Michigan Merit standards an overreach lawmakers say

October 23, 2011
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LANSING — Some legislators and educators are considering revising Michigan’s requirements for high school graduation to better accommodate all students’ learning interests.

Graduates now must complete a total of 16 credits spread across math, science, English, social studies, physical education, health and arts. Beginning with students in third grade in 2006, an additional two credits in foreign language are also required.

The expanded requirements, known as the Michigan Merit Curriculum and signed into law in 2006, were designed to better educate students for work and college, according to the Michigan Department of Education. However, the requirements were an overreach, said Rep. Bill Rogers, R-Brighton, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. It pushes all students on a straight line to college, alienating those who are interested in pursuing a skilled trade.

“There’s no way they’re going to be geared toward college-style instead of something a little bit more hands-on,” he said.

College isn’t the answer for everyone, said Rep. Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac, also on the House Education Subcommittee.

“If you’re a good craftsman, you don’t need that college experience,” Potvin said. He said there is too much emphasis on the academic-focused learning and not enough skilled trade classes.

It’s tough for students to fit those electives into their schedules, said Deborah Veiht, the superintendent of Marquette Area Public Schools. The Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits each of English and math, and three each of science and social studies. The two-credit foreign language requirement takes effect next fall. Despite the increase of classes per day in Marquette from six to seven, Veiht said five of those classes are filled with Michigan Merit requirements most of the time, leaving only two open for electives.

Rogers said the Michigan Merit was well intended, but ultimately made education less flexible for local districts. He said his committee does have curriculum reform on its agenda but will not get to it until later this year or next year due to other priorities in education reform, including consolidating more resources and services among schools.

Some lawmakers say changes should be made now, however,

Revisiting Michigan Merit Curriculum standards should be a priority of the Legislature, said Rep. Steve Lindberg, D-Marquette, who taught in Marquette for 30 years.

“I think this needs to be in the discussion, more than the other discussions we’re having,” he said.

But the state education department insists the curriculum is flexible enough to provide options for students.

Schools still control how to implement the standards, said Jan Ellis, communications specialist for the Michigan Department of Education. Schools can integrate academic concepts into other skills-based elective courses.

“One would be integrating geometry or algebra facts and functions into an auto mechanic or building class,” she said.

Local school officials haven’t always found it easy to implement the Michigan Merit standards.

While the education department has provided flexibility on how to implement the standards, the amount of credits required and the subject areas are strict, said Jennifer Brown, the curriculum director for grades 7-12 at Cadillac Area Public Schools. The district moved to a trimester schedule to fit in more class periods, and several support classes for math and science have been added for students who struggle to meet the requirements.

“Is it difficult getting some of our lower-achieving students … through the same peg hole? Yeah, it’s a struggle, it’s difficult,” Brown said.

Ellis said if students want to pursue a trade like carpentry or plumbing after high school, math concepts are still needed. Lindberg said academics benefit people pursuing skilled trades. He worked construction when he was in college, and his background in geometry helped him.

“I think there’s room for both (academics and skilled trades),” he said. “But I think what we did with the Michigan Merit Curriculum is push everybody into one particular track.”

Veiht said the Michigan Merit Curriculum has been successful so far in Marquette. She said last year’s graduating class scored the highest ever on the Michigan Merit Exam and ACT exam. The schools still offer a variety of technical education programs, including aviation maintenance, auto repair and welding.

With continued budget cuts and the hiring of more teachers to accommodate the seven-period day, Veiht said schools might not be able to sustain the Michigan Merit academics and technical education programs. Lindberg said when school funding is cut, technical education programs usually are the first to go.

“Our students have risen to what we’ve asked them to do,” Veiht said. “My concern would be if we keep reducing our budget and look at anywhere where we can make cuts. I don’t want those areas to disappear, because for many children that’s why they come to school or that’s who they are.”

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