Wednesday, April 12, 2006

High Schoolers to Declare a Major?

(this article is cross-posted at AtlasBlogged. Join the discussion there!)

Would it make sense to ask high school students to have more freedom and control over their own studies? I recognize that for most students, one of the worst parts about being in high school is the lack of control over their own curriculum. It really doesn't matter how much you hate math, poetry, or phys ed. You are going to take it. Is this paternalism? Or is it a realistic requirement when providing children with an education? To what degree could 13-year old could be expected to map out an education plan for themselves? Can we expect that children that age know what is best for themselves?

Legislation that unanimously cleared the Florida Senate Education Committee last week would require incoming high school freshmen to declare a major and a minor course of study. I think there are some obvious problems with this plan, and I would like to see how they will be addressed.

1) What majors will be offered? They will have to be pretty broad, because some schools won't have the resources to offer more than a basic "math and science", "social sciences", "arts and humanities" option.
The Bradenton Herald reports that vocational coursework would count - "fields like carpentry or auto repair."

The district in which I teach (in Virginia, not in Florida) is big enough to offer a math/science center, a foreign language center, an IB program, and a lot of vocational opportunities - but that's a big district with a relatively flexible budget. Let's not kid ourselves into thinking that all of these kids will be able to pick bioinformatics. What will be the bare minimum a district would have to offer under this law, and how is that bare minimum different from the current required courses? There is a possibility this will just be an extra stack of files in the guidance department for many rural schools.

2) What if a kid wants to change majors? At the college level, this is easy enough. Worst case scenario is that it takes you longer to get your degree. So if a high school junior says that she feels she was misinformed about what "social sciences" entails, and she wants to switch to a hard science major, do you tell her "no"? Do you tell her she will graduate high school a year late? Obviously, the answer to these two questions will have to be "no". So what exactly is the point of calling it a "major" if it is really just an opportunity for students to pick and choose their classes?

3) What minimum competency would be required in the core classes? I suppose districts could default to the federal standards of minimum competency in math and English language. If you think the bare minimum is enough, then ok. But some people choose to learn more and we encourage that, ok? You do want to express yourself, don't you?

It is my understanding that many other countries have a system like this for their public schools. In particular, I have had several scientists and engineers from Germany tell me that they were separated from students with other interests by age 14. Provided that this is voluntary on the part of the student, this seems like an idea with potential. I would love to hear from any readers who are more familiar with a comparable working system.

And for you libertarian readers who would say "this, too, would be best addressed by privatization of all schools", please answer the question of what subjects must be studied under the Florida plan, or under total privatization. Are you so libertarian as to support a parent's freedom to send their child to madrasses? I am not just playing devil's advocate - I feel that question to be at the heart of the issue of unmotivated students in public schools, which is exactly the problem this Florida bill hopes to address.


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