Building a New Student in Michigan

  • Share
  • Read Later
Throughout most of the 20th century, the stream of cars rolling off Michigan assembly lines created jobs with high wages and schools with low expectations. When even a kid who dropped out of school early could look forward to a cozy middle-class living, mastering chemistry, geometry or geography didn't seem so important. But now, at the start of the 21st century, both the state's leading industry and its school system are at a crossroads.

While the once innovative industry is struggling to find a new direction, the state's schools have moved into the fast lane of educational reform. "The collapse of the auto industry, which also exploded the notion embedded in the DNA here that you can make a good living despite being a high school dropout, created a perfect storm for convincing everyone we needed to make changes," says Michael Flanagan, Michigan's superintendent of public instruction. For three months last fall a task force of state education officials, school superintendents, college deans and a Ford Motor Company executive pored over scholarly research on curriculum reform, borrowed ideas from private schools with strong college preparatory curricula and International Baccalaureate programs that infuse instruction with a global perspective. The panel also studied the education policies in countries such as Singapore, whose students routinely ace international proficiency exams. And the group consulted education chiefs from states that were early adopters of tougher standards, including Indiana, Oregon and Arkansas—all of which require four years of English and at least three years of math and science.

The goal was to craft rigorous learning standards that would give students the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and in the 21st century workplace. The group recommended that every Michigan student, whether college-bound or not, be required to complete four years of English and math; three years of science and social studies; two years of foreign language; one year of phys ed; one in a course covering visual, performing or applied arts, as well as an online course—not necessarily for credit—offered by Michigan's web-based Virtual High School or another Internet instruction provider that meets state guidelines. As juniors, they should also take the state merit exam that, like the ACT, measures college readiness.

Meanwhile, the state board of education wanted to see elective classes that expose them to diverse cultures and international issues; explore the rights and obligations of citizenship; teach finance and business principles in depth; and challenge them to access, analyze and use information from multimedia sources. The coursework, state officials recommended, should also improve critical-thinking, problem-solving and communication abilities through team projects. Last spring the legislature overwhelmingly approved the new graduation rules—all of which take effect with next fall's freshman class. "They are among the most rigorous requirements in the country," says Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit education think tank Achieve Inc. Some forward-thinking schools have already begun to incorporate the new approach. Here's a look at how three Michigan schools are preparing their students for the challenges of the 21st century:

Henry Ford Academy

Showing kids how book-learning relates to the real world is a central tenet of the new thinking. That's the chief reason the Henry Ford Academy, a nine-year-old charter school with a racially and academically mixed student body selected by lottery, was located on the grounds of the 12-acre Henry Ford Museum and its 100-acre companion site, the Greenfield Village. The museum and village's exhibits of antique vehicles, restored historic homesteads and artifacts bring academic concepts to life and serve as the bases for class projects. When eleventh graders study early-American economic systems, the village becomes their classroom for nine weeks. Exhibit curators often lead class discussions at the sawmills, weaving stations and tin-making shops inside the craftworks district, and on the lawns of Thomas Edison's laboratory, the working soybean farm and antebellum tobacco plantation that dot the property.

In team projects, students get a hands-on feel for the low-tech production practices of the era by making cheese graters in the tin shop and using looms to weave belts, under the supervision of museum staff. "It's one thing to sit at your desk and read about economic development and have a teacher give you notes," says Michael Trail, a senior who took the class last year. "It's a totally different thing to go into the village and see it firsthand."

Having a museum next door may make the process more fun, but it's only one of the ways in which the Academy lowers the firewall between the classroom and the world beyond it. Students in an economics class put principles into practice with projects in which pairs of students pretend to be married couples living on a budget. "What good is it to teach them about math and economics at school if they still go home and spend $200 on sneakers or $2,000 on a stereo they can't afford with interest payments of 28%?" asks Charles Dershimer, a faculty member. "It's crucial for 21st century education that kids are able to see how classwork relates to what's going on around them."

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3