Sunday, June 29, 2008



Change system for sake of students

BY MIKE FLANAGAN • June 29, 2008

Narrow thinkers wanting to water down the new high school graduation requirements have wrongly bleated that the new Michigan Merit Curriculum is "cookie cutter," because it expects that all kids will learn the same rigorous academic content.

Well, it is not the curriculum that is cookie cutter; it's the current educational system, which wants all kids to fit in that box we call a classroom, when some just won't. We don't need to change the new requirements. We need to change the system.

We developed this new Michigan Merit Curriculum with the expectation that schools would expand learning opportunities in new and creative ways. Students can, for example, receive

Algebra II, chemistry and economics credits through online courses, career tech programs, and project-based learning.

Some school districts, like Wyandotte, are figuring it out and developing ways to reach every student and teach them the needed standards. I applaud them for embracing the reality that all kids can learn higher levels of math, science, English and social studies. When we broaden our ways of teaching students, we can have high expectations of them, and they will respond. I am a proven example of that.

I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was a bit on the rough edge when my family moved out to the suburbs of Long Island. Needless to say, I didn't quite fit in, and school for me was not going well.
When I was in the eighth grade, a teacher who thought I could be doing better got me into a program called the 89ers -- eighth-grade students doing ninth-grade work. Heck, I wasn't even doing seventh-grade work at the time. But the teachers and the school expected and believed we could do it. They believed in us and approached our education in a different way, and we succeeded. It turned my life around.

Just because someone thinks a certain group of students "can't" learn a certain subject doesn't mean those students don't "need" to learn those subjects. In this globally competitive world we now live in, all our students need to learn higher level concepts. Anyone who claims otherwise is setting up our students and our state for failure now and into the future.

Michigan's unemployment rate is the highest it has been since 1992. Is that because there are no jobs available? No. There are some 80,000 jobs available in Michigan today, but they are jobs that require the higher-level knowledge and skills that the Michigan Merit Curriculum will prime.

We want Michigan's high school diploma to mean that every student has received a bona fide, high-quality education upon which employers can depend. We want a Michigan high school diploma that means something, and that is globally competitive.

We must resist every effort to wilt and water down our nationally renowned graduation standards. The key to success in this drive to the top is the willingness to accept the need to change. We can't keep doing what we've always done and expect different outcomes.

In today's workforce, college-ready is the same as work-ready for what employers need. Someone recently alarmed me when he said: "My waitress doesn't need algebra." I was floored! I believe that all work is honorable, but what if that waitress, or store clerk, or landscaper wants to change careers and needs to go to college? Will they have the math and science background to go on and study to become a medical technician or architect?

How do we know which ninth-grade students will want to enter what career five or 10 years down the road? I refuse to predetermine that. All kids need to complete the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

For this rigorous curriculum to really work, however, we need to re-imagine what our current education system is. We need a system that meets the needs of all students, in a manner that meets their needs and the needs of employers. The classroom of the past 50-plus years no longer is relevant to all of today's students.

MIKE FLANAGAN is Michigan's superintendent of public instruction. Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or at

Don't give up on plan for higher grades

Legislators should give new tougher standards a chance to work

June 29, 2008

There's just no point in jettisoning a life preserver before you know whether it'll float.

Yet the very policy that promises, long term, to lift up generations of Michigan high school students is in jeopardy of being picked apart before it's had a chance to pay off.

The standards are just now going into full effect.

Yet, at the same time, a House subcommittee on high school alternatives has begun re-examining its success and holding hearings on a range of possible changes, the most controversial of which could create an alternative diploma and tweak some of the state's math mandates.

While the process is just beginning, every legislator ought to lend a cautious eye so that Michigan doesn't prematurely gut the rigor out of its efforts to raise the educational bar.
State Rep. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, insists the subcommittee isn't out to undo the standards.

"We're looking at how kids are getting through the graduation requirements," explained Hopgood. "It may be that there can be a fine-tuning to help prevent the bad outcome, which is kids just having a lot of frustration and a lack of success with the requirements."

It's true the state's new standards warrant monitoring, if only because increasing the numbers of high school graduates is a central piece of the state's economic strategy.

But monitoring and meddling are two different things. Michigan wasted at least 20 years ignoring the importance of toughness in high school graduation standards. The price of that choice is implicit in the legions of unemployed and undereducated citizens throughout the state.

Any knee-jerk relaxation of the standards only adds to the state's negatives in the eyes of companies looking for high skills workers.

This is not to say Michigan has put a problem-free policy on the books. What government ever meets that mark? But the change Michigan has adopted is solid and drastic enough to star in the national discussion about the direction all American high schools have to travel to compete in the 21st Century. With all eyes finally fixed on Michigan for something positive, the Legislature should be leery of relinquishing the chance to lead.

Michigan has yet to even graduate a class of students under the new standards; leaders who now want to undercut the policy don't have a clear enough picture of its weaknesses or its strengths to determine what needs fixing.

Yes, it's alarming to learn that more than 20% of freshmen in the Class of 2011 -- the first to graduate under Michigan's new standards -- failed Algebra I in the most recent school year.

Legislators are right to question what's being done to ensure that those students don't fail further. But one of the ideas being discussed is weakening the need for Algebra II, an off-point overreaction to the early results.

It's better to start with a dialogue about whether local boards of education and school districts are alerting students to options built into the policy, such as completing Algebra II over two years or via career technical courses. Under that policy, for instance, school districts are supposed to establish personal curriculum teams to evaluate options for students at risk of falling short of proficiency.

Given the length of some of the policy's fine print, it's a reasonable conclusion that many local boards and districts have only skimmed the surface of the option available to help struggling students. Maybe the tweak legislators should be examining is with the communications between the state Department of Education, school districts and boards, not the overall policy.

Focusing on that process first could keep the state from needlessly dummying-down one of the smartest steps Michigan has taken to retool its future.

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