Saturday, August 22, 2009

Will Michigan Change its Graduation Requirements in Math?

In April of 2006, the all-wise legislature of Michigan passed, and the ever-more-all-wise governor signed, legislation that instituted a statewide set of public high school graduation requirements. These requirements meant that in every school district in Michigan,

Students must complete at least Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, or an integrated sequence of this course content that consists of 3 credits, and an additional mathematics credit, such as Trigonometry, Statistics, Pre-calculus, Calculus, Applied Math, Accounting, Business Math, or a retake of Algebra II. Each pupil must successfully complete at least 1 mathematics course during his or her final year of high school enrollment. (See page 26 of this document)
This means that if you want a diploma (beginning, in general, with the Class of 2011), you have to earn four credits of math. Three of them must be in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. I also blogged extensively on this topic last August, saying the following [this is the slightly-abridged version]:

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.

It turns out I was wrong on just one point: Before the Algebra II course, in particular, could be fully watered down, the legislature is moving to remove this requirement! According to articles in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, the following legislation is on the move:
  • The Michigan House has introduced a bill that "would allow students to bypass the tougher math requirement by taking three years of math, with the only mandated courses being algebra I and geometry. The third math credit could be in a course like financial literacy, which teaches students money management skills." (From the Free Press; emphasis mine)
  • The Michigan Senate unanimously passed a bill to grant that "math-related career and technical education courses could fulfill the Algebra II graduation requirement for high school students." (From the Detroit News, emphasis mine)
Interestingly, the Michigan Department of Education opposes the House legislation but supports the Senate legislation. Still trying to figure that out....

Blogprof brought this to my attention earlier in the week; he is strongly opposed to the watering down of the standards. Read his comments here and here. I am also opposed. As a math teacher who works with public school students, I recognize that the standards are unrealistic based upon the reality in the classrooms. They cannot be realistic until all math teaching, from kindergarten on up, is both thorough and rigorous, free of the fluff that infests so much of the curriculum now.

Math educators disagree among themselves what will improve math education most successfully; but all of us believe it can and must be improved. Here are a few of my suggestions:
  • Focus both on drill/practice and concepts. Students who drill and practice all the time have difficulty handling real-life problems; students who know how to solve the problems but can't compute accurately are not going to be successful, either.
  • Keep calculators out of students' hands before high school, except for certain occasional things where their use is helpful. If you think they should never be used, just tell me what the square root of 11 is to six decimal places, and I'll agree with you. I wrote an entire blog post on this topic.
  • Return the setting of curriculum standards to individual school districts. It makes them more accountable for success and it should be.
  • Institute full school choice for all taxpayers. Are you not satisfied with your kids' progress at Lawton? Move them to Paw Paw. Displeased with Detroit Public Schools? [Who isn't?] You get the idea....
Most importantly, parents need to be involved—both in encouraging their children and making sure they are provided with a quality education, in math and every other subject. The work of the parents in a child's education is much more important than the work of the state.


Brenda said...

Kudos to your final paragraph!! Well, kudos to the entire post, but THE most important way to keep standards high in any child's Math is for the parents to take an active role in it!!! Again, really the government shouldn't be in the business of telling schools how to run things. Imagine if the parent of EVERY public school student kept track of their child, their child's grades in school, and took an active role in making sure that child was doing his work, completing his homework, showing up in class ready to work, and requiring their children to do their best, and not expecting the public school teachers to do all that. I'm sure that is any teacher's fantasy school-land!! Every school would get an exemplary rating, teacher's would love their jobs, and the government wouldn't have to legislate such ridiculous standards (or lack of them)!!!

Ken said...

Well said, Brenda. Trouble is, they're the government's schools in the first place! (I guess that's why the all-wise legislature thinks it should set some standards.)

Brenda said...

So Ken, just out of curiosity.....was public education not a great idea in the first place, and what are your thoughts with public education eventually being used in this country to as a means of indoctrinating it's citizens to accept socialism? Again, the statement "what the government provides, it controls" comes to mind again. Do you think we are heading towards a government that forces all it's citizens to be in the public school systems or face legal trouble because they want this and the next generations to accept socialistic ideas? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.