How Does Compulsory Math Education Close the Racial Income Gap?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education has been a national imperative for decades. More recent administrations have prioritized STEM in schools due to the rising importance of mathematical skills in the labor market. The American Competitive Initiative, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, committed a $250 million investment to K-12 level math education and established programs that would bring STEM professionals into high school classrooms to evaluate STEM teaching methods. Additionally, the Obama administration campaigned extensively for expanding STEM literacy both inside and outside the classroom.

However, little evidence exists of how STEM education interventions improve students’ skills and labor market outcomes, or how these policies address the achievement gap between black and white students. A report by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, “A Nation at Risk,” published in 1983, is widely viewed as a landmark event in educational history. The report addressed various challenges in the American education system, including the underachievement of American students in STEM subjects. To tackle this issue, the commission recommended that high school students complete three years of coursework in mathematics. Thereafter, forty states reacted by increasing their minimum math requirements. However, the timing of the reform varied greatly across the states—the first wave of reforms started as early as 1984, and the last state adopted the same policy in 1990.

Joshua Goodman, an economist at Harvard University, used the difference in timing of math reform adoption to estimate the impact on coursework completion and the cohorts’ labor market outcomes. Goodman found that although the reform did not lead to an increase in the number of math courses completed by white students, it had a significant impact on black students. Post-reform black students completed 0.35 more years of mathematics—a 14 percent increase relative to the 2.54 years the pre-reform cohorts completed, closing the black-white math completion gap by 20 percent. Additionally, Goodman found no statistically significant change in dropout rates or the reception of college degrees, a common concern associated with raising minimum graduation requirements.

Using Census data from 2000, Goodman estimated that being subject to the math reform raised the earnings of black high school graduates by 3.3 percent, an economically and statistically significant impact that represents a tenth of the black-white income gap. The increase is mainly driven by changes in the middle of the black income distribution, consistent with the observation that there was a large increase in the completion of basic math courses such as pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry, but no substantial increase in more advanced math coursework. Earnings of white high school graduates did not experience any significant changes, which is consistent with the empirical evidence that their completion of math coursework did not change in response to the math reform. Goodman therefore attributed the positive effect on income for black students to the shifts toward more cognitively intense occupations. Although the policy did not improve educational attainment or college enrollment, post-reform black high school graduates on average worked in professions requiring 0.04 standard deviations more cognitive skill, as measured based on the federal government’s Occupational Network Database (O-Net).

Goodman’s study contributes to the understanding of the economic benefit of compulsory STEM education and its potential to help close racial and socioeconomic gaps in coursework completion and earnings. However, it also shows the limitations of such interventions: policies focused on time spent in class rather than content learned seem to have little effect on incentivizing students to enroll in more challenging courses. Further research may be able to evaluate if other curricular interventions can address these continuing gaps.

Article source: Goodman, Joshua. “The Labor of Division: Returns to Compulsory High School Math Coursework.” National Bureau of Economic Research (2017).

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Xiner Xu
Xiner Xu is a staff writer for Child & Family. She is interested in behavioral economics, immigration policy, and post-secondary education in a comparative international context.

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