I have a 9th grader and a 12th grader this year, which has made me think a lot more about how high schools prepare students for college, at least in my district.
My 12th grader took a career aptitude test back in junior high, the results of which were used to place him on a specific high school track for Arts & Communication. He has taken classes in drawing and computer graphic design as electives on top of the traditional math, English, science, social studies, and two years of foreign language that taught him absolutely no Spanish, despite the good grades he received. He passed all his TAKS tests for graduation. Yet he doesn’t know what he wants “to do” in life. He has done the college prep work, yet he doesn’t know what he would study in college and doesn’t want to go until he has some idea about his major.
My 9th grader is on the new 4×4 plan in Texas, where she will take 4 years of English, math, science, and social studies, all with an associated high-stakes end-of-course STAAR exam. This will prepare her for the core curriculum at a public college or university, if she doesn’t get some classes done via dual credit before she graduates, but how do these subjects help her pick a major unless she wants to major in English, math, science, or history? Right now, she has no clue about her future career path.
Choosing a major early in your college career is key to graduating in four years, particularly in fields like nursing, engineering, and other STEM areas. You can work on the core curriculum, but often there are freshman and sophomore level courses in the major that need to be taken as well. For example, in my own department, a Communication major really needs to take freshman composition, speech, and mass communications during his/her first year to have the right prerequisites to move forward. Yes, students can make up lost time with summer school and careful scheduling, but what if high school offered more chances to explore more career fields?
Part of the answer may be the trend of supplemental online courses. Rather than hire someone to teach criminal justice or public relations or agricultural economics, especially when only a handful of students may be interested in these fields, schools can sign on to distance learning programs. Recently I read an article about the online education boom in Ohio, where upwards of 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools, academies, or classes. As the piece notes, distance learning “allows others to move at their own speed or to take specialized classes that bricks-and-mortar schools don’t offer.”
How nice would it be for the student who thinks he wants to be a social worker to take a social work class as part of his high school requirements? It may solidify his resolve or help him realize, before he even applies to college, that he needs a different career field. A future engineer who doesn’t realize just how much math is required could figure that out at age 17 and work on her math skills before she hits her first electrical engineering college seminar.
Schools could pool their intellectual resources, with teachers earning professional development credit for designing and running online courses in their areas of expertise (and generating publicity / prestige for their local high schools). Students would meet people from all around the state, if not the country and world.
Texas requires 4-5 elective credits, which works out to 8-10 semester-length courses, for high school graduation. I’d really like to see these targeted towards career preparation and college major selection, with a much broader list of options for students, thanks to online learning.