Michigan schools should chart own course
A bill currently being discussed in the Michigan Legislature would replace the state’s current standards for science, social studies, literacy, and mathematics with standards used in Massachusetts nearly a decade ago. What is even more astounding is that most of the standards proposed in House Bill 4192 were written in the late 1990s to early 2000s. They have long since been abandoned by Massachusetts. Adopting them for Michigan’s children would be a major move backward for our state.
Standards indicate what students should know and be able to do at particular grade levels and at the point of graduation. Enormous advances in science and 20 years of history are absent from the hand-me-down standards.
Thousands of educational research studies on development of literacy and mathematics skills are also missed. For example, in my field of literacy education, we have new neuroimaging studies about handwriting, new insights about when and how young children most appropriately learn to read high frequency words (such as the, was, today), advances in our understanding of the importance of morphological awareness (which deals with recognizing meaningful chunks within words) ... all of this and more is not fully reflected in the old Massachusetts standards.
Would we ask the field of medicine to revert to 15- to 20-year-old standards for treating cancer? We would not, nor should we ask the field of education to revert to 15- to 20-year old standards for educational achievement.
The outdated Massachusetts standards appeal to supporters of the bill because they were written before the Common Core State Standards (on which Michigan’s current literacy and mathematics standards were based). Some argue that the old Massachusetts’ standards, unlike the Common Core State Standards, are “proven” because of Massachusetts’ high levels of achievement. However, Massachusetts’ rise in achievement began before these standards were in place and has continued — to the highest level yet — after they were abandoned in favor of the Common Core. Massachusetts’ success cannot be attributed to a single factor, including their standards. Policy scholars know that the state’s academic success likely depends on many factors. Simply borrowing old standards — standards that Massachusetts itself no longer uses — is not going to raise achievement.
The Common Core State Standards are the basis of Michigan’s benchmarks for literacy and mathematics. For social studies, including history, Michigan is already well into a bipartisan process for developing standards — a process that would be for naught if House Bill 4192 passes. For science, Michigan just adopted new standards in 2015 and has already invested considerably in professional development for teachers related to those standards.
Those standards were developed with careful attention to developments in science and engineering and to relevant educational research that shows the importance of learning science ideas through doing work similar to what scientists and engineers do. The standards are supported not only by science teachers’ organizations, but also by a large number of businesses and organizations that interface with science, engineering, and technology, including businesses and organizations that we want to retain or attract to Michigan, and by leaders from across the political spectrum. The prospect of replacing these with standards largely adopted in 2001 would undoubtedly damage Michigan’s already flailing reputation in education.
There is every reason to continue our advances in science and social studies standards, rather than to turn to Massachusetts’ hand-me-downs. In literacy and mathematics as well, turning to the old Massachusetts standards would be an immense regression.
If we must replace the Common Core State Standards in these areas, let’s do so with standards that are forward-thinking, reflecting knowledge and skills that it takes to be college, career, and citizenship ready today and tomorrow, not yesterday.
Let’s hold focus groups with the Michigan business community, institutions of higher education, civic leaders, and families about what Michigan students need to know and be able to do to bring our state into the future. Let’s bring together educational researchers and educators from across the political spectrum to develop standards that are informed by research and aligned to international benchmarks.
Let’s make Michigan a leader, not a lagger.
Nell K. Duke is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education. Her work focuses on early literacy development, particularly among children living in poverty.