college of education | fall 2006

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The Michigan Merit Curriculum
New Michigan high school graduation requirements will help prepare students for college and bolster future state economy

By Dr. Sharif Shakrani, Co-director, Education Policy Center

At the July 2005 National Governors Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, the governors of 45 states, including Michigan, agreed to develop common measures for establishing high school graduation rates. This was viewed as a step toward achieving their larger goal of making high schools more rigorous academically and better preparing students for an increasingly competitive global economy.

A number of recent educational studies indicate that a key predictor of whether students will graduate from college is not race, gender, ethnicity or economic conditions but whether they completed a rigorous course of study in high school.
A recent report by the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education concluded that “in an era when intellectual capital is increasingly prized, both for individual and for the nation, post-secondary education has never been more important.” The U.S. Secretary of Education reported that 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven economy will require post-secondary education. Yet, access and success in post-secondary education is hampered by substandard high school preparation and compounded by poor alignment between what colleges require and what high schools produce. Although the proportion of high school graduates who go on to college has risen significantly in the past 25 years, the college completion rate has failed to improve at a similar pace. About 79 percent of Michigan students go on to some form of post-secondary education within two years of their high school graduation, but approximately 28 percent of them enroll in one or more remedial courses in reading, writing or mathematics. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 27 percent of the students who need remediation earn an associate or a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering college, while 65 percent of students requiring no remediation earn their degrees.

High school reform effort is a top educational priority at the national, state and local levels. Most of these efforts have been concentrated on the need for high school students to complete rigorous academic courses that equip them to perform well enough on college placement tests to be enrolled in regular credit-bearing courses rather than one or more remedial courses. Up to now, reform efforts have ignored the lack of coherence in content, course-taking requirements and assessment standards between secondary education and higher education. However, this could change as states start to establish stricter graduation requirements and create night school exit examinations that are aligned with post-secondary education entrance requirements.

State governors believe that global competitiveness has left the U.S. students in an increasingly precarious position, with an economy that is demanding greater skills in mathematics, science, technology and engineering, but a high school system still aligned to the old economy. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm has said that Michigan is an example of how the success of the old economy can no longer be sufficient in a world changed by technological innovations and implementations. She notes that Michigan, a manufacturing giant when General Motors, Ford and Chrysler dominated the world’s automobile industry, is now in the bottom tier of states with the percentage of adults with college diplomas. Michigan policy-makers’ goal is to double the number of college graduates in the state in order to make Michigan fertile ground for the jobs of the new economy. College graduates in the United States earn on average 80 percent more than high school graduates—a gap that has more than doubled in the past two decades, even as the number of college-educated workers has increased. Doubling the number of our college graduates will have a major economic implication on the future of Michigan.

Michigan has many of the world’s best colleges and universities, but many other states are now educating more of their citizens to more advanced levels than we are. We need to maintain the quality of post-secondary education in the state while substantially increasing the quantity of our graduates, especially in the high demand fields of science, technology and engineering. This lofty goal must start with improving high school curriculum and instruction for every school and school district in the state, and for all students regardless of race, gender or economic conditions. Students who are not prepared for college education cannot succeed in college; they need rigorous and coherent academic programs to prepare them for successful participation in freshman college courses and beyond.

In 2006, the state of Michigan took a giant step toward improving the quality of its public high school education. On April, 20, 2006, Gov. Granholm signed into law the Michigan Merit Curriculum, a rigorous new set of statewide graduation requirements affecting the graduating class of 2011 and beyond. These graduation requirements were developed through an unusual collaboration and extraordinary partnership between school administrators, teacher unions, educational and business organizations, legislators from both parties, and active support from the State Board of Education and state superintendent of public instruction, an indication of the recognized urgency of this education issue to the future economic well-being of the state.

Michigan’s new high school graduation requirements represent a huge shift in the state. Michigan will go from having only one state-level mandated graduation requirement, one course in civics, to having some of the most rigorous standards in the United States. Michigan will join many other states in requiring four years of mathematics including algebra II, but will be the only state that specifies that “each pupil must complete one math course successfully during his or her final year of high school.” Research by The College Board and ACT shows that rigorous algebra improves student chances for college success.

The new state graduation requirements would move significantly beyond current requirements set up by most school districts in the state. A recent survey found that less than one-third of the state’s 770 districts require algebra I to earn a high school diploma; a little more than a third require students to pass a biology course. Recent ACT data for the class of 2006 in Michigan shows that only about half of the students met college readiness benchmarks in mathematics and reading. The corresponding rates for disadvantaged minority students in Michigan’s urban areas were significantly lower. The new state graduation requirements should help level the playing field in preparing students for post-secondary education. We must ensure that high school diplomas earned in Detroit, East Lansing or Ironwood signify the same accomplishment and rigor.

The new requirements present a challenge to teacher preparation institutions in the state. Schools are very concerned that there will not be enough highly qualified teachers to help students meet the more rigorous requirements in mathematics and chemistry or physics. Colleges of Education must re-examine their teacher preparation programs to ensure that their graduates will be able to teach the new curriculum to wider and more diverse populations of high school students.

It is essential that the k–12 and post-secondary systems in Michigan work together closely to align high school curriculum content and college enrollment requirements. Outcome measures should continue to assess high school achievement, graduation rates and course-taking patterns by race, gender and economic condition. Research must evaluate the relationship of these high school measures to the configuration of students applying to college, students who attend two- and four-year colleges, and the proportion who complete their college education. Such studies would help policymakers in further reform efforts.

At the signing of the new high school graduation requirements, Granholm stated that the “new curriculum will help give Michigan the best-educated workforce in the nation and will bring new jobs and investment to our state.” Implementing the new high school graduation requirements effectively and in a timely fashion, through the commitment and involvement of k–12 education, higher education, policymakers and the public, can make the governor’s prediction a reality.

High School Graduation Requirements
2006–07 Michigan Merit Curriculum (Public Act 123 & 124)

MATHEMATICS(4 credits): 1 credit each of algebra I, geometry and algebra II or 3 credits in integrated course with same content, plus 1 additional credit, such as trigonometry, statistics, pre-calculus, calculus, applied math, accounting or business math. (1 credit must be in senior year.)


SOCIAL SCIENCE (3 credits): 1 credit in U.S. history & geography, 1 credit in world history & geography, credit in economics and credit in civics.

SCIENCE (3 credits): 1 credit each of biology, chemistry and physics. (The legislature strongly encourages pupils taking a fourth credit of science.)

HEALTH & PHYSICAL EDUCATION (1 credit): course must include content on both health and physical education.

ON-LINE LEARNING EXPERIENCE. Credit may be in on-line course, on-line learning experience or integrated online learning.


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