Guest commentary: Focus on quality of education, not on structure of schools

By Wendy Zdeb-Roper/Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals

Whether it was the debate over charter and cyber schools or, most recently, the Oxford Foundation report and the Educational Achievement Authority,  the conversation about education reform has been focused almost exclusively on who should educate Michigan students -- rather than on the quality of the education being provided.

This is both startling and troubling.

Research tells us clearly that the type of provider means very little and that the key to closing the achievement gap is to focus on education quality and high expectations.

Why then is the Michigan Legislature debating changes to the Michigan Merit Curriculum that would lower the bar for student performance in the face of overwhelming evidence that this is the wrong direction for our students?

Study after study — from the Cherry Commission report in 2004 to last month's Business Leaders for Michigan review —points to our state needing more college graduates in order to meet future economic demands. In today's economy, let alone tomorrow's, students will not get well-paid jobs with just a high school education. Schools must focus their efforts on preparing kids for post-secondary education and the MMC is the tool they need. By focusing on graduating students who are career and college ready, the MMC helps ensure that graduates leave high school ready to enroll in a two- or four-year technical or degree program without needing remediation.

The best part is that the MMC is not only working, it's a success!  Since our state adopted the current graduation requirements in 2006, graduation rates have increased by about 1 percent, while dropout rates are down over 4 percent. In real numbers, that means that, in 2012, approximately 12,500 more students graduated and 69,300 fewer students dropped out!

Since the state started giving the ACT exam to every student in 2008, scores have increased steadily each year, as has the percentage of students graduating career- and college-ready. This includes marked gains among most minority students, particularly those who identify as African American and Hispanic. ACT data also tell us what may seem self-evident: Students who take more rigorous coursework get better scores.

Why then is the Legislature considering changes to this successful program?

One argument being put forward is that the MMC makes it too hard for students to take career and technical education courses. This just isn't true.

Data compiled by the Center for Education Performance Information shows that CTE enrollment from 2007-08 to 2010-11 actually increased slightly from 7.53 percent of students enrolled in CTE courses in 2007 to 7.60 percent in 2010-11. Further, programs in areas such as finance, health science, information technology and engineering have seen huge increases.

So what does this mean for education reform in Michigan? Simple. We should continue down our current path of high expectations and improving performance.

We should have the same high expectations of our schools as we do our students and insist they provide students with a rich, high-quality education so they graduate career and college ready.

Finally, we need to resist the urge to circle the wagons and shoot inward by changing the focus from what type of institution teaches our children to the quality of what they are taught.

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Ed Haynor
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 4:32pm
I do agree with Wendy Zdeb-Roper that constantly debating and/or changing the structure of public education is not being focused correctly on what makes for a quality school or quality education. Unfortunately, she’s naïve in why state elected leaders are focused on such nonsense. They are doing this in order to charterize and corporatize public education. Keeping the focus on structure, most state elected leaders are using public schools as a ruse. What they are really interested in, is changing how schools are governed and operated, thus the movement into privatizing all things public. I’m surprised that someone of the stature of Ms. Zdeb-Roper, who is executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, doesn’t get it or maybe she’s just too afraid to write about it. Her article does such a disservice to students, parents and Michigan citizens by keeping the focus of the dialog on structure versus quality, when the dialog should be WHY and HOW elected leaders are dismantling public education. Traditional, neighborhood public education is the great equalizer in regards to serving all, is a pillar of our democracy and is run locally. Not being focused on what’s really wrong with Lansing gives them the impetus to achieve their narrow-minded private interests. Her complaint regarding changing the curriculum to give some additional choices to students who want to take more courses in career-technical education (CTE) is unfounded. Saying that there are more students taking CTE courses now than what was reported in 2007 is statistically insignificant and discounts the large numbers of students and parents who have left Michigan since 2007. Also, it’s ridiculous to think that all students who graduate from high school are, will, or need to get a 4-year college degree that many academic-types think all students need. Statistics have shown since about 1950 that only 30% of all jobs require a 4-year degree. A bona-fide CTE class is just as rigorous as an academic one. Matter of fact, many CTE programs for high school juniors and seniors are just as rigorous and offer more time on task as the same CTE programs offered in community college settings. Based on my experience, I’d take a rigorous CTE program over an Algebra II class anytime and the CTE program will be more valuable and interesting to boot.
Wed, 04/17/2013 - 9:20pm
Ed, the schools are not run locally. There is politics and ideology injected by liberals, teachers unions, the state, the Federal department of education, and now the UN. What about the parent's attitude toward their children's education? It is the parents who are to supply and teach their children ambition, achievement, and excellence.
Tue, 04/16/2013 - 9:44pm
Until the purpose is defined so everyone has the same focus, specific results are describe, performance metrics are established, and performance milestone are used by all there will be a never ending change to the educational system and those changes will be a random walk of ideas. Every discussion should be proceeded by a review of the purpose and expected results to keep the discussions focused on the learning by the children and avoid the personal preferences for modifying the system. Nothing in the article talks about the purpose or the desired learning of the children so what have we learned people can justify changes based on graduation rates, test scores, course enrollment, etc. and never have to improved the children's learning.
Big D
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 8:36am
"...the conversation about education reform has been focused almost exclusively on who should educate Michigan students — rather than on the quality of the education being provided." This is the same sorry program of the education establishment that has got us nowhere. It is a thinly veiled appeal over the more basic issue of public vs. charter, using a distraction. It isn't about "who should educate", it is about competition. Competition is what ultimately will reform our education system broadly, not more curriculum standards (or more spending or fake teacher evaluations). Let failing schools fail. Let entreprenurial schools rise. Let families do their job, and send their kids to the most effective school. ...aguing over common curricula and other control measures is the circular firing squad--for kids.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 12:43pm
In general I agree with this article. Changing the curriculum every 2-3 years makes it impossible to assess what is working and what is not. However, I would argue that the ACT writing test is not preparing students for college, particularly since the test drives what is taught. The ACT writing test is based on persuasive writing without requiring students to base their argument on any kind of sources or reading. Students are coming to college without being able to use sources to construct and support an argument. This may be a small thing, but as long as testing (not just ACT) drives curriculum and the curriculum is not helping develop critical reading and thinking skills, those students will have trouble in college. I assume (without direct knowledge) that those students will also have difficulty in the work place if they have to make decisions base on evidence, not just uninformed opinions.