Editorial: Maintain ‘merit’ in state curriculum
More than a decade ago, the Legislature passed a robust set of graduation requirements for students. The Michigan Merit Curriculum made a diploma worth something, and while there have been growing pains, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks for schools. The latest attempts to weaken the standards shouldn’t gain traction.
Every few years, lawmakers tackle the curriculum, with similar concerns brought to the forefront. The last major push was three years ago, and some of the proposed changes went into effect, including giving students more flexibility with foreign language requirements.
That’s far enough. Any additional tampering with the merit curriculum risks undercutting its strength.
Yet a handful of bills in the state House all seek to make changes, and none of them would make the curriculum better.
According to school principals and administrators, and school reform proponents, schools and students have enough flexibility built into the current requirements. And that includes options for students who wish to pursue vocational paths through career and technical education.
Some districts, especially rural ones, have raised concerns about finding qualified instructors for foreign languages. But that points to a different problem facing the state, and isn’t a good reason to dumb down a fairly basic course requirement.
Other districts have had challenges implementing advanced math and other subjects into vocational courses, which is allowed under the law.
Schools that are struggling in these areas should be able to seek help and guidance from the Michigan Department of Education.
The tougher curriculum isn’t scaring away students. In fact, graduation rates have increased almost every year, to nearly 80 percent in 2016 from 77 percent in 2013. Similarly, the dropout rate has decreased steadily, to 8.9 percent last year from 10.5 percent in 2013.
The graduation standards passed in 2006 required four credits each of math and English language arts and three credits of science. They also called for two credits of a foreign language.
Bills that passed in 2014 cut the two-credit foreign language requirement in half and allowed students to fulfill that requirement in earlier grades — not just high school. The reduced requirement was scheduled to sunset after six years, returning to two credits.
The changes also allowed less difficult courses to count toward math and science credits. The ability for students to have a personalized curriculum was expanded, too.
Now House lawmakers are seeking to lift the sunset on the lessened language requirement and keep it as is. Another proposed change is letting students substitute a 90-hour health class for 30 hours of workforce safety training through the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. One available option: “understand industrial laser safety.”
The Senate is taking a more reasoned approach, which isn’t surprising given Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, opposed the former changes, believing they went too far.
This time around he’s formed a new three-member subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, to oversee conversations about the curriculum.
“We want to evaluate whether this thing is working as intended, and bring in all the stakeholders,” Knollenberg says.
Those who have stood behind the merit curriculum should take the opportunity to make the case for keeping it strong. A sound curriculum is the foundation for all other efforts to improve the state’s schools.