A Major in High School?

New York proposes raising standards by having students specialize

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Most students have trouble settling on a major in college. But Jos Vega double-majored in electricity and engineering while still in high school. Having a concentration gave him something to look forward to and helped him plan his career, says Jos, who attended Chelsea Vocational High School in Manhattan.

Students in New York State may soon have a similar experience. New York education commissioner Richard Mills has proposed that high school students, while still taking general courses, be required to choose a specialty.

The move is the latest in a variety of initiatives by states to improve student per- formance. Some states are simply tightening existing standards or testing for competence in required classes. But New York - which just last year moved to require that all students pass a series of competency tests, or Regents - has become the first in the nation to propose high school majors as a way to improve student motivation and performance and give greater weight to a high school diploma.

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"When you take simply introductory courses you develop a superficial understanding of a topic," says Diane McGivern, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, which set educational policy. Majors, in addition to a required core, may give students "a richer experience in a particular area," she says.

The New York program - which grew out of discussions with educators and the public - would require students to choose either a concentration in a traditional subject such as English, or an interdisciplinary career major such as business or health. Each school would administer its own program and choose which majors to offer. All students would take core classes in traditional subjects as well, and the total credits required for graduation would be raised.

Specialized programs, such as magnet schools and career academies, have long been credited with keeping both gifted and struggling students engaged.

"They're more motivated in school in general," says Stanley Turetsky, principal of Manhattan's High School of Graphic Communication Arts, which has five majors. "There are some who stay in school only because of the major."

Student motivation is key to the proposal, which will be presented to the Board of Regents in September and then be open for public comment.

Alex Delarosa, for one, likes the idea of having a major - specifically, photography. "I think I'd like school more if I were learning something I really want to learn," says the high school junior, who doesn't particularly like school now - there's too much work and it's boring, he says.

Nevertheless, some educators question the merits of such specificity at the high school level. "If a major is a way of getting a student interested in school work and through that making sure they graduate with a good set of skills, that's fine," says Frank Levy, professor of urban economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of "Teaching the New Basic Skills." "But if it so concentrates that the kid can graduate without knowing algebra, that's a disaster."

A central objection to high school majors is that they force students to make important choices too early. Alex, for example, doesn't want to be locked into one area. "Now I say I like photography," he says, "But if I find it hard, I don't have to do it anymore." His friend Prince Cofie is afraid that with majors, "after a while you have no choice. You have to stick to that."

High school students haven't been exposed to enough subjects to choose just one, says New York University admissions director Richard Avitabile. After all, he points out, the most common major for entering college freshmen is "undecided."

McGivern, however, doesn't see the majors as restricting students to one career path or interest. "The option to select something to be more well-informed about is not the same as selecting a narrow major early in your life," she says.

Such extra development might have a significant impact for students on a general track. "It could play out better for non-college-bound kids because they're not challenged,"says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States. "It will force them to upgrade what it is they're doing."

But many wonder about resources for such an effort. New York City boasts many specialized magnet schools, but that requires economies of scale, says Turetsky. It "would be very difficult for a small town with one high school."

One challenge may be affording staff that can create a successful program. "It all comes down to quality of teaching. Too frequently, teachers get assigned to a field in which they don't have any expertise," she points out.

McGivern admits that resources are limited, not only in teaching staff but in facilities. "Many schools don't have the wiring needed for technology classes or running water for science labs," she explains. She suggests such solutions as pooling of resources among schools and with local community colleges.

"When we can decide what our aspirations and goals are with respect to policy, then we can think about what resources we need," she says. "Attention needs to be paid to both."

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