Back when I started high school, the seniors didn’t really have to do anything. My suburban Detroit district required them to take English, government and maybe one other class. You could be home before lunch if you felt like it.

Jess Cox

The school district ended that policy before my class got anywhere near graduation, much to our annoyance. As the strict new high school curriculum standards Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law last week take effect, the senior year blow-off schedule will become as much a part of Michigan’s past as our global dominance in auto manufacturing.

Respectable opinion throughout the state has been strongly behind the new standards, which include requirements that high school students take at least three and a half years of math, three years of science and even two years of a foreign language if they hope to graduate. A Detroit News editorial gushed, “Everyone will have to step up and work harder. And if they do, Michigan will be able to boast of having the highly skilled work force that 21st-century employers demand.” Granholm herself boasted, “This new curriculum will help give Michigan the best-educated workforce in the nation and bring new jobs and new investment to our state.”

Maybe I’m just one of those, you know, elitists at that stuck-up school in Ann Arbor, but how is requiring high school students to actually take classes going to give Michigan the nation’s best-educated workforce?

Don’t get me wrong. Michigan’s economy certainly stands to benefit from getting our high-school students to work harder. We keep hearing, after all, the vaguely racialized threats that India and China are going to eat America alive unless American kids study more. Michigan’s lagging manufacturing sector makes the issue of U.S. competitiveness particularly salient in this state.

The new curriculum standards will help fight at least one nasty trend in education. A study released last week by the nonpartisan Center on Educational Policy found that since the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, 71 percent of the nation’s school districts have cut back on other subjects to teach more reading and math – the only subjects covered by the tests that NCLB mandates. The New York Times reported that to boost their test scores, some schools are requiring students who test poorly to take extra periods of math and reading at the exclusion of all other subjects. I can’t think of a single better way to kill any interests kids have and encourage them to drop out than to send them the message that all school really is about is drilling for standardized tests. With Michigan’s new curriculum requiring courses in a wide range of subjects, this atrocious trend should be curtailed in the state.

The fact is, though, that just getting high school students to work harder won’t save Michigan overnight. (Even if it could, the requirements will first apply to students who graduate in 2011, by which time General Motors or Ford might not even be around anymore.) If Granholm is intent on Michigan’s having the “best-educated workforce in the nation,” she – or her successor – will have to do a few more things.

For starters, there’s getting more people to graduate from college, not just high school. Nolan Finley of The Detroit News pointed out in a recent column that Michigan ranks eighth among the states in high school graduation rates, but 40th in college attendance. One key obstacle to boosting that ranking is state lawmakers’ unwillingness to pay for higher education. Though public universities might see a 2-percent funding increase this year, that won’t make up for four years of cuts. When state appropriations drop, tuition jumps, and more people find college beyond their means.

But as many an English or sociology major graduating this term can attest, simply having a college degree doesn’t necessarily equate to great job prospects. Though liberal arts students (me included) might not like to hear it, Michigan needs to find ways to steer more students toward fields where the state has prospects for economic growth. It also needs to keep more educated young adults in the state after graduation. One way to work toward both goals would be offering targeted student loans to students in tech fields – and paying them off after graduation if students take jobs with Michigan employers.

Without such actions, Michigan’s new graduation requirements won’t accomplish much. Their main effect, indeed, could be increasing the dropout rate as students who hoped to cruise to a high school diploma give up instead. The curriculum standards – and the bipartisan cooperation to pass them – are an encouraging start to addressing Michigan’s crisis, but nothing more.

Zbrozek can be reached at zbrozek@michigandaily.com.

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