No backsliding in Michigan graduation requirements

Daniel Hurley

Michigan’s public universities are strongly supportive of efforts to improve the college-readiness of our state’s high school graduates. That’s why we believe the state shouldn’t backtrack from its rigorous K-12 academic standards and graduation requirements.

Part of our resolve on this issue comes from the long history of several public universities serving as “Normal” colleges, a term used in the past to describe schools focused on creating teachers. Part of it is selfish. It’s much cheaper and easier to move a student to college graduation in four years if he or she is well-prepared to handle a college-level course of study when the student arrives on campus.

And part of it is altruistic. A better-educated Michiganian is a more prosperous Michiganian, no matter whether that high school graduate goes on to college or other post-secondary education, or makes the choice to enter the work force.

The recent release of test results from the M-STEP standardized tests show we have much work to do. But we shouldn’t take those results as a reason to give up, or accept that our students don’t have what it takes to excel in our state’s schools and in today’s economy.

We also know from research that the states that have the best outcomes are those which insist on strong K-12 education standards. Michigan has those standards now, thanks in large part to the perseverance of former State Superintendent of Education Mike Flanagan, who shepherded through the Legislature a set of requirements that, when followed, ensure students are ready to compete in an increasingly competitive knowledge-based economy.

We look for inspiration to states that are moving forward in the global talent competition — in particular, to Massachusetts, a state that has a K-12 education system considered one of the best in the world. It’s a state that has been rewarded for developing that system with a per capita income that is among the best in the United States.

Massachusetts started its renaissance by focusing on rigorous education standards. Those standards have remained in place with very few revisions, even with changes in political control of the governor’s office, and despite some early years where scores suggested progress was meager.

Progress takes time. Scores are improving, although the tendency of politicians and state officials to make changes in measurement systems has proven problematic; moving forward, greater consistency should be a priority. Reducing standards today will shortchange the students of tomorrow, regardless of the next steps they take in their educational and career plans.

Maintaining high standards is most vital for those students who are most at-risk. Wealthy parents will ensure their children get the education they need, providing additional tutoring or opportunities as necessary. It is students from low-income families and poor neighborhoods who most benefit from our state’s commitment to a high quality education and a demand that schools and teachers be held accountable for implementing and teaching to those standards.

If we don’t keep learning and set the bar high when it comes to rigorous academic standards, today’s students will fall further and further behind in the ability to earn a good salary in today’s economy. And Michigan’s ability to compete in a global marketplace will suffer.

Daniel Hurley is CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities.