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Got art? Got foreign language? For how long?

Our recent action alert about pending bills that would roll back some of Michigan’s high school graduation requirements generated more internal comment than any recent topic. We believe this is a conversation we need to have as a state, because it shapes what we mean by an “excellent” education and the resources needed to provide one. Let us know your thoughts!

Got art? Got algebra 2? Got music? Got economics? Got Spanish? Maybe no longer.

Dear Friends,

Many of you know that Michigan Parents for Schools was founded to work for stable and adequate funding of public education in Michigan. Of course, the reason we care about funding is that it directly affects the quality of the education we can offer to the children of this state. Money alone cannot guarantee an excellent education, but it is impossible to do right by our children and communities if our schools do not have adequate resources.

As parents, we know that a quality education is not just memorizing facts, or learning just enough math or vocabulary to get by. The world is changing, and we need our kids to be ready – for citizenship as well as work. A well-rounded education helps children become well-rounded adults. But the ability of our schools to deliver that kind of education is increasingly under threat.

Here’s the latest: some of our lawmakers want to “improve” our school curriculum by dumbing it down. Several bills are now before the state House Education committee that would relax Michigan’s high school graduation requirements. And subjects that aren’t required are more likely to be on the chopping block in lean times.

According to the sponsors of the first one to be introduced (HB 5451), our students don’t need arts education or foreign language training at all, and need fewer math, science and social science classes. Who needs the visual arts or music? What’s the point of taking economics or world history? Who needs second-year algebra or other advanced math? What possible use is exposure to a foreign language? Why bother with chemistry or physics?

The other bills are less sweeping, but they also cut back the mathematics requirement and potentially eliminate the foreign language requirement. Supposedly, these steps are intended to reduce the “college preparatory emphasis” of the current graduation requirements.

True, not every student is going to end up getting a college bachelor’s degree. But since when are mathematics, art, languages, music, or science important only to the college-bound? These are subjects that help shape how you think – about your job, the world and even yourself. There are no decent jobs today that don’t require you to think, adapt, and solve problems. And there is no democracy which can survive without thoughtful, intelligent citizens.

I hope you’re as stunned by this as I am, and I ask you to let your State Representative know how you feel.

This is a time to invest in a richer and rigorous curriculum, not to water it down. We need every child to be ready for the future and the changes it will bring.

Steven J Norton
Executive Director


The topic of what we mean by getting students "college and career ready" is a hot one. Here is an interesting exchange on the blog site of education historian Diane Ravitch: "The Lie behind 'College for All'":http://dianeravitch.net/2012/07/03/the-lie-behind-college-for-all/ I wrote a comment on that story, and I'd like to share it here as well:
This is an interesting discussion, because here in Michigan there are bills in the state Legislature to roll back some of the graduation requirements instituted just a few years ago because they represent a “college-prep” bias. The proposals would eliminate things like the requirements for foreign language study, “advanced mathematics” (by which they mean second year algebra), visual and performing arts, and even economics and world history. These courses would still be available, of course, but just not required.

And yet…

One of the brutal realities of local public school districts here and elsewhere is that, as funding shrinks, everything which is not legally required is on the chopping block. Transportation (busing) is not required here, except for special ed students, and that is one of the first things to be privatized, consolidated or eliminated. To save money, school schedules are being revised to provide the same number of minutes of instruction spread across fewer class periods – meaning fewer teachers are needed but fewer elective classes survive. It’s also true that career and technical ed classes have been cut back as well, for the same reasons.

We live in a time when that which is not required is under threat of disappearing.

Another issue, particularly salient here, is what a “career” means. For much of the Great Recession, my state led the nation in unemployment as our manufacturing industries (the backbone of the local economy) collapsed. Even national statistics showed that unemployment was by far the highest among those with a high school diploma or less, and that unemployment rates fell for those with higher level of education.

If the goal of public education is, in part, to prepare children to be productive members of the community and to be able to earn a decent living, what does that mean today? In my state especially, factory jobs that required nothing more than a high school diploma were a conveyor belt to the middle class. Good pay and good benefits meant your family could live comfortably and maybe even have that little cottage on a lake somewhere. You would be able to help your kids go even further based on the security you had. Those days, and those jobs, are now gone.

[Think about this: those who are leading the charge here to reduce graduation requirements are also leading the charge to rid the public and private sectors of unions. Does this lead to widespread prosperity?]

We are in danger of falling for the rhetoric that we need to be “competitive,” when what that means is that we are competing to lower wages. Rather than investing in education for future prosperity, political leaders argue that good schools are a luxury that we can only afford when the economy “recovers.” Arguments that “not every kid needs to go to college” can be cover for making reduced graduation requirements the excuse for lower funding levels. This is not in the long-term interest of our country, or in the interest of the children now in our schools.

Not every child will benefit from a traditional liberal arts bachelor’s degree. But the jobs of today with decent pay nearly always require some sort of post-secondary preparation. More than that, our students need to be prepared for an economy and world that is much more in flux than ever before. That means a high-quality education which teaches kids how to think and how to be flexible in the face of change. An education such as that has traditionally been viewed as “college-prep,” but I believe it’s what every child desperately needs today.
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