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THE

NATIONAL SCIENCE STANDARDS DEBATE: WHO DECIDES?

The National Science Standards Debate:


Who Decides What is Taught in Public Schools?
Wendy Johnson
Michigan State University


THE NATIONAL SCIENCE STANDARDS DEBATE: WHO DECIDES?

Introduction

On September 12, 2013, Republican Tom McMillin introduced House Bill Number
4972 (HB-4972, see Appendix 1) to the Michigan House of Representatives. The bill, which
was sponsored by four other Republican representatives, was referred to the Committee on
Education, where it currently awaits further action. The bill seeks to amend section 1278
of the Revised School Code (Public Act 451 of 1976) to ensure that The state board model
core academic curriculum content standards shall not be based upon the Next Generation
Science Standards. While the bill may never become law, it represents the complex issues
and competing interests involved in determining what should be taught in public schools.
HB-4972 is fairly narrow in that it aims only to block a particular framework from being
applied to curriculum and assessment in Michigan, yet the bill highlights perpetual debates
about the aims and control of public education that have existed since its inception. This
paper compares the current debate surrounding national science education standards to
the issues central to the Common School Movement of the mid 19th century; I argue that
similar motivations underlie the current and historical reform efforts as well as their
opposition.
The Common School Movement (1820 1860) planted the seeds that have led to
our modern public school system, in which tax-supported schools are freely available to all
children. Horace Mann was the most prominent of the reformers who called for state
intervention to improve and standardize schools. The reformers believed that education
held the power to shape individuals moral character and to instill discipline, which were
seen as the keys to overcoming social ills and ensuring the survival of the republic. The
ideals of the common school were closely linked to Protestantism, and their creation

THE NATIONAL SCIENCE STANDARDS DEBATE: WHO DECIDES?

necessitated greater taxation and state oversight. Opposition to the creation of common
schools thus came from Catholics, as well as those of the working class that rejected
taxation that might disproportionately benefit the middle and upper classes, those in favor
of local control versus state control, and the wealthy who could afford to pay for their own
private education. Although current science education reform efforts focus more on
intellectual achievement than on moral aims, the emphasis on equal educational
opportunities for all students, the necessity of state intervention in education, and the
belief that mass education is essential for addressing social and economic concerns are as
central to todays reform efforts as they were during the Common School Movement.
Therefore, opposition to national science education standards comes from groups who fear
that their ideological viewpoints are not represented or are discredited by the standards,
as well as from those who favor less taxation and state control. HB-4972 (see Appendix 1)
is an artifact that represents the opposition to current science education reform efforts. As
Frasier (2009) pointed out, The question of who should hold the authority and
responsibility for the education and enculturation of the youth is as unresolved an issue
today as it was in Manns time (p. 46).
The Next Generation Science Standards
The concept of national education standards is a relatively recent development; only
in the past two decades have we begun to develop and implement national benchmarks for
learning in public schools. During the 1980s and early 1990s, multiple national reports
called for reform in science education. In 1991 the National Science Teachers Association
urged the National Research Council (NRC) to coordinate the development of national
science education standards. The NRC is a division of the National Academy of Sciences,

THE NATIONAL SCIENCE STANDARDS DEBATE: WHO DECIDES?

which was chartered in 1863 to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any
subject of science. After nearly four years of collaboration among teachers, scientists, and
education researchers, the NRCs National Science Education Standards were released in
1996.
Similar to the early national standards written in other disciplines, the 1996 NRC
standards were influential in national science education reform efforts, but implementation
was never mandatory, and states varied widely in how closely their benchmarks aligned
with the NRCs recommendations. In recent years there has been growing consensus that
states should adopt uniform national standards to define what students should learn. This
stems from the accountability movement in education that began with the 2001 No Child
Left Behind Act, as well as national reports that call for extensive education reform to
prepare students to compete in the global marketplace. In 2009 the National Governors
Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers led the development of the
Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics and English language arts. These
standards were released in 2010 and were quickly adopted by 45 states, although most
states are still very early in the implementation phase. Common assessments aligned to the
standards are expected to be available in the 2014 2015 school year.
In 2011 the NRC released A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which laid the
foundation for a new set of national science education standards. The Framework sought
to revise the 1996 National Science Education Standards in light of new research on
teaching and learning and to capitalize on recent support for the Common Core State
Standards. The Framework asserts that current science education is ineffective because it
is not organized systematically across multiple years of school, emphasizes discrete facts

THE NATIONAL SCIENCE STANDARDS DEBATE: WHO DECIDES?

with a focus on breadth over depth, and does not provide students with engaging
opportunities to experience how science is actually done (p. 1). The Framework argues
that
K-12 science and engineering education should focus on a limited number of
disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts, be designed so that
students continually build on and revise their knowledge and abilities over
multiple years, and support the integration of such knowledge and abilities
with the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering
design. (p. 2)

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were developed from the NRCs Framework
for K 12 Science Education. The writing team consisted of 41 members, most of whom
were K 12 educators, from 26 lead states. The standards underwent two rounds of public
feedback and revision before being released in April 2013. Although Michigan was one of
the lead states involved in the development of the NGSS, the State Board of Education has
yet formally to adopt the standards. HB-4972 seeks to ensure that Michigan will not adopt,
align assessments, or participate in the implementation of the NGSS.
Equal Educational Opportunities
The ideal of equal educational opportunities for all students was at the heart of the
Common School Movement. Manns vision was that public schools were common in the
highest sense, as the air and light were common (as cited in Reese, 2005, p. 11), and would
afford equal educational opportunities to all children regardless of socioeconomic class.
Mann believed that knowledge is power, and thus called common schools the great
leveling institutions of this age (as cited in Reese, 2005, p. 28). However, in Manns time
equal opportunity excluded many groups, including African Americans. Current reform
efforts in science education echo the motivations of the Common School Movements
emphasis on equal educational opportunity and broaden it to demand equal opportunity

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for non-dominant social groups. Current science education reformers argue that the
achievement gaps among demographic groups are due to persistent inequities in the
quality of instruction and distribution of resources.

The NGSS are based on the NRCs Framework for K 12 Science Education (2011),

which states that arguably, the most pressing challenge facing U.S. education is to provide
all students with a fair opportunity to learn (p. 281). The framework lists many potential
barriers to achieving equality, but focuses on addressing two in particular: (1) inequities
across schools, districts, and communities, and (2) instructional approaches to include and
motivate diverse student populations. Appendix D of the NGSS, All Standards, All
Students, includes strategies for making the high standards of learning achievable for all
students, especially those from non-dominant groups. Clearly the Common School
Movements ideal of equal educational opportunities is still alive and well, but has yet to be
fully realized.

As Cohen and Neufeld (1981) pointed out, In America, equality is at once an

achievement to be celebrated and a degradation to be avoided (p. 70). The U.S. has
undoubtedly made enormous progress over the past century towards offering equal
educational opportunities to all children. Yet not all stakeholders hold the same idea of
what equality in educational opportunity entails, and every victory for equality brings
about new problems to address. Cohen and Neufeld argued that achieving equality has
often come at the expense of high academic standards, and it has led to disagreements
about the type of education that different students need. In Michigan the revised school
code requires the State Board of Education to develop core academic curriculum content
standards to ensure that high academic standards, academic skills, and academic subject

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matters are built into the instructional goals of all school districts for all children (1976 PA
451 sec. 1278). Yet, HB-4972 demonstrates the debate about what those standards should
actually entail, as well as disagreements about who holds the authority to determine those
standards.
The Role of the State in Education
The United States Constitution implicitly delegates public education to the states,
but the role of the state in education is complex and full of contradictions. In addition, the
federal government has increasingly shaped educational decisions through funding
programs such as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which
was reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. While the goal of NCLB
may have been school accountability to ensure learning for all children, its implementation
has incited much suspicion and opposition to federal intervention in education from
stakeholders at all levels. The fact that the NGSS were written by a consortium of 26 states
led by Achieve, Inc. has generated suspicion of federal involvement in the development of
the standards. This is further complicated by the fact that Achieve, Inc. also led the
development of the CCSS, which were required to be adopted by any state that applied for a
grant through the federal Race to the Top program launched in 2009.
Reformers of the Common School Movement realized that state intervention was
necessary to ensure equal educational opportunities among different communities, but
they were met with vigorous opposition from those who believed that local control was
best for schools. This debate continues today and is especially represented by the
opposition to CCSS and NGSS. Public statements by Representative McMillin have hinted at
many possible reasons for his introduction of HB-4972, but his most consistent story has

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focused on local control of schools. McMillins other activities in the legislature have made
it clear that it is not just the NGSS that he opposes, but any national standards that would
limit local control. In February 2013 Representative McMillin introduced similar
legislation (HB-4276) to prevent Michigan from implementing the CCSS, which the State
Board of Education had adopted in 2010. Although the bill did not become law, McMillin
was successful in amending the state budget to require affirmative action of the legislature
authorizing implementation of the CCSS (Public Act 59 of 2013). House Concurrent
Resolution 0011 (2013) authorized the implementation of the CCSS with conditions that
give the state authority to add or remove standards that are in the best interest of the
students of Michigan, and it reiterates that districts have the flexibility to develop or adopt
their own standards under the Revised School Code, PA 451 of 1976.
The story of Michigans adoption of the CCSS and the ongoing debate about the NGSS
demonstrate the complexity of the role of the state in public education, as well as the
increasingly blurred lines between federal, state, and local control. Although these debates
play out publicly between the legislature and the State Board of Education, Michigan law
still places the ultimate authority for what is taught in public schools in the hands of local
districts. Of course, since the Department of Education is responsible for accreditation of
school districts, this authority may not be as great as the law would suggest. Similarly,
although Michigans Constitution delegates leadership and general supervision of public
education to the State Board of Education (Article VIII, Section 3), the legislature may
intervene directly through legislation or indirectly though state funding. The current
system therefore represents a complex and vaguely defined set of checks and balances that
shape the curriculum of local school districts.

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Mass Education for Addressing Social and Economic Concerns


Although Mann advocated nonsectarian education, he emphasized moral aims over

academic learning. The reformers of the Common School Movement believed that the
promotion of a core of common Protestant values would prevent wayward behavior and
promote social cohesion. Manns (1842) Fifth Report to the State Board of Education of
Massachusetts argued that mass public education would also lead to economic wealth. The
report included anecdotal evidence from business owners and managers that workers who
had attended common schools were more competent and of stronger character than
uneducated workers. The idea that education is the key to addressing social concerns is
also at the heart of current reform efforts in science education, although the NGSS
emphasize the development of scientific literacy rather than moral character to do so.

The NGSS argue that new standards are necessary to address four major concerns:

(1) reduction of the United States competitive economic edge, (2) lagging achievement of
U.S. students, (3) preparation for careers in the modern workforce, and (4) scientific and
technological literacy for an educated society (NGSS Lead States, 2013). The principal
conceptual shifts compared to previous standards include the integration of the practices
of science with content knowledge, and the prominent place given to engineering. The
standards emphasize human impacts on the environment as well as the content knowledge
necessary for addressing issues such as global climate change. Thus the NGSS highlight the
social nature of the development of scientific knowledge and the relationship between
science, technology, and society. Overall the NGSS represent a shift toward much more
socially oriented goals for science education than has traditionally been taught.

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In many ways the Common School Movement was in response to changes brought

about by the industrial revolution, including mechanization of manufacturing and the


resulting social changes, such as urbanization. Similarly, current science education reform
efforts are largely in response to the technological revolution and the resulting global
economy it has created. Reform efforts are fueled by fear of our shrinking share of patents
and national reports, which have consistently ranked U.S. students behind other developed
countries in science and math achievement. The Common School Movement and current
science education reform efforts are thus similar in that they emphasize the role of
education in addressing social and economic concerns. In both cases opposition to reform
efforts stems not just from the debate about local versus state control, but also from groups
that hold ideological viewpoints different from the reformers. During the Common School
Movement Catholic immigrants opposed the Protestant ideology inherent in the common
schools. Todays ideological opposition is a bit harder to define, but seems to come mostly
from conservatives of the political right who disagree with the liberal socially-oriented
goals for science education included in the NGSS.
Conclusion

Similar to the reform efforts of the Common School Movement, The Next Generation

Science Standards seek to ensure equality in educational opportunities and demonstrate a


conviction that education is an effective means for addressing social and economic
concerns. Both reform efforts also necessitate greater state intervention in education in
order to ensure equality, and thus they have faced opposition from groups that want to
maintain local control. HB-4972 represents such opposition to greater state and national
influence on public school curriculum. The debate about Michigans implementation of the

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NGSS represents questions about the aims and control of public education that have
remained unanswered since the Common School Movement.
This paper has focused on the public good of education, which includes only two
(democratic equality and social efficiency) of the three competing goals for education
identified by Labaree (1997). Not included in this discussion is the perspective of the
individual educational consumer, which inevitably leads to even more complexity and
compromise. Labaree contended that the growing dominance of social mobility over the
other two goals has reconceptualized education as a private good. However, current
reform efforts such as the NGSS demonstrate that democratic equality and social efficiency
are still prominent goals of public education. The current debate about science education
standards reminds us that we not only have conflicting goals for education, but that the
question of authority over public education has never been fully resolved. Labaree argued
that the history of conflicting goals for American education has brought contradiction and
debilitation, but it has also provided us with an open structure of education that is
vulnerable to change (p. 74). This gives us reason to embrace the disagreements around
school reform and use the occasion to reaffirm the importance of public education.






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References

Cohen, D.K & Neufeld, B. (1981). The failure of high schools and the progress of education.
Daedalus, 110, 69-89.

Fraser, J.W. (2009). The common school movement, 1820-1860. In J. Fraser (Ed) The school
in the United States: A documentary history (2nd ed.) (pp. 44-57). New York:
Routledge.

House Bill No. 4276, Michigan (2013).

House Bill No. 4972, Michigan (2013).

House Concurrent Resolution 0011, Michigan (2013).

Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational
goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39-81.

Mann, H. (1842). Fifth Annual Report of the Secretary to the Board of Education of
Massachusetts, excerpts. Boston.

Michigan Constitution. Article VIII, Section 3.

Michigan Department of Education budget FY 2013-14, PA 59, Article IV, Section
231 (2013).

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School
Officers. (2010). Common core state standards. National Governors Association
Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C.

National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K-12 science education: practices,
crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies
Press.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states.
Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Reese, W. J. (2005). The Origins of the Common School. In Americas public schools: From
the common school to No Child Left Behind. (pp. 10-44). Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University.

Revised School Code, Michigan PA 451380.1278 (1976).

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Appendix 1

HOUSE BILL No. 4972

HOUSE BILL No. 4972


September 12, 2013, Introduced by Reps. McMillin, Genetski, MacMaster, Goike and Franz
and referred to the Committee on Education.
A bill to amend 1976 PA 451, entitled
"The revised school code,"
by amending section 1278 (MCL 380.1278), as amended by 2004 PA 596,
and by adding section 1278d.
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN ENACT:

HOUSE BILL No. 4972

Sec. 1278. (1) In addition to the requirements for

accreditation under section 1280 specified in that section, if the

board of a school district wants all of the schools of the school

district to be accredited under section 1280, the board shall

provide to all pupils attending public school in the district a

core academic curriculum in compliance with subsection (3) in each

of the curricular areas specified in the state board recommended

model core academic curriculum content standards developed under

subsection (2). The state board model core academic curriculum

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content standards shall encompass academic and cognitive

instruction only. For purposes of this section, the state board

model core academic curriculum content standards shall not include

attitudes, beliefs, or value systems that are not essential in the

legal, economic, and social structure of our society and to the

personal and social responsibility of citizens of our society. THE

STATE BOARD MODEL CORE ACADEMIC CURRICULUM CONTENT STANDARDS SHALL

NOT BE BASED UPON THE NEXT GENERATION SCIENCE STANDARDS.

(2) Recommended model core academic curriculum content

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standards shall be developed and periodically updated by the state

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board, shall be in the form of knowledge and skill content

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standards that are recommended as state standards for adoption by

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public schools in local curriculum formulation and adoption, and

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shall be distributed to each school district in the state. The

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recommended model core academic curriculum content standards shall

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set forth desired learning objectives in math, science, reading,

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history, geography, economics, American government, and writing for

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all children at each stage of schooling and be based upon the

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"Michigan K-12 program standards of quality" to ensure that high

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academic standards, academic skills, and academic subject matters

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are built into the instructional goals of all school districts for

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all children. The state board also shall ensure that the Michigan

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educational assessment program and the Michigan merit examination

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are based on the state recommended model core curriculum content

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standards, are testing only for proficiency in basic and advanced

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academic skills and academic subject matter, and are not used to

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measure pupils' values or attitudes.

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(3) The board of each school district, considering academic

curricular objectives defined and recommended pursuant to

subsection (2), shall do both of the following:

(a) Establish a core academic curriculum for its pupils at the

elementary, middle, and secondary school levels. The core academic

curriculum shall define academic objectives to be achieved by all

pupils and shall be based upon the school district's educational

mission, long-range pupil goals, and pupil performance objectives.

The core academic curriculum may vary from the model core academic

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curriculum content standards recommended by the state board

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pursuant to subsection (2).

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(b) After consulting with teachers and school building

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administrators, determine the aligned instructional program for

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delivering the core academic curriculum and identify the courses

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and programs in which the core academic curriculum will be taught.

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(4) The board may supplement the core academic curriculum by


providing instruction through additional classes and programs.
(5) For all pupils, the subjects or courses, and the delivery

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of those including special assistance, that constitute the

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curriculum the pupils engage in shall assure the pupils have a

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realistic opportunity to learn all subjects and courses required by

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the district's core academic curriculum. A subject or course

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required by the core academic curriculum pursuant to subsection (3)

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shall be provided to all pupils in the school district by a school

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district, a consortium of school districts, or a consortium of 1 or

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more school districts and 1 or more intermediate school districts.

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(6) To the extent practicable, the state board may adopt or

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develop academic objective-oriented high standards for knowledge

and life skills, and a recommended core academic curriculum, for

special education pupils for whom it may not be realistic or

desirable to expect achievement of initial mastery of the state

board recommended model core academic content standards objectives

or of a high school diploma.

(7) The state board shall make available to all nonpublic

schools in this state, as a resource for their consideration, the

model core academic curriculum content standards developed for

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public schools pursuant to subsection (2) for the purpose of

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assisting the governing body of a nonpublic school in developing

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its core academic curriculum.

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(8) Excluding special education pupils, pupils having a

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learning disability, and pupils with extenuating circumstances as

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determined by school officials, a pupil who does not score

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satisfactorily on the 4th or 7th grade Michigan educational

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assessment program reading test shall be provided special

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assistance reasonably expected to enable the pupil to bring his or

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her reading skills to grade level within 12 months.

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(9) Any course that would have been considered a nonessential

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elective course under Snyder v Charlotte School Dist, 421 Mich 517

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(1984), on April 13, 1990 shall continue to be offered to resident

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pupils of nonpublic schools on a shared time basis.

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SEC. 1278D. (1) THE STATE BOARD AND THE DEPARTMENT SHALL NOT

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ADOPT OR IMPLEMENT THE NEXT GENERATION SCIENCE STANDARDS AND SHALL

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NOT ALIGN ANY ASSESSMENTS TO THE NEXT GENERATION SCIENCE STANDARDS.

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(2) AFTER THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF THIS SECTION, THE STATE BOARD

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OR ANY OTHER STATE OFFICIAL OR AGENCY SHALL NOT PARTICIPATE IN THE

IMPLEMENTATION OF THE NEXT GENERATION SCIENCE STANDARDS.

(3) THE STATE BOARD SHALL ENSURE THAT THE STATE BOARD MODEL

CORE ACADEMIC CURRICULUM CONTENT STANDARDS UNDER SECTION 1278 AND

THE SUBJECT AREA CONTENT EXPECTATIONS THAT APPLY TO THE CREDIT

REQUIREMENTS OF THE MICHIGAN MERIT STANDARD UNDER SECTIONS 1278A

AND 1278B ARE NOT BASED UPON THE NEXT GENERATION SCIENCE STANDARDS.

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