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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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