Faculty ResearcherJoshua Goodman,
of Public Policy,
Harvard Kennedy School
Paper TitleIntensive Math Instruction and Educational Attainment: Long-Run Impacts of Double-Dose Algebra
Texas A&M University
St. Louis University
For the past four decades, the high school graduation rate in the United States has been on the decline; it is currently at about 75 percent. For black and Hispanic students, that number drops to 65 percent. “Poor academic preparation of students entering high school is often cited as a major source of such high dropout rates,” write Joshua Goodman, Assistant Professor in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School; Kalena Cortes, of Texas A&M University; and Takako Nomi, of St. Louis University, in their study “Intensive Math Instruction and Educational Attainment: Long-Run Impacts of Double-Dose Algebra.”
Low math proficiency rates among entering high school freshmen may explain high failure rates in their coursework. About half of all high school freshmen fail at least one class, and these rates are highest among math courses, Goodman and his colleagues explain. “The central concern of urban school districts is that algebra may be a gateway for later academic success, so that early high school failure in math may have large effects on subsequent academic achievement and graduation rates,” they write.
In their study, Goodman and his colleagues analyzed longitudinal data collected by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) after its implementation of a double-dose algebra policy. First-time ninth-graders testing below the national median on the math portion of the eighth-grade Iowa Test of Basic Skills were enrolled in a regular period of algebra and an additional support class. “CPS hoped that this doubling of instructional time, along with an increased emphasis on problem solving skills and increased instructional support for teachers, would improve algebra passing rates in the short-run and high school graduation rates in the long-run,” the authors write.
The data tracked the students from eighth grade through college enrollment and looked for improvements in their grades, test scores, and rates of high school graduation and college enrollment. (College completion rates weren’t included, because graduation rates for students enrolled in four-year colleges were not yet available to the study authors. They also cited a lack of sufficient data on completion rates at the two-year colleges attended by students in the sample.)
The study found that the double-dose algebra policy had “positive and substantial impact” on test scores, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment. Most significant, Goodman says, are the long-run effects seen in graduation rates and college enrollment, which increased by 15 percent and 25 percent, respectively. “If you stopped the evaluation by looking at test scores, you would have said it was mildly successful,” he explains. “But if you then look at high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates, those impacts were substantially larger than the test-score effects. I think that’s the main strength of this study.”
The authors also note that the double-dose algebra policy focuses on using verbal explanations of mathematical problems and that “the impact was generated largely by students with below average reading skills.” The authors conclude that the policy’s success stems in part from the careful targeting of students with appropriate skill levels.
According to Goodman, one of the most interesting aspects of the study is that it presents an opportunity to gauge success without relying solely on test scores — a method that he says can understate a policy’s long-term impact. “Those of us who think about education policy are very focused on test scores, as are the accountability systems that our state and federal governments have set up,” Goodman explains. Even though the double-dose algebra policy brought test scores up only a small amount, the students were “substantially more likely to graduate from high school,” which demonstrates the importance of looking beyond test scores alone.
With school funding shrinking and budgets being cut, some schools may struggle to come up with the resources to support double-dose algebra. Citing his research on the connection between success in math courses and higher earnings, Goodman asserts that the potential benefits of the policy make it a worthwhile expenditure: “Anything we can do to help kids succeed in math is a good thing.”
— by Jane Finn-Foley