Graduation requirements in place

State-mandated curriculum approved

High school students will need to complete a more thorough, state-mandated set of credits in order to graduate from high school, now that a much-anticipated plan has become law.

Debate about the need for more state graduation requirements began last fall, with much concern expressed that currently, the only required class for high school graduation is civics. That will change, however in the fall of 2007.

The House and Senate each passed bills that contained the bulk of the original plan approved by the state Board of Education. A conference committee worked out the finer details, such as when it would start and which specific subjects would be required. That process lasted most of the month of March and was finally signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm on April 20.

"If Michigan is to compete in a global economy, we must have the best educated workforce in the nation to attract jobs and investment to our state," Granholm said at the bill signing. "This new challenging curriculum will help ensure that every student in Michigan is prepared for college or technical training when they finish high school."

The requirements include four years each of English and math (including algebra I, algebra II and geometry), three years each of social studies and science (including biology and chemistry or physics), one year each of fine arts and physical fitness and one on-line course. The Department of Education is to develop content expectations for each subject, and the requirements will begin with the class of 2011. Beginning with the class of 2016, students must take two years of a foreign language, but that can occur any time between kindergarten and 12th grade.

Students may test out of any of the required classes, and may enroll in an alternative math class if algebra II proves too difficult.

During debate on the floor of both the House and Senate, a number of amendments were offered, most of which failed. Among them were calls to increase the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18, a proposal to allow districts to phase the plan in, and a requirement for civilizations from each continent and certain kingdoms from Africa be studied in a world history course.

The issue was first addressed last December, when state Superintendent Mike Flanagan presented a 16-credit plan to the State Board of Education. The board approved it, with the addition of two credits in a foreign language.

The Senate Education Committee held a series of hearings around the state in February and March, gathering input on how the new requirements would affect parents, students, teachers and administrators.

Concern was raised in three areas, primarily focusing on how a state-mandated curriculum would affect vocational education, alternative schools and how schools would pay for the increased demands, especially for qualified teachers in the higher level math and science classes.

David King, an industrial arts education teacher and small business owner from Merrill, spoke before a Senate Education Committee public hearing at the Midland Education Services Agency building. He suggested that industrial arts be included in the larger scope of "arts" because it, too, allows for the teaching of math and science.

"We expect to find people who can repair our car or build a house, but you have to give students the chance to learn those things," King said. "Those are jobs that can’t be outsourced."

Alternative education supporters said they were afraid the stricter requirements would increase the drop-out rate as students became frustrated with having to take high level courses.

"There are several risk factors involved with why kids end up in alternative education," said Terry Kaiser of Windover High School, an alternative school chartered by Midland Public Schools. "Most of the kids who come to us have lower elementary school math levels."

Carolyn Weirda, superintendent of Bay City Public Schools, said the measures would increase her district’s costs by millions of dollars due to the need for more specialized teachers. She also feared that if the district did not implement the changes quickly enough, Bay City could lose students to other districts that adapt more quickly. Weirda said she would prefer to see the requirements begin in seventh grade, and give students five years to take the mandated classes, thus allowing more time for electives and other technical career studies.