High school freshmen pick their college majors; students, parents puzzled.

Aug 16, 2007

High school freshmen in Englewood, New Jersey will begin a puzzling new programme this fall, which will require them to pick their majors in college their freshman year, an act that will then dictate their primary classes and electives for the next four years. The programme was begun as an experimental effort to prop up falling test scores and help the students focus upon their eventual goals (aside from getting the hell out of high school, which is everyone's imperative at that age). Not all of the parents are convinced that it's a good idea, and that it smacks too much of preprofessional conditioning for a workforce that will have changed completely by the time the students graduate from college a number of years beyond their senior year. It is said that other high schools are experimenting with similar programmes now, also - schools in New York, North Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere.

I really doubt it's going to work. The school district I graduated from in the mid 90's tried something like this back in '91, a project called RIGOR (which I no longer remember the meaning of), but the gist was that we chose our eventual careers in eighth grade just before beginning high school (three guesses what mine was, and the first two don't count), and that built our curricula throughout high school, which lead to not a few problems because the class scheduling system never quite worked the way it was supposed to. A few classes that accidentally had 100 students in attendance because there were insufficient sections open come immediately to mind... as for how well my graduating class did, I am told that we are still held up as the single worst class in the history of the district for a number of reasons, chiefly among them disciplinary problems. If you want to know how successful as a group my graduating class was... I have no idea.

RIGOR also severely restricted what we could and couldn't take - if you were on an engineering track, you could look forward to physical sciences and mathematics in addition to the usual stuff that high school students have to sit through (like English Lit and phys.ed) but if you had any other interests you'd have to wait for after school or the weekend to indulge in them (such as psychology or metalworking shop). In short, there was no real way to change mental gears to exercise another part of your mind, and that's been shown to lead to overall impaired performance (as well as boredom, which is the bane of any high school teacher).

Forgive my cynicism, but I've been there and done that. Being well-rounded is an advantage in an informationally rich environment, not a bane, and this is something that most tracking programmes do not permit. Being able to look at things from different perspectives (history, sociology, mathematics, dot dot dot) makes it possible to come up with new solutions to tricky (or once-thought intractable) problems. The ability to synthesize knowledge is a skill rapidly vanishing from North American culture because it poses problems for teachers who may not be equipped to handle creative answers to questions that really aren't as cut-and-dried as they seem (take for example ethics, which were taught in my US citizenship classes).