Merit curriculum may impede student success, critics say

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Capital News Service
Oct. 2, 2009
LANSING – How can teenagers find their niche in life when they’re not truly given the opportunity to explore other options at a young age?
Some educators and politicians have questioned whether the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC), a set of graduation requirements for high schools, is impeding students’ progress rather than creating growth and development.
The MMC became effective in 2006 and has been a hot-button issue around the state ever since. Instead of local school boards deciding graduation requirements as in the past, the law is an effort to impose uniform requirements across the board.
The MMC consists of 16 mandatory credits students must complete before they graduate, covering science, English, mathematics, visual arts, social studies, physical education and online courses.
And effective in 2016, the MMC will add two more credits to include the learning of world languages.
The goal, according to the Department of Education, is to “prepare Michigan’s students with the knowledge and skills needed for the jobs in the 21st century. With these new graduation requirements, students will be well-prepared for future success in college and the workplace.”
While the state’s goal is to prepare students for an ever-changing world, questions have been asked about whether requiring each student to learn the same material actually benefits all students.
Instead of forcing students to complete all graduation requirements, alternatives under discussion would give students more options, such as replacing a senior-level math course with something tech-related, like engineering.
“Michigan is one of the few states with the most challenging requirements for graduation,” said Iris Salters, president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “We are not for or against the program, but we are against each student not getting something different from the curriculum.”
The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel.
Professor Sharif Shakrani, co-director of the Educational Policy Center at Michigan State University, said, “The Michigan Merit Curriculum was highly regarded by national educational and business organizations for its rigor, quality and potential for better preparing students to succeed in post-secondary education or the changing workplace.
“The problem is that many school districts do not have the will to make the needed changes and would like to maintain the status quo which is negatively impacting Michigan education,” Shakrani said.
One argument against the merit curriculum is that each student is unique and has diverse interests.
Salters said inflexibility in the system, along with failing to take into account a student’s background and learning habits, can cause students to fail classes and, even worse, drop out.
MEA communications director Doug Pratt said, “There are different grade-level expectations across the state, but the problem is the end goal. Expectations for students may not be aligned the right way, and there is a massive continuum that is a huge current challenge.”
“We have a dropout crisis in this state,” said Pratt, adding that 20,000 students every year do not graduate.
While each student’s future is the primary concern of any school system, such goals cannot come to fruition if there is insufficient funding for the schools, a Northern Michigan legislator said, and the state’s budget cuts will further impede success.
“It’s absolutely idiotic in my opinion,” said Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch. “We have put requirements on with no flexibility as a mandate to school systems with no money to fund it.
“There is a 300 percent increase in the dropout rate,” he said. “What we see in colleges is the failure of remedial math courses.
“High schools should teach and improve on such failures, like the Algebra II program, before these kids attend college,” said Sheltrown, a member of the House Education Committee.
With jobs already limited within the state, Sheltrown said he wonders how many people will obtain good-paying jobs in the future without a high school diploma.
“In the next 10 years, half of the jobs will be middle-level jobs,” said Sheltrown. “It is a reality that not every kid will go to college, and having faced that reality we should offer a chance for success for every student.”
The MEA’s Salters said the problem extends beyond general requirements for students and involves the curriculum itself.
Sheltrown added, “We’re going to blame teachers for drop-off rates, and pressure them to water down classes like Algebra II. What value is there to pass students with a ‘D’ average? We don’t need mediocre engineers, we need great engineers.”
© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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