Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: Jonathan Guryan

Seeking alternative ways to examine racial inequality


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IPR economist Jonathan Guryan discusses his research at a May 2011 policy research briefing on "Effects of Early Environments on Behavior, Achievement, and Health."

From the moment he stepped into his first classroom, IPR economist Jonathan Guryan loved school, loved math, and loved solving problems. Math led him to economics, to a PhD from MIT, and eventually to a research agenda that seeks practical solutions to problems, such as the persistence of racial inequality, especially in schools.

Economics “always felt like an alternative way to learn about and study history,” Guryan explained, “… to study things that were very clearly about what was going on in the world, in a very practical way.”

This focused, problem-solving approach has yielded many surprising findings—from showing how newly desegregated Southern hospitals in the 1960s helped to whittle down the black/white achievement gap to revealing how lotteries and prize-linked savings accounts might propel poorer Americans to save more for retirement.

Racial Prejudice and Wage Gaps

Guryan’s research approach also has led him to test and share ideas that had “not been thought about…for awhile,” he said, recalling one of his most-cited studies on the late Nobel economist Gary Becker’s The Economics of Racial Discrimination (1957).

Published soon after the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Becker’s work launched the study of labor market discrimination. Surprisingly, though, no one had ever tested Becker’s original prejudice model. Several decades later, Guryan and Kerwin Charles—both of whom were colleagues of Becker’s at the University of Chicago at the time—conducted the first study to validate Becker’s subtle work on discrimination and black-white wage gaps by using census data to calculate these gaps, and estimating white levels of prejudice through General Social Survey questions.

“The theory that [Becker] came up with 50, 60 years ago is consistent with the way the world works in the empirical sense,” Guryan said. “It’s a way of thinking about the world, about discrimination, that is very different from the way anyone was thinking about it at the time.”

Tracing the Effects of Early-Life Outcomes

This sense of history also finds its way into another major theme of Guryan’s research, how early life health affects long-term outcomes.

He continues work with Brown University’s Kenneth Chay and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Bhashkar Mazumder, looking at how increased access to medical care improved life for blacks born in the South in the 1960s after the government forcibly desegregated Southern hospitals.

“You see this really large improvement in cognitive test scores when they are older,” Guryan said. “Something is happening to these cohorts of black children pretty early in their lives … that has these long-term effects on things like test scores, educational attainment, and earnings.”

In another article that received extensive press coverage, including a write-up in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, Guryan, IPR director and education economist David Figlio, IPR postdoctoral fellow Krzysztof Karbownik, and the University of Florida’s Jeffrey Roth evaluated how birth weight affects children’s cognitive development. They discovered that the heavier a baby was at birth (up to almost 10 pounds), the better it performed in school later on,

The research illustrates that “what happens early in your life matters,” Guryan said. 

Interventions to Help High-Risk Teens

Past what happens in early life, Guryan also seeks to show that interventions targeting high-risk adolescents can be effective in terms of costs and results. In the process, he hopes to overturn a common misperception—that they are beyond help.

With colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Lab, which he co-directs, Guryan conducts large-scale, randomized experimental studies on a variety of interventions targeting disadvantaged adolescents, many of which take place within the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system.

In a recent working paper, Guryan and his colleagues evaluated interventions designed to help people to stop and think reflectively before they act in certain situations. This type of reflective decisionmaking can be particularly important for disadvantaged youth, who might, for example, do poorly in school if they automatically respond to a teacher’s questions the same way they might to questions from an aggressive peer on the street. Participants in one of these interventions, which targeted high-risk male juveniles in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, were 16 percent less likely to be readmitted than were their peers. Another intervention—“Becoming a Man,” implemented in some CPS schools—reduced arrests for violent crimes by 44 percent and increased participants’ academic engagement. It is work that has drawn widespread attention and was recently featured in a White House report

“If you design programs well, it’s possible that interventions in schools can make a big difference, even for kids who are older—who, by all objective measures, are at risk for having bad outcomes like dropping out of high school or getting involved in crime,” Guryan said.

Another intervention Guryan recently evaluated is Match tutoring, an intensive, individualized, daily math-tutoring program developed by Match Education, a charter school in Boston. Guryan and his colleagues implemented a randomized-controlled trial of Match tutoring for disadvantaged CPS high school students during the 2013–14 school year, and are continuing to study the program, now being delivered by SAGA Innovations, in both CPS and the New York City Public Schools. 

He found that students who participated in Match tutoring for just a year improved their performance on a standardized math test by enough to reduce the test-score gap between black and white students by one-third, did better in non-math courses, were more engaged in school, and were less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

“By virtue of being very individualized, [Match] can target a kid where the kid is. If a kid comes in and is in ninth grade but is at a fifth-grade level in math, the tutors are able to focus on the skills that the kid has and get them to catch up pretty quickly,” Guryan explained. 

New York Times opinion writer David Kirp called these results “staggering…I know of no initiative for disadvantaged young men of color that comes close.”

Guryan, too, is optimistic. He and his colleagues are now determining whether it is possible to implement the program successfully at a larger scale.

“That’s the thing I’m excited about, because it feels like something that, potentially, might be scalable,” Guryan said. “If it works at a larger scale, then you could make a real difference in the black-white achievement gap.”

Jonathan Guryan is associate professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.


Other recent news about Jonathan Guryan:

White House Report Highlights Jon Guryan's, Diane Schanzenbach's Research on Disadvantaged Youth

Targeted Tutoring Can Reduce "Achievement Gap" for CPS Students

Win-Win Partnerships to Improve Education

Using Mentors to Prevent Dropouts