Math is seen by many as the most important subject that is learned for the bagrut (matriculation) exams, although it has the reputation of being both difficult and intimidating. Over the past decade, there has been a substantial drop in the number of pupils who choose to take the math bagrut exams at the higher 4 or 5 level (although in the past year there was a slight rise in these rates). The Ministry of Education has decided to start a national campaign to increase the rate of those studying math at the higher levels. Does learning high level math have any importance later in life for these pupils?
In order to answer this question, Prof. Ayal Kimhi and Arik Horovitz, in a study for the Taub Center (funded jointly by the Trump Foundation) checked to see the influence of higher level math study on labor force achievement and in particular, its impact on wages. The special data base that was built for the purposes of this study allowed the researchers to track a sample of examinees from their bagrut tests, through higher education, if they continued onto it – and if so, in what major – and into the characteristics of their early career choices (through age 29).
Not surprisingly, the research found that pupils who studied the highest level of math continued on to academic studies at a higher rate than those who studied at a lower level math or who did not take the math bagrut exam at all (90% of those who studied 5 units continued on to academic studies compared to 76% of those who took 4 units, 50% of those who took 3 units, and just 16% of those who did not take the math bagrut exam). A correlation was also found between the number of math units studied and the academic major. Those who took the bagrut at 5 units tended to enter the sciences like computer science, engineering and the exact sciences while a higher rate of those who studied at the 3 or 4 unit level went into the humanities, arts and social sciences.
This could explain the findings shown in the first figure. As the number of math bagrut units increases, occupational status tends to be more prestigious. The rate of those with an academic occupation rose gradually from 4% among examinees who studied 3 units or less to 49% among those who studied 5 units. In addition, the rate of those employed as associate professionals and technicians among those who studied at at least the 3 unit level was double the number of those who studied at a lower level or who did not take the math bagrut exam at all. In contrast, the number of skilled workers, who on average earn much less than associate professionals and technicians, is much lower among those who studied at least 3 units of math.
According to the Taub Center study, math study also has a substantial influence on the wage level within an occupation group. The findings presented in the table show clearly that pupils who took higher level math for their bagrut exams earned higher wages than those taking 3 units or less or who did not take the exam, even when they later were in the same occupation group. For example, agents and sales and service workers who took 3 units earned on average NIS 50 per hour while those who took 5 units earned NIS 74 per hour.
In addition, the study found that as the level of math increases, income in the labor market also increases. Nevertheless, in regression analyses that controlled for other variables that are likely to influence salary (like field of study and industry branch, socioeconomic variables and other bagrut scores, which are indicative of cognitive and learning abilities) it was found that the direct influence of level of math study on wages weakens as more variables are added – although it still reaches almost 10%.
In order to measure more accurately the impact of math study on wages, several hypothetical scenarios were examined. In the first, the level of math study of those who studied 4 units was increased to 5 units. The result of this hypothetical scenario showed that, by raising the level of math study, hourly wage rose by 8%. The direct effect of level of math study was 5% while the indirect effect (that is, the effect by way of the academic major selected) was 3%. The results differ somewhat for men and women; the move from 4 to 5 units increased wages of men by an average of 5% and the wages of women by an average of 13%.
In the second scenario, math study was increased from 4 to 5 units but the math score was reduced by 20 points; that means that hypothetically, if at 4 units of study the score was 90, at 5 units of study the score was reduced to 70. Results of this analysis showed that the lower score decreases the positive influence of the higher level of math on wages, although it does not negate it completely – the average increase in wages in this case is 7% (as opposed to 8% in the previous scenario). In this scenario as well, the influence was greater for women than for men.
The main conclusion from the Taub Center study is that the level of math study has a great deal of importance for income, and the academic major plays a critical role in this. Studying math at a higher level allows pupils to enter academic majors that are considered prestigious like engineering and computer sciences and in turn, these studies help them find quality employment and earn higher wages. As the results show, the influence is particularly high among women.
According to the researchers, in order to encourage more pupils to reach the higher levels of math (5 units), math study has to be made more attractive and the quality of teaching has to be improved. In addition, they recommended increasing the understanding of the importance of learning math among pupils and their parents. The implementation of these findings could increase the number of pupils taking higher level math and in this way, benefit pupils by enabling them to reach higher labor force achievements. The academic and high-tech fields would also benefit from a skilled and talented labor force, and ultimately, this would benefit the country as a whole.