Schools chief promotes fast track to promotion

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Traditionally, students move up from grade to grade when they’ve spent a required amount of time in the classroom. But class time isn’t always well spent – students pass notes, send text messages, doodle or daydream.

Michael Flanagan, Michigan’s superintendent of public instruction, is suggesting an alternative to the current system: Instead of promotions based on time in class, students would move on when they reach an adequate level of academic proficiency, meaning mastery of the material.

“Proficiency isn’t demonstrated by seat time – it’s demonstrated by testing measures or teacher evaluation of your work,” Flanagan said. “Wouldn’t you rather have gone to a school where once you could demonstrate you were proficient, you could have moved on?”

Flanagan added that the current system strongly resists that type of change, however, and said it would require a “paradigm shift” in the world of education.

“It’s a human nature – we all say we want change, but not really if it affects us,” Flanagan said. “People just can’t quite imagine a system that they’re not controlling, but you’re not really controlling what’s going on in the classroom.

“The teacher closes the door and you hope they’re following the plan. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re telling their hunting stories on Monday morning,” he said. 

He estimated that about half of students could potentially obtain a high school diploma in three years, especially if they complete some work online or during the summer.

He said the money that schools save by not keeping students for their fourth year could go toward starting their college studies, either at a local college or in accelerated classes at their high school.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have a year paid for, under your belt?”

Many Michigan high schools offer programs in which students earn college credit through Advanced Placement (AP) classes or dual enrollment with local community colleges.

At Royal Oak High School for example, students can get a “release credit” to get out of a school period to attend class at Oakland Community College, according to school counselor Patrick Stemas. The school also offers AP courses and an option where students can test out of required classes.

Even so, Stemas expressed some doubts about a system where advancement between grades is based on competency rather than age.

 “The most important thing for youngsters in their adolescent years is their peers,” Stemas said. “Eating lunch, being involved in a musical or a choir, playing on a sports team. Think back to high school – it’s much more than just passing tests.”

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, also said socialization is an important aspect of high school.

“A student may be academically ready to leave high school at the age of 16,” Johnson said, “but is that child ready to go into the world of post-secondary education? Does he or she have the level of personal maturity and responsibility to perform at a college level?

“I don’t think you can just make a blanket assessment,” he said.

He added, however, that if a child is mature enough to move on, he would have no argument against early graduation or beginning college courses while still in high school, and said there could also be a financial benefit for schools.

“The fewer students you have, the fewer students you have to spend money on educating,” Johnson said. “It may afford you the opportunity to reduce class size and increase individual attention.”

Detroit Public Schools is working to increase AP offerings in all of its high schools, said Kisha Verdusco, media program supervisor for the district. She added that many schools already offer AP and dual enrollment options, in addition to summer and afternoon programs for struggling students.

There are also financial disadvantages for districts with students who are dual-enrolled or who graduate early, said Frank Ciloski, a consultant at the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of school employees.

State aid to school districts, for instance, is based on student enrollment.

“Schools with less students aren’t getting the same amount of allocated funds, which would have a trickle-down effect on the whole program,” Ciloski said. “Especially high school – high school is the most expensive program to operate in the district. So if you’re taking kids out of the building, you’re making it more expensive to operate that program for the ones that are left.” 

He added that districts pay the tuition costs for community college classes that their dually enrolled students take.

Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, agreed that getting schools to pay tuition can be an obstacle for students.

“There is a disincentive for high schools to send students because they pay the college for the class – for example, a drafting class may be four credits at $75 each – that’s $300,” Hansen said. “While there’s efficiency there because now you don’t have to hire a drafting teacher, try to tell a superintendent or a principal when he’s writing a check to a college that he’s saving money.

“That’s a hard thing to do,” he said.

Hansen added that dual enrollment is practical only where a community college is reasonably close to the school, and therefore isn’t an option for many students in areas with sprawling populations, such as the Upper Peninsula. 

Overall, however, academics aren’t the only important part of high school, said Royal Oak’s Stemas.

“Education is much more that just taking a world history class,” Stemas said. “It’s the prom, the homecoming dance, the fundraiser they put on in school. It’s the experience.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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