Curriculum

Study Questions Role Math, Science Play in Nation’s GDP

By Debra Viadero — December 07, 2006 3 min read
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A study of more than three dozen countries, including the United States, challenges the popular belief that superior student achievement on international mathematics and science tests breeds national economic success.

In the study, which tracks economic-growth patterns from 1970 to 2000, researchers found that the link between national productivity and high test scores weakens and, in some years, disappears when the so-called “Asian Tigers”—Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea—are removed from researchers’ calculations.

“If, in fact, the widespread belief that academic achievement is linked to economic growth is driven by only a few cases, then economic growth has something to do with those countries and not with the fact that they score high in math and science,” said Francisco O. Ramirez, the Stanford University researcher who led the study.

“There are many good reasons for wanting to improve the quality of math and science education,” he said in an interview, “but if we stake everything to economic growth, then we’re overselling it.”

Read Francisco O. Ramirez’s study, “Student Achievement and National Economic Growth,” posted by the American Journal of Education.

Mr. Ramirez’s study, published last month in the American Journal of Education, runs counter to calls by policymakers, including President Bush, and business leaders for bolstering K-12 mathematics and science education as a way to keep the United States from losing its economic edge over other nations. (“Bush Proposes Math and Science Initiatives,” Feb. 8, 2006.)

Bills introduced in Congress, for instance, seek to train more teachers for advanced math and science instruction and create other incentives to attract students to math, science, and engineering studies in college.

Eric A. Hanushek, a Stanford economist who led a study analyzing the same data six years ago, disagreed with Mr. Ramirez’s results. “The bottom line is that we (and others) who have looked at these data find that math and science test scores have a strong impact outside of East Asia as well as within East Asia,” he said in an e-mail.

Mr. Ramirez, a professor of education and sociology, used data from Mr. Hanushek’s earlier study to compare growth in the gross domestic products of 38, mostly developed nations over two 20-year periods, from 1970 to 1990 and from 1980 to 2000.

While countries with the highest math and science scores did post the fastest economic growth of the nations studied in the 1970-1990 period, the link between achievement and growth decreased markedly when Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea were taken out of the analysis. The extent of the effect further diminished, and in some cases disappeared, during the 1980-2000 time span, as the East Asian nations underwent an economic slump.

Link Still Holds?

As a further check, Mr. Ramirez and his colleagues also looked at whether student achievement contributed in some way to other factors that are thought to spur economic success. Those include the number of patents or scientific publications per capita, enrollment in college-level mathematics and science programs, and the numbers of scientists and engineers in the labor force.

The results were mixed. High test scores on international tests did not appear to spur more students to study math and science in college, for example, but they did seem to boost scientific research.

“There are many things that impinge on economic growth, but it’s not the case that it’s a simple matter of upgrading academic achievement,” said Mr. Ramirez.

For example, he said, East Asian nations tend to focus their school systems more tightly on meeting the human-capital needs of their countries—particularly so in the earlier period studied. In contrast, students growing up in countries such as the United States are freer to follow their interests, according to Mr. Ramirez.

However, Mr. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford, said Mr. Ramirez was making too much of the results from the earlier period, because the link between test scores and economic productivity was still statistically significant after the East Asian nations were excluded.

“Their basic findings support the idea that test scores are important, even when you take out the Asian nations,” he said in an interview.

But Mr. Ramirez noted that was not the case from 1980 to 2000, with or without the four East Asian countries.

“What we’re saying is this finding is time- and case-sensitive,” he said. “The issue now is figuring out under what conditions does quality schooling lead to economic growth.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week

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