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Mich. Board Makes Curriculum Standards Voluntary for Districts

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In a rebuff to state lawmakers, the Michigan board of education has voted to make new state curriculum standards voluntary for school districts rather than set mandatory standards as the legislature had envisioned.

The board had distanced itself from the proposed definition of what children should learn in mathematics, science, social studies, and English since a Republican majority took control of the panel after last year's elections.

Its long-awaited decision on the matter came last month after nearly two hours of heated testimony, much of it by supporters of the standards.

The board majority explained that it put a higher premium on local control and decisionmaking than on state edicts. Its vote approved the standards as a model for local districts.

The legislature required the adoption of mandatory core-curriculum standards when it voted to overhaul the state's school-finance program and passed a series of education-reform projects in late 1993. But leading lawmakers said the mandates, accepted as a compromise with the Democrats who then controlled the legislature, are also out of favor among the body's new G.O.P. leadership.

And Gov. John Engler, a Republican, has supported the state board's new maverick streak.

One board member who backed the mandates said supporters should be pleased that the conservative board went as far as it did.

"Not long ago they had wanted to chuck the whole thing," said Kathleen Straus, a Democratic board member. If the standards are on target, said Marilyn Lundy, a Republican board member, then districts will naturally turn to them.

Tests May Be Next

Observers, meanwhile, are waiting to see what issue the board will take on next.

This month's meeting may include reconsideration of the state's testing mandates, which would further gut the state's ability to steer the performance of local schools, officials said.

Board leaders have favored a plan that would allow districts to disregard any state-required testing. Without mandated standards, and tests, Ms. Straus argued, the state would be powerless to expect any defined level of performance or improvement from districts.

Legislators who pushed for the mandated standards complained of arrogance by the state board that amounts to a retreat from efforts to expect more of Michigan students.

And even with a mandated core curriculum, proponents argued, local school officials would have plenty of room to tailor their own school programs to fit local needs. (See Education Week, 4/19/95.)

The standards, which had received strong support from the state's business and education groups, were drafted over the past year by teachers and university officials.

Among other generalizations about what students should know when they leave Michigan schools, the standards call for students to be able to use addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to solve problems.

The social-studies standards ask that students be able to explain the role of national, state, and local governments, and to know about colonization and settlement, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and contemporary politics, among other priorities.

The English standards emphasize the importance of mastering spelling, punctuation, and grammar skills.

Lawmakers will have the option of responding to the state board's decision to ignore a legislative order when they return to the state capital this fall. Issues of state-versus-local control are expected to be a prominent topic as lawmakers tackle the chore of condensing the state's massive set of education laws.

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