Will a state-mandated high school curriculum of 18 credits ensure better-prepared students in the 21st Century? Yes

Students need high skills to be hi-tech

The future success of our state is sitting in our classrooms. This entails economic success, societal success, and personal success for the people of Michigan. A quality education is the lynchpin of that success.

To plan for the future we need to act today, and the need to improve Michigan high schools is urgent. We can’t wait five or 10 years.

The State Board of Education approved in December a set of improved state high school graduation requirements that establish a core level of high school credits to prepare Michigan students to succeed after high school, starting with the freshman class of next year.

We must embrace this effort to expect more out of our high school students so they aren’t left behind by the rest of the world economically. We must insist that all students master the content of the core subjects of math, science, English language arts and social studies, as well as a world language, art and health. And we must believe, on a moral and economic level, that all kids can and will achieve this.

The State Board of Education approved in December a set of improved state high school graduation requirements that establish a core level of high school credits to prepare Michigan students to succeed after high school.

More than 60 percent of employers report that high school graduates have poor math skills, and nearly 75 percent report deficiencies in grammar and writing skills. These new, rigorous high school requirements, not surprisingly, are strongly supported by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence.

Institutions of higher education are finding an increasing number of newly-enrolled students having to take remedial math and writing courses in order to meet the basic challenges of community college and university coursework. Currently, only one semester of civics is required for high school graduation under state law, placing Michigan far behind the requirements of all other states.

In order to compete with highly-educated students around the globe, we need a rigorous curriculum of math and science, along with strong reading and writing skills. We have heard too many stories of American jobs being sent overseas to China or India. Those nations are training their students in math, science and engineering to meet the employment needs of this new global knowledge economy. Michigan must insist on nothing less for its students.

As Gov. Jennifer Granholm has vowed to go anywhere and do anything to bring in new businesses and industry into Michigan, we need to send a loud and clear message that Michigan’s high school graduation expectations are more than just a semester of civics. We need this to restore our economy by developing workers who will meet the needs of 21st century industries. If this means state-set credits or graduation requirements, then that is what we must have.

The state Legislature is ready to move on this. House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Brian Palmer has drafted legislation to increase graduation requirements, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Wayne Kuipers has scheduled hearings around the state to receive public input. These legislative leaders understand the importance of a more rigorous education and are prepared to step forward in this regard.

The State Board recognized that these more rigorous graduation requirements are not meant only for the high school students planning to go to college. To the contrary, employers across Michigan are demanding students with a basic mastery of these core skills. The preparation students need for success in college is the same as the preparation required for success in the workplace after high school. These graduation requirements must focus on the knowledge and skills students must have to succeed in whatever direction they go after high school.

Four years of English language arts and math, including algebra I and II, and three years of science are among the requirements as well as three credits of social studies, two credits of world languages, and one credit each of health, physical education, and visual and performing arts.

We need to pry ourselves from the old thinking that not every student can learn at this level. They can. The key here is to actively engage every student, exhibiting how this knowledge is relevant to their lives and their future, and be flexible in how the course content is delivered. For instance, schools can teach economics in a social studies class and relate it to the fundamentals of capitalism, inspiring students to be entrepreneurs.

The State Board of Education’s plan is rigorous, not rigid. It would impose a designed course structure while providing relevance and flexibility for all students and school districts. What the plan would not do is fill in every hour of a student’s class day. It’s saying: Have students take algebra I and algebra II instead of lower-level math, and physics and chemistry instead of community science. Schools have the teachers now to instruct students for a full day. This plan directs schools to have their teachers teaching the content that will help all students attain the level of education they need to succeed.

Students still will have the opportunity to take career and technical courses, art and music, and a foreign language, which are important as well. The plan is flexible and relevant for all students, and even though it requires students to learn algebra I and II, they still will have the ability to learn those same concepts in a building trades class instead.

The State Board also requires that all high school students take the Michigan Merit Exam, or the alternate MI-Access assessment for students with severe disabilities; and that all students complete at least one on-line credit or non-credit course or learning experience in order to graduate. This on-line course requirement has gained national attention and notoriety as being bold, innovative and unique across the nation.

The cornerstone of the plan is that all students learn the core concepts of math and science, learn about our world and how our government functions so they can be valued participants in the process, learn how to effectively communicate, express learning through creativity and learn how to live healthy lives. It will evolve Michigan from being a rust belt, blue collar state to being a high-tech and high-skills state. That is a goal which everyone can agree upon.

Mike Flanagan is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.