Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Michigan Merit Curriculum: A Math Teacher's View

About a year ago, the Michigan legislature passed and the governor signed into law a bill creating statewide graduation requirements (previously, each district set its own requirements; only civics was a statewide graduation mandate). Among other things, this "Michigan Merit Curriculum" (MMC) requires the incoming Class of 2011 to have seventeen required credits to graduate (plus electives), and of these, four are in math: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and a fourth class of the student's choice.

Like the equally well-intentioned yet equally unwise federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001), the legislation represents an attempt by legislators to dictate to local school districts what is best for those districts. Herein lies the first problem: Legislators know less about what schools and students need than the superintendents, school boards, principals, and especially the teachers in those schools. I have a hard enough time believing that my own state representative could keep track of what all the school districts in her own elected area need—much less what a big-city district like Detroit, or a far-off rural district in the U.P. needs. And I certainly know that members of the U.S. Congress can't keep track of individual district needs!

The corollary to the first problem is this: Not every district in the state should have the same graduation requirements. There is nothing wrong with this. Currently, not every district offers the same array of courses/electives. That's fine, too. If anything, people moving to an area would be encouraged to learn more about each district's course offerings and graduation requirements (and test scores) before buying a home and settling in to a school district. Some districts could justify a four-math-credit requirement; others most certainly cannot. Competition among districts and efforts to distinguish a district from its neighbors would likely thrive. These are good things.

But the Biggest Problems lie here: The inevitable outcome of the MMC policy will be a combination of the following things:

  • The dropout rates will soar. Already, it has been reported that 20-30% of freshmen students failed Algebra I last year—statewide. These students, plus many more who came close to failing, are already discouraged from taking Algebra II (not to mention the other newly-required courses) and will be more likely to choose dropping out than frustration. Dropout rates that were released this week are already dismal enough.
  • The course known as Algebra II will be watered down...a lot. In order for many to pass, teachers and administrators will feel the pressure to make the class easier so that more kids will pass. This pressure will come from nearly every corner...and it will be effective in most places. Note: The "curriculum standards" will not change, just their application in the classroom. The test scores, on the other hand, will change.
  • Social promotion will return with a vengeance. Yes, students will be passed along by teachers who, quite frankly, don't want them (and perhaps their ill-mannered, complaining parents) in their classrooms next year. It's already going on in public schools without the newly added pressure. Some teachers will face administrators administering that pressure.
  • The disgraceful irony of this will be that the teachers/education system will be blamed. Teachers and schools who hold the line on not watering down the math courses and who do not practice social promotion will take heat for no other reason than a larger number of failing students—when they ought to be commended for encouraging quality work. Admittedly, there are teachers who aren't doing the job as well as they should (but is this not true in every vocation?). Yet I think that ignorant legislators, ambivalent parents, and apathetic students will all be getting less of the blame that will inevitably come when this MMC is shown to be unsuccessful.
In sum, I think the MMC is a bad idea. As a math teacher, I want every student to take as many math courses as they can. I want students to enjoy them and be successful—this is my passion. But not every student is capable of being equally successful, and it may be that other coursework is more appropriate for some students or more conducive to their long-term success. The MMC does not allow much liberty in this regard.

This will eventually become another example of a well-intentioned, poorly-thought-out, dictated-from-the-capital government policy that has the unintended consequence of failure. Significant decisions like these belong in the hands of local school leadership.

1 comment:

Brenda Brough said...

Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Here in Texas the children in public schools are subjected to regular testing (TAKS tests as they are better known)to make sure they have "mastered" subjects that lawmakers felt appropriate for them (the students). The problems with this that I have seen here are some of the same you have mentioned as well as the problem with schools and teachers being blamed for poor test scores. Hence, the teachers spend more and more time on the subjects the children have to pass and less time on other subjects just as necessary. Seems ridiculous to me, and not the best way to educate.