How increased math requirements raised the floor but not the ceiling

A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, written by Joshua Goodman of the Harvard Kennedy School, explores the effect of increased high school math requirements on students’ educational and workforce outcomes.

The study examines state-level school reforms enacted in response to A Nation at Risk, which, inter alia, lamented the declining status of the U.S. scientific and technological workforce. The federal report, published in 1983, prompted thirty-nine states and D.C. to increase the number of math courses that they required for high school graduation. However, the reforms were not implemented simultaneously (the most responsive updated requirements by 1984, while the slowest took until 1990). The differential timing of reforms across the states helped Goodman clearly identify their effects.

By looking at transcript data, Goodman found that when states boosted their math requirements, a jump followed in the average number of math courses completed. That’s not surprising. What’s more interesting—and sobering—is that this increase occurred because students took more basic math courses (e.g., algebra, geometry, vocational math), not more advanced math courses (e.g., algebra II, pre-calculus, statistics). Unfortunately, that means the reform did not achieve the Excellence Commission’s implicit objective of sharpening STEM’s cutting edge in the United States.

Still, Goodman contends that this reform did improve outcomes for some students. Specifically, it caused a statistically significant increase in math course completion for black high school graduates. For the class of 1987, in states that had already increased their requirements in response to A Nation at Risk, black students who graduated high school averaged 3.2 years of math, significantly higher than the average of 2.8 courses for their peers in states that had yet to enact reform (the trend was similarly upwards for white students, but less clear). The difference in mathematical experience for these two groups is critical to Goodman’s subsequent economic argument.

When the author compared the earnings of these graduates (using 2000 Census data), he found that those who had taken the additional math earned more money ($635 per year, on average). Importantly, the extra math requirement did not change the dropout rate, nor did it change the rate of college matriculation. Rather, this 3 percent pay raise was related to a shift towards slightly more cognitively intensive jobs for the middle-of-the-pack students who were most affected by the reforms. 

Note, however, that this was not a longitudinal study, so the students in the transcript data set are not necessarily the adults whose earnings were measured, although Goodman argues that the two data sets align closely. He admits that data are lacking for other racial groups that might be compared, so more research is needed. Furthermore, the study only examines the quantity, not the quality, of math courses taken.

Goodman’s findings are a testament to the fact that not all policies produce the intended outcomes. However, with good research, we can identify the outcomes they do produce, and use that information to guide future reforms. Policymakers looking to close racial achievement and income gaps can find hope in this work, as Goodman clearly shows that requiring more math courses can help, while those interested in pushing high achievers to even greater heights should look to reform more than just the minimum graduation requirements. Yet more research is needed in both these areas. For now though, if your lawmaker, fellow wonk, or teenage child, ever questions the value of required math, point them here.

SOURCE: Joshua Goodman, “The Labor of Division: Returns to Compulsory High School Math Coursework”, National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2017. 

Christopher Rom
Christopher Rom Former research Intern