Education Opinion

Bar-Raising 101

By Nancy Flanagan — February 03, 2010 2 min read
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In 2006, Michigan adopted a “Merit Curriculum” for all students in public high schools, replacing the previous standing legislation which required only a civics class to graduate from high school. The Merit Curriculum (which is really a set of course requirements, not a curriculum) was touted as a huge leap forward for Michigan, putting us at the leading edge of educational rigor.

In reality, many Michigan schools, especially those in well-heeled suburbs, already had the same demanding requirements in place: 4 years of math (including Algebra II), 4 years of English, 3 years of science (including biology), and 3 years of social studies (including economics). The State Board tossed two years of a foreign language and an “online learning experience” into the mix. Leaving not much room for anything else, including the arts--or the possibility of failing a class.

The big change? All high schools now had the same course requirements, even though they had very different students. “Curriculum” was now understood to be a state-mandated responsibility--although the 550+ Michigan public school systems had been subject to the same core content framework and assessments since the 1970s. The media was convinced that the bar had indeed been raised. Lots of back-patting all around.

And schools did what schools always do when sweeping change comes down: they adapted. Many high schools went to a trimester plan, to build in flexibility for students who had to re-take a class in order to acquire the credits needed to graduate. Trimesters also increased course slots, preserving arts programs. Students who would never have considered taking Algebra II/Trig now had to pass Algebra II to graduate--so mathematics course content (the real curriculum) was re-ordered over four years, and new instructional sequences created to ease unprepared students into Algebra.

There was finger-pointing, too--schools trying to help kids succeed under new rules were accused of watering down classes or backing away from the challenge of difficult content. Career and tech programs-- which were successfully providing job-skill training--were hit hard. In the rush to be “rigorous” and increase college attendance, a lot of informed feedback from CTE teachers about preparation for the workplace was dismissed. There is also new and unsettling evidence that the tougher course requirements have led to increases in the dropout rate.

The first students subject to the requirements are juniors this year. NPR, through Michigan Radio, did a feature story last week on how Michigan students and teachers feel about the changes: not convinced, but resigned.

The bar is now higher. Everyone has the same requirements. Everything is standardized, tidy--except that it’s not. On balance, the Merit Curriculum is probably a positive, but there are winners and losers--and unintended consequences. Something to think about as we look ahead to common standards and common assessments.

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