The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Where's Beef on Curriculum Core?" by The Detroit News, 2/15/96

Original Title:
Voluntary Curriculum Standards: Where's the Beef?
by Barry McGhan

In its first few months in office the Republican-dominated State Board of Education came into conflict with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Manufacturer's Association, and the Michigan Education Association, and other state organizations over whether the state should have mandatory or voluntary curriculum standards. The majority on the Board felt that mandatory state curricula would interfere with that icon of conservative ideology--local districts' control of their own operations.

A Republican challenge to the education establishment is no surprise, but being at odds with the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups is puzzling. To understand this issue, a brief review of how we arrived at this point of contention is helpful.

In the early 1980's a federal report (called "A Nation At Risk") lambasted American schools for providing a poor educational foundation for most students. Michigan business leaders, some feeling pressure from foreign car manufacturers, echoed that complaint. They said they were spending too much money teaching their employees academic basics to improve their job performance. They claimed that the cost of training in these basics, which should have been learned in school, significantly reduced their profit margins.

State government, heeding this outcry, asked various state education organizations to revise the voluntary basic curriculum that was in effect at the time. The groups developed more modern and demanding basic curricula and devised new state tests to assess them. These curricula were modified after their introduction in the late 1980's and are now called "standards"--targets to compare performance to.

In 1993, in a move that drew bi-partisan support, the legislature decided that if these curriculum improvements were to take root, they would have to be mandatory. They passed a law to that effect. At this point the new State Board of Education entered the picture and said that the legislature and Governor were wrong to make the standards mandatory. Subsequently, early last December the legislature passed a bill to re-establish voluntary standards.

Herein lies part of the puzzle. The move to reestablish voluntary standards opposes the expressed interests of the business community. Surely business has been among the Republican Party's strongest backers over the years. What's going on here? Perhaps we are seeing a difference of opinion between fiscal and social-cultural conservatives.

A second and more important aspect of this issue has to do with whether it makes sense to promote voluntary standards in support of local control. My experiences as a curriculum supervisor in one of the state's larger districts may help you understand this point. Our efforts focussed on simply trying to implement the state's "voluntary" pre-1993 core curriculum. We concentrated on this curriculum mostly because it is tested by the state MEAP tests. We followed the old maxim "what gets tested gets taught." In the future, most districts will adopt voluntary standards--as they have in the past--as long as the state continues to mandate testing.

In reality, it's not especially important whether the curriculum is voluntary. The critical question is "Should we have voluntary testing of that curriculum?" Voluntary standards with a mandatory testing program--as we have now--is phony voluntarism.

Don't be surprised if the state moves to make testing voluntary too. Some will say, "Think of the time and money that can be saved by eliminating the testing program." Others will recognize the phoniness of the current situation and seek an end to testing in order to make the state curriculum truly voluntary. School districts should love it since eliminating testing takes the heat off them--but will it serve parents, children and society?

Abolishing testing will eliminate important information that citizens need to decide whether education is improving or not, and will be a step backward for Michigan students. We'll return to the traditional curriculum that we had in the seventies, inadequate then, and much more inadequate now.

Local control over voluntary standards may be a worthwhile expression of conservative ideology, or not--only time will tell. It certainly appeals to anyone who wants to protect the values of their community, even when--as in this case--they are not endangered.

If, in 1999 we have the same complaints about education that we had in 1989, we'll know that knee-jerk conservatism, or worse, is alive and well in Michigan.


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