida16
5Illinois8

The Texas Exception

Texas's high schools rank slightly below average in 27th place, behind those in all other states with technology centers including (in order of rank) Massachusetts, California and Virginia (all first-tier), and New Jersey, New York, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, North Carolina and New Mexico.

So why is this the case? I have two ideas. First, Texas law allegedly requires that at least half of school spending be spent on administrative overhead, assuring wasteful inefficiency. Next, the Texas state board of education continues to defy the United States Supreme Court in insisting that creationism (or "intelligent design", as the idea is now called) be taught in its public schools.

The University of Texas at Austin is one of the two largest "single-campus" universities in the United States. (The university operates several satellite facilities in Austin that are physically separated from its main campus.) The university appears to be very good academically, but ranks only 47th nationally. This may be due to a state law (which may soon be revoked) that guarantees admission to any state university to the top 10% of the state's high school students, requiring the university to now admit about 75% of its incoming freshmen from the state's below-average high schools.

The Red States: Education and Voting Habits

With few exceptions, most of the states with below-average high schools are those between and including Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia. States with the worst high schools include Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and the non-contiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii.

Each states' votes in the last four Presidential elections (1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008) correlated positively 71% with the state's high school ranking above or below average. (Most statistics herein have a margin for error of +/-4%.)

States having above-average high schools voted Democratic 64% and Republican 24%; states having below-average high schools voted Republican 78% and voted Democratic 22%.

States with their high schools inRepDemswinging
top 25%8%75%17%
2nd 25%38%54%8%
3rd 25%75%25%0%
bottom 25%82%18%0%

These strong statistical correlations suggest that our nation's most poorly-educated people vote Republican, and that blind loyalty to either party decreases as levels of education improve.

For related information, see On Comparing Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas.