Legislators eye changes to high school graduation requirements

Seven years ago, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Legislature surveyed Michigan’s high school academic landscape and did not like the view.

The state had but one requirement for those earning a high school diploma – a civics course.

While local school districts had their own requirements for high-schoolers, these rules varied widely and were deemed insufficient for young people seeking 21st century careers.

So came into being the Michigan Merit Curriculum – a detailed set of state requirements for high school grads. In June, the third set of graduates taught under the curriculum will graduate.

It could be the last.

Nearly 10 bills have been filed in the Legislature to modify the state standards, most of which target foreign language and algebra II requirements.

On Wednesday, the House Education Committee took testimony on two of those bills, HB 4465 and 4466.

Mike Foster, a former superintendent at Laingsburg and supporter of the bills, said more options were needed in the requirements to allow for vocational courses – and that the existing option for a “personal curriculum” under the MMC was too restrictive.

By contrast, Justin Jennings, principal at Holland High School, speaking in opposition to the bills, said his school already was working in partnership with furniture maker Herman Miller on career training under the existing curriculum rules.

Michigan isn’t the only state where lawmakers are reconsidering high school requirements.

Texas, long considered an early leader in curricular changes, may scale back, if certain lawmakers convince colleagues to drop algebra II and other currently required classes.

“'You were out front in terms of adopting these requirements, and now you are certainly the place where there is the greatest debate and the most serious attempt to scale them back,' said Mike Cohen, the president of Achieve, an organization formed by governors, business leaders and corporate foundations that advocates for college-and-career-ready high school graduation requirements nationwide," Texas Tribune reported last week.

MORE COVERAGE: Consensus on Common Core standards evaporating

In Michigan, Harbor Springs Superintendent Mark Tompkins supports changes in the graduation requirements to give schools and students more flexibility. His biggest concern also is the algebra II requirement, which he says sets up some students for failure when they would otherwise be successful.

He said it's difficult for some students because it's so abstract. Some end up taking four years to complete the two-year algebra requirement. "I know in my own personal experience in school, I struggled with math. It was difficult. I had to work really hard at it to get it," Tompkins recalled. "And I went to Harvard."

Tompkins advocates more options, such as substituting algebra II with statistics. Michigan Department of Education officials say that flexibility is already there -- and students also can work with the school to develop their own personal curriculum under the existing rules.

The Michigan Association of School Boards supports changes in the Merit Curriculum to provide greater flexibility, said Don Wotruba, the association's director of government affairs. That's in part a response to a drop in enrollment in career and technical education programs after the new graduation requirements were enacted. In some instances, businesses have complained that they no longer have the pipeline of students to fill skilled jobs.

The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, however, produced data this month showing that while the raw total of students in career programs has dipped – in concert with an overall decline in state enrollment -- the percentage of students in such programs is up slightly since the 2007-08 school year.

Michigan Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan says these issues are being addressed successfully in many districts already. For example, they are able to incorporate algebra II into the career tech offerings. "We can name you the Calhoun's and the Wexford's and the Livonia's -- all of them have incorporated all of this into their career tech sequence or their career tech center," he said.

Many smaller districts have had trouble finding foreign language teachers because they don't have enough students to support a full-time teacher. "I can find a Spanish teacher, but because I don't have enough sections, I need to find a Spanish teacher who is also certified in another subject area," Wotruba explained.

The future of the bills remains unclear. Gov. Rick Snyder is reviewing them and hasn't taken a position, spokesman Ken Silfven said in an email.

William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University who has advised the state on curricular matters, said it 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.

Senior Editor Derek Melot contributed to this article.

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Nancy Shiffler
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 12:36pm
This year's seniors will be only the 3rd class to graduate under the new graduation standards, and I think perhaps the first class to have the foreign language standards. There's a certain amount of backward engineering down to the elementary school level needed in order to make all of the pieces work, and schools have had to do this on the fly.as the standards were being implemented. Seems to me we need a little more time before declaring these graduation requirements a failure.
Angela Wilson
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 8:10am
Many great comments. We do not need to dumb down the curriculum, we need to set high expectations for all our students while helping them to achieve to their highest potential. This means we keep high standards and expectations with flexibility about the courses that will meet the standards--we are already doing this. Many parents do not understand or are unable to navigate the education system for their children to encourage them to take the higher level courses if their child is capable of succeeding in the course. Dumbing down the standards will lead to more students not pushing themselves, or being encouraged to go further. I thought the governor, businesses, and many legislators believe we are lacking in a talented and well educated workforce causing our economy to stall. Dumbing down the curriculum will only make the problem of an uneducated workforce bigger. Dumbing down the standards also makes it easier for cheaper, less rigorous, less qualified education providers to do business in Michigan. It is more cost effective to be able to sit 100 students in front of a computer to learn easy basic concepts than to put 15 students in a classroom to get instruction from a teacher. Legislators need to get out of the business of setting curriculum standards. They are not education experts, nor do they know what the challenges are in districts they do not serve--I would argue many do not even understand the challenges within their districts. Many do not know or understand how teaching methods and curriculum introduction matters with child cognitive and physical development. Many do not understand, or care, how socio-economic status, education level of parents, violence and a myriad of other outside factors play a significant role in a child's education outcomes. Many have financial connections (including employment history and financial contributions to campaigns) with all sorts of education options, including traditional, cyber and charter. Legislators just need to stop pretending to know what is best for my daughter or your children and let educators do their jobs. If educating a child were easy I would homeschool my own or better yet I would step up and be a teacher.
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 9:57pm
Keep changing the goal posts every 2 or 3 years. That's a great idea. Republicans seem to be anti- science, anti-education and anti-teachers. Students in Vo-tech need more math today than ever. Training them for a job that may not exist in 20 years is dumb. Educating them so they can be successful in any field makes more sense. Sure it's hard; math is hard; science is hard. Or maybe our expectations are just too low? Allowing politicians to make these decisions is just scary. Or maybe we should have two high school degree options? Or we could just give everybody a diploma.
Scott Baker
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 10:19pm
The Algebra 2 requirement was based on misrepresentation/misinterpretation of research done by Clifford Adelman in 1999. "Pointing to a 1999 study by Department of Education researcher Clifford Adelman (www.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/toolboxrevisit/toolbox.pdf), Achieve, Inc. claimed that students who took math classes beyond Algebra 2 were more successful at earning college degrees. On paper this appears to be true. What the data does not show is whether or not it was the higher math they had taken that caused these students to be more successful. Stop and think for a moment. In my experience, Algebra 2 and the math beyond it are generally elective classes. Students who voluntarily enroll in these challenging courses, I have observed, tend to be stronger, more motivated students to begin with and likely to do well in college because of innate qualities they already possess (e.g intelligence, perseverance) prior to taking trigonometry or calculus. Both Adelman and Achieve were careful not to make the claim that higher math caused students to be more successful in college. They didn't have to. All they had to do was point to the (simplified) numbers and imply that such was the case, then let the easily fooled stumble to the desired, but unfounded, conclusion. Of course, there's also the allure of requiring Algebra 2 for everyone. It just sounds so rigorous, doesn't it?" From "In Michigan, It's All Business, As Usual" which can be found here: http://perfectlydocile.typepad.com/perfectlydocile/2006/10/index.html
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 11:49pm
I wonder what the purpose of public education is. Is it about graduation and graduation rates? Is it about preparing the students with the tools to get work/job? Is it to prepare them for post K-12 educational opportunities? We need to understand the purpose before we can decide on what the requirements are. If it is about graduation rates then by all means lower the requirements. If it is about students being prepared for work and getting a job, then maybe we should be listening to what the employers are saying. It seems that technology is beoming ever more prevalent in the workplace and just maybe Algerbra II may have more value and simply because someone who struggled with it a number of years ago and had to work hard to learn it may not be the best to tell what new graduates need. If it is about preparing for further education, maybe we should be asking those schools what they need. If we want more engineers and scientists maybe Algerbra II is worth the hard work it takes to learn it. What do we want the kids prepared to do after high school? Rather than argue over the requirements maybe we need to decide on that first.
Fri, 04/19/2013 - 3:44pm
the algebra 2 requirement is "crazy". the number of fields requiring knowledge beyond algebra 1 are for the mathematically inclined. 1 year of algebra and 1 year of plane geometry is sufficient. a course in business math or computer programming makes more sense. choices could be finite math, solid geometry, calculus, trigonometry, statistics or logic. accommodate all learners.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 11:44am
I guess it all depends on whether we think students are able to make appropriate decisions about what they will need when they graduate. How many students know what they want when they graduate? Most students will opt to take the easier classes because they have other priorities. Many of these students are going to college after being unable to find jobs and discover they don't have the math or writing skills to succeed. By then it may be too late.
Dedra Downs
Tue, 04/23/2013 - 4:47pm
Students who are going into technical fields, furniture making etc. need Algebra II and probably some Geometry for the tech fields. Carpenters have to be good at mathematics and they really need Geometry for the use of angles. Dumbing down the curriculum won't help anyone in the knowledge economy of today. We just need to teach them better and put more money into teaching resources.
Jean Rishel
Fri, 04/26/2013 - 8:18am
As an instructor at Washtenaw Community College, I find that students come "up" to the standards we set. I am tough with my students on meeting those standards. The key is to help the students individually and show them what they already know, and help them achieve the next level. I find my students do meet the challenge, once they understand what they have to do to get there. There is no need to dumb down. Rather, we must always bring them up by giving them the tools to get there.