Seven years ago, Michigan's Democratic and Republican lawmakers arrived at a rare moment of consensus: They agreed to dramatically raise the bar for high school graduation. A two-bill package passed the Senate without dissent, and there was just a smattering of no votes in the 110-member House.
Michigan abruptly went from having the fewest state requirements (a semester of civics) to having among the most rigorous.
In 2010, the State Board of Education took the next step. Members voted unanimously to join with nearly all of the other states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, an approach to teaching math and reading that educational experts say will better prepare students for college, training programs and skilled jobs. Along with the standards come measurements. Beginning in 2014-15, a national test will compare state students' performance and show more clearly than ever how Michigan's children stack up against those from other states.
That's if we get there. But today, both the graduation requirements and the national standards are being challenged in the Legislature. Several bills have been introduced to soften the graduation requirements to varying degrees, most often dealing with requirements for algebra and foreign languages. Of more concern to some is legislation to block the state from participating in the Common Core standards. Similar anti-core efforts are taking place in several other states – and the Republican National Committee late last week labeled Common Core “an inappropriate overreach” in an official resolution.
The sponsor of House Bill 4276, Rep. Tom McMillin, says the common standards turn over control of what's being taught from states and local school districts to national organizations and that the Obama administration is using federal funds to prod states in to adopting them. "This is a centralization that will dumb down the curriculum and stifle creativity," the Rochester Hills Republican said.
But many education experts say the core standards, created under the direction of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and voluntarily agreed to by at least 45 states, are vital in helping American students close the achievement gap with their peers in many other countries.
Michigan Schools Superintendent Michael Flanagan the opposition to common core is being driven either by "a genuine misunderstanding that these are federally driven" or by an effort to make people believe that's the case.
He said the impact of implementing the core standards will be less dramatic in Michigan because there are already high standards in place with the Michigan Merit Curriculum (graduation requirements). At the same time, he said the state could end up "looking like Neanderthals to possibly a lot of the business community and to colleges" if it withdraws. "What message are we sending if we are bailing out of common core," he asked.
State Board of Education President John Austin noted that the push for higher, national standards has been supported by Democrats like Bill Clinton to Republicans like John Engler and Jeb Bush. "I think it would be beneficial to all of the students in America to have the same high expectations and platform of skills that are what they need to be well-prepared for post-secondary education without remediation or for the workforce," Austin said.
The road to national standards
International tests have shown for years that United States students are so-so in reading and far behind students in other countries in math. Students in South Korea, Finland, and Canada, for example, routinely fare better on international tests than our students -- and even the best American students are outshined by top performers in other countries. Michigan, meanwhile is, generally speaking, average to a little below average compared with other states.
Seeking to reverse these trends in the late 1990s, the associations of state governors and school superintendents began looking at what other countries were doing that we weren't. Those efforts led to the new standards. In math, for instance, the A-plus countries, as they are sometimes called, have better focus (establishing a deep understanding of a few concepts rather than a shallow understanding of many); coherence (teaching things in the right order so that they make sense and build off each other), and rigor in their courses.
Research at Michigan State University led by William Schmidt, co-director of MSU's Education Policy Center, was highly influential in the development of the common core state standards for math. He testified in support of the standards at a March 20 meeting of the state House Education Committee.
"There is a progression in mathematics that is logical. Topics are taught in a certain order," Schmidt told Bridge Magazine. When topics are taught in the right sequence, he said, "what happened yesterday (in class) makes more sense today, and what is happening today is feeding into what is going to happen tomorrow. If you broaden that scenario to across the grades, you have a sense of what one of the big differences would be."
The committee has not acted on HB 4276.
Research shows that students in the United States are exposed to more concepts but in less depth, with the effect of delaying mastery. By eighth grade, U.S. students are still by and large working on arithmetic, while students in the high-achieving countries have moved on to algebra and geometry, he said.
But Sandra Stotsky, a retired University of Arkansas education professor, has asserted in hearings across the country that the new standards will make students less, not more, prepared. "Leave while the leaving is still possible," she advised lawmakers in Lansing. "Common core will make us the janitors of the world," she said in Missouri. We are moving down a couple of grades by accepting it."
Schmidt counters that if the new standards have brought outstanding results in other countries, they should be effective here. "I think it's reasonably safe that are new common core standards are world-class," he said. Research also shows that students in states with curricula most similar to the new standards generally do better on standardized tests than those in other states.
Making the transition
Some districts are far ahead of others in revamping their standards, Schmidt said. The East Lansing School District is working with him to make the transition for math. Its teachers input data on what they teach each day and get feedback on how it aligns with the common core standards.
John Brandenburg, a former math teacher who is now the East Lansing High School principal, says the new standards "are not a mile wide and an inch deep. We have more focus, and the standards themselves are coherent within a grade so that there is a progression of learning."
Implementing the standards to bring about deep conceptual understanding by students represents a major undertaking for teachers, Brandenburg said. "It's tough. It's a change," he said. "It's not just turning the page in a textbook, it's to think about what I'm going to teach. Now I'm going to teach less (fewer concepts), so I have to have some activities and some strategies for teaching it deeper."
Critics argue that fewer students will be ready for algebra by eighth grade, and therefore fewer will take calculus in high school. Brandenburg said that may happen in other districts, but it hasn't been the case in East Lansing, where about one-third of the students still take calculus.
Harbor Springs Superintendent Mark Tompkins said the common core is designed to think more deeply. For instance, the middle school recently held an "Inventor's Convention," where a "Level 2" presentation involved research, analysis and public speaking in building a mock elevator and explaining its history. "A Level 4 would have been making your own invention -- come up with your own invention, even if it's fanciful. "That's the kind of teaching and learning we want to encourage," he said.
He said the common core standards should also lead to improvements for teachers and administrators.
"Everybody in the country will have common standards, common language," he said. "You can go to training at conferences, and we will all be thinking the same way, having the same content we are focusing on. ... Instead of talking about what we teach, we can talk about how we teach to a greater extent."
While the changes in education may be less in Michigan than in many other states, it would be a mistake to think that they are easy, MSU's Schmidt said. To overhaul classes so that concepts are taught in different order, in different ways, and in greater depth will be a major challenge. He said it's important for teachers to get the professional development support they need to be successful.
"It will be a challenge to get teachers to move beyond what they have done. Just because something is called fractions, doesn't mean it is the same exact content and way of presenting things," he said. "Without proper implementation, these are just pieces of paper that describe what might be, not what is."
The future of the bills remains unclear. Gov. Rick Snyder is reviewing the bills and hasn't taken a position, spokesman Ken Silfven said via email.
Schmidt, the MSU professor, said the state would be a big mistake to pull out of the common core standards consortium or water down graduation requirements. "This is not about local control. It's about making our kids have a better education," he said. "Why would we want to go back to something that we know has not worked well for us."
Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.