Future of Work

Which U.S. States Are Best Positioned to Innovate? How K-12 Schools Influence the Rankings

By Alyson Klein — March 29, 2021 2 min read
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“Innovation” has become a big buzzword, not just in education, but in the broader world of work. So which states are doing the most—including when it comes to K-12 schools—to drive innovation?

Massachusetts leads the pack, according to a new analysis released earlier this month by WalletHub, a personal finance website.

Also topping the list: the District of Columbia, Washington state, Maryland, and Virginia. The states still struggling to create an environment for innovation include Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Arkansas.

The drum major cannot expect to compete with the quarterback but should not be an outcast. That social environment is not likely to contribute to innovation. A state needs to be nerd-friendly.

In ranking states, the analysis considered 22 factors. Those included a handful related to K-12 education, such as 8th grade math and science performance, Advanced Placement exam participation, and adoption of K-12 computer science standards. And it looked at a data point that has been critical to virtual learning during the pandemic: the share of households with internet access.

It also examined other factors, such as a state’s share of STEM professionals, percentage of science and engineering graduates, and the number of technology companies.

The states that scored top marks on the K-12 indicators, however, were not necessarily in the top five overall. For instance, Colorado and Pennsylvania had the strongest 8th grade math and science performance, followed by Massachusetts, Utah, and New Hampshire. Alabama, Mississippi, New Mexico, California, and Hawaii were the bottom five states in terms of math and science performance.

Florida, meanwhile, has the highest share of public high-school students taking advanced-placement exams, at nearly 52 percent. That is almost four times higher than North Dakota, the lowest at 13.2 percent.

So how can policymakers, educators, and others help encourage innovation? For one thing, if states want students to growup and become change agents, they will need to make sure they have knowledge that extends beyond just the obvious techie fields.

“Since we are experiencing a digital transformation, individuals should have an open-minded approach to learning new technologies and new business trends,” Jae Hyeung Kang, an associate professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., said in a statement that was included with the report. “However, I believe that it is also important for them to understand foundational knowledge such as philosophy and mathematics.”

Meg Blume-Kohot, an assistant professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, suggested that states make post-secondary education more accessible to help encourage would-be trailblazers.

“Subsidies to lower tuition prices at community colleges would help future innovators gain the background knowledge they need to innovate, while also (if coupled with regional industry-friendly curriculum to meet local needs) providing individuals with opportunities to retrain on needed and valued skills in local economies,” she wrote in the statement that accompanied the report.

And Larry Allen, a retired professor of economics at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, suggests states should work to make sure schools create educational cultures that make all people feel welcome.

“If the children of educated parents feel less accepted, they move away,” he said in the statement with the report. “The drum major cannot expect to compete with the quarterback but should not be an outcast. That social environment is not likely to contribute to innovation. It is a brain drain. A state needs to be nerd-friendly.”

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