Thursday, August 16, 2007

Should High School Students Have "Majors"?

There's an interesting article in today's New York Times about a struggling high school in Englewood, NJ called Dwight Morrow. 3/4 of the students are African-American or Latino, and 60% qualify for subsidized lunches. Administrators have decided that the best way to raise student achievement is to require all incoming freshman to declare a "major".

The program at Dwight Morrow is patterned after the one at the self-contained magnet school that shares the campus. What I found disturbing is the difference in majors offered to the high-achieving students at the magnet school and the struggling students at Dwight Morrow. See if you can figure out which school offers which majors:

School A: Engineering, Law, Biomedicine, Finance, and Information Systems.
School B: Sports Management, Fine and Performing Arts, Health Sciences, International Studies, New Media, Liberal Arts, Environmental Studies, and a “Preteaching Institute.”

School A's students are being given an academically rigorous curriculum to prepare them for very lucrative careers. School B's students are given a wider range of options, but on the whole they seem to be a bit trendy and less academically-oriented: "Health Sciences" vs. "Biomedicine", "New Media" vs. "Information Sciences", "International Studies" vs. "Law", "Sports Management" vs. "Finance". They also seem a bit overly specialized for high school. A student concentrating in "Finance" can easily go into any number of fields including sports management, real estate, stocks, accounting, and so on. A student majoring in "Sports Management" would find it more difficult to get into the latter fields. Also, a future teacher does not need specialized training in high school, but should be concentrating in whatever field he or she wishes to teach such as the Liberal Arts, Science, etc. I can see the value of offering an elective in Child Development or the like to future teachers, but not a whole separate major.

Unsurprisingly, School A with the rigorous curriculum is the magnet school; School B with the trendy specialized majors is Dwight Morrow. Why can't the students at Dwight Morrow be offered the same majors as the magnet school kids, with the addition of the Fine & Performing Arts and the general Liberal Arts ones? Why shouldn't the predominantly poor and minority kids at Dwight Morrow have the same high career expectations of their richer, white & Asian peers at the magnet school? Aren't the "dumbed-down" majors at Dwight Morrow indicative of what President Bush terms the "bigotry of low expectations"?

I'm not convinced that requiring high school students to pick formal majors is a good thing anyways. How many adults with successful careers do you know who could've told you at age 14 what they would end up doing for a living? Many of the occupations likely did not even exist when they were in junior high. I've got a good friend who works for MIT as a bioinformatician. Now I could've told you in high school that she excelled in math and in biology, but the field of bioinformatics was still in its infancy.

How many more fields will be created in the coming decades? Shouldn't we be giving our students a well-rounded and rigorous education so that they will be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities as they open up?

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