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Michigan high school curriculum could be changing - for better or worse?

Teacher at a chalkboard
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Education is front and center these days in Michigan.

Governor Snyder spoke today to a summit of education leaders, calling for businesses to get more closely involved with public education.

Snyder believes many students might be being pushed toward getting a four-year college degree when vocation education – technical career training or community college – might make just as much sense for them.

In the state House and Senate, there is movement towards changing Michigan’s high school graduation requirements.

Some lawmakers want to make changes to the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC).

Then-Governor Granholm signed the MMC into law in 2006, putting into place some of the toughest high school graduation requirements in the nation.

Under the bills making their way through the State House and Senate, students would still need four years of math, but they would be able to replace Algebra II with statistics or technical math. The foreign language requirements would go and students would be able to use extracurricular activities to replace some physical education credits.

The State Board of Education and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals have come out strongly in favor of maintaining the MMC. Supporters of the changes say it's time to allow options for students whose career plans point more towards career or technical education.

The arguments from both sides of the issue address one question: what sort of education will high schoolers benefit from the most?

What would happen if we kept the MMC standards just as they are?

Wendy Zdeb-Roper is the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP) and joined the conversation from Lansing where she is attending the education summit.

"Being college-ready and being career-ready are one in the same," she said, in favor of maintaining the current MMC. "We don't want to limit the options that students have in their future and we feel that a rigorous curriculum is the best preparation for any career they go into in the future."

Zdeb-Roper added that there are multiple schools in Michigan that have managed to maintain the demands of the MMC by working in requirements (like Algebra II) into the applied settings of Career Technical Education (CTE) courses.

CTE programs offer vocational training at a high school level for students who may not be interested in attending a four-year college or university.

"We feel that academic requirements can be embedded in the CTE programs so that they can maintain the standards the state requires," Zdeb-Roper said. "These two things can be married and not separated. It's not a matter of picking between Career and Technical Education or the MMC. It's finding a way of making them work together." 

Zdeb-Roper also noted that although the requirements of the MMC are demanding, there was a 1 percent increase in the graduation rate in Michigan, and a 4 percent decrease in high school dropout rates. 

Furthermore, Zdeb-Roper believes that changes to the MMC would actually limit the futures of high school students.

"We shouldn't be looking at fourteen and fifteen-year-olds and saying, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' and banking on that without giving them a wide variety of curriculum. Look how many people change their majors throughout college, it's too limiting at that early of an age."

"We shouldn't be looking at fourteen and fifteen-year-olds and saying, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' and banking on that without giving them a wide variety of curriculum. Look how many people change their majors throughout college, it's too limiting at that early of an age."

Who would benefit from the proposed changes to the MMC?

Not all students want to go to a four-year college, said Jeff Bohl, the principal of the Capitol Area Career Center. 

"The experiences that we provide are more transforming for students than any other education I've personally experienced," Bohl said. "It's amazing what you can do when you allow students to develop expertise in a particular area."

Bohl is one of the supporters for the proposed changes to the MMC, and argued that the rigorous demands of the current curriculum limits opportunities for students in CTE programs.

"Students are denied the opportunity to access important programs like ours and other elective programs in the arts or music," Bohl said. "If you go into any high school in Michigan, the counselors will tell you that students cant access elective courses because they have to take academic courses they didn't have to take in the past." 

According to Bohl, CTE programs are a way for students to develop marketable skills and be recognized as experts within a specific vocation - an opportunity the MMC limits. 

For a lot of CTE students, vocational programs are where they feel successful in school, he said. 

Bohl said that a misconception about the MMC is that vocational programs are able to smoothly integrate academic requirements, like Algebra II, into the curriculum.

"The reality is that you have to remove CTE content from the course in order to add in Algebra II," he said. 

Instead of teaching required academic classes like Algebra II, Bohl said that other math courses that deal with advanced statistics are more applicable in a CTE program.

"I can tell you that the content of Algebra II does not occur in the vast majority of careers available in the United States today and it also doesn't occur within the contents of CTE programs."

Where do we go from here?

Studies from Michigan State's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, the non-partisan Milken Institute, and Georgetown University's Education Center say that states with higher levels of college graduates have stronger economies. States with the highest per capita income are also home to the highest percentage of college degree earners.

Michigan ranks 36th in college attainment and 40th in income.  

Should we be doing all we can to increase college enrollment? 

Both sides seem to agree that four-year college education is important, but Bohl maintained that it's not the only option.

"We should do everything we can to raise the bar for everyone across the board, but not every student needs a four-year degree, and many students aren't inclined in that way," he said.

Zdeb-Roper noted that the Michigan economy will require 900,000 more Michigan college graduates by 2025, according to a study by the Business Leaders for Michigan. In order to meet that goal, post-secondary degree attainment needs to increase by 60 percent. 

"We are finding success in the MMC. It puts us on the map in terms of having that rigor, and it's really caused us to be a leader. All of our students can do this and schools are finding  a way to make it happen with increased graduation and lower dropout rate - it seems to me that we would want to stay on this course," she said.

What each side wants to see in the future

Just as Bohl and Zdeb-Roper believe the MMC should be taken in opposite directions, their future plans are also somewhat polar. 

Bohl wants the state to back off slightly on academic requirements. He also thinks that each student should have their own graduation requirements and should pick an area or two that they will develop a level of expertise in, so students feel like they can "actually accomplish something in high school." 

Zdeb-Roper, said the themes and issues she has heard at the education summit in Lansing echo the need for the rigorous requirements the MMC provides.

The need for a well prepared workforce that can think critically and can work together from a variety of cultures and backgrounds is crucial to Michigan's economy, she said.

"We really want students to be college and career-ready so they have a vast variety of options in front of them. If they choose to go in the path of CTE - that's a wonderful possibility. But they also should have options so if they change their minds in the future, they won't be limited in any way."

-- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the full discussion by clicking the link above.

*Correction - a previous version of this post incorrectly described the legislation aimed at changing the Michigan Merit Curriculum as "Snyder's bills." The copy has been corrected above.

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