Brianna Cunningham loves learning Spanish, playing the clarinet in her middle-school band, and hanging out with her friends.
Like most kids her age, Brianna doesn't know yet what she wants to do with her life. But if a new education bill working its way through Florida's Legislature is passed, she could soon have some serious decisions to make.
As part of Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to reform the state's schools, an intensive study of careers would become mandatory for middle-schoolers.
"I like science and doing the experiments ... but I don't know if that's what I want to be," says the seventh-grader, who attends Ramblewood Middle School in Coral Springs.
Do children barely out of elementary school have the knowledge and experience to declare a career path? Brianna's feelings on the subject are shared by some adults, who also worry that a career curriculum would come at the expense of other activities such as music, art, and sports.
But supporters of the proposal say it gives kids a taste of the real world and encourages them to widen, not narrow, their sense of career options. Supporters also say the program demonstrates the state's commitment to middle-schoolers. And since it is believed to be the first statewide program of its kind for sixth- to eighth-graders in the United States, it could be one way of bringing educational distinction to Florida.
"No one is being made to choose a major in sixth grade, just to do some real-time learning in the real world," says Theresa Willingham, president of Learning Is for Everyone, an education-resource organization in Tampa that supports family choice in learning. "Middle-schoolers are, for the most part, too young to really commit to what they want to do for a living, if only because there's yet so much to be discovered between middle school and the college years. But life moves a lot faster now, and careers can be more academically demanding."
The career proposal comes during a challenging time for Florida schools. Of US states, Florida has the 12th-lowest spending per pupil, at $7,588 annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Only two states, Nevada and Georgia, fare worse than its 59 percent high school graduation rate.
As part of an effort to improve the system, Governor Bush (R) appointed a high school reform task force. It recommended that middle-schoolers take a minimum nine-week course in career education before stepping up to high school. Each student would also have to develop an academic and career plan for the next five years.
"We're looking to ... better prepare students for the future and for postsecondary education," Bush said earlier this year in a lecture at Stanford University in California. "The goal is for students to graduate knowing what they want to do with their lives."
Responding to such ideas, House lawmakers in Tallahassee have approved a bill that would, among other measures, require middle-schoolers to take a full year of career studies. And the Florida Senate is now mulling legislation that would require students to complete a half year of career study by seventh grade.
"What's unique is that the state is trying to create a system with a lot more rigor in its middle schools. It's about trying to give parents good schools for their kids," says Jeanne Allen, founder and president of the Center for Education Reform, an organization in Washington advocating accountability and higher standards. "We underestimate the ability of teenagers and our high school students to know what they like, what they're good at, and what they excel at."
Other states, including Mississippi, Oklahoma, and the Carolinas, offer less formal career "exploration" programs. But Florida is believed to be the first to propose specific classroom time for middle-schoolers.
From one teacher's vantage point, Florida would be better off without such an experiment. "I've taught in middle schools for 21 years, and few to none of my students have ever come to me to talk about a particular career. At that age, they just want to learn and absorb," says Richard Cantlupe, who teaches at Westglades Middle School in Parkland.
Mr. Cantlupe notes that he worked at another middle school in Broward County that introduced careers as an elective. "It failed miserably," he says. "The kids hated it."
For others, the foremost concern is that a compulsory career curriculum will shove out other beneficial classes. "Giving children exposure to those areas in middle school is a very good idea, but where it derails is in its emphasis," says Shelley Vana (D) of Palm Beach, a member of the House Education Appropriations Committee.
"This is not going to allow students to also have exposure to arts, music, and physical education, which, at a time of growing concerns over our children's health, is not a good thing," she says.
For many parents, though, the issue comes down to one simple fact: Their kids are still young. For Kevin Cunningham, father of Brianna, middle school is too early for career decisions. And it's not just Brianna he's thinking about: Daughter Meaghan will be in sixth grade next fall.
"It's good if it gives them exposure to occupations and a greater range of career options," says Mr. Cunningham. "But my daughters both think this is too early to be deciding anything."