Some advice I remember from when I was little was “the earlier you can decide what you want to do, the better off you’ll be.” Despite this, I certainly didn’t know what I was going to do in high school. I was slow in declaring my major in college. I dabbled in philosophy, and took a survey of world religions, took a poetry class, economics, psychology, art, music – I squeezed in as many different intro courses as I could in my four years of while fulfilling my biology major. This wasn’t because I was “drifting” – I enjoyed the luxury this slim time period in my life allowed me: to explore all sorts of topics I didn’t know much about.
As my daughter approaches middle school, I’ve recently looked out of our elementary school bubble to discover and start realizing the impact of a secondary school reform effort our very large county school system is currently undertaking of its public high schools. The idea is that by the time my daughter is a high school freshman she will choose from one of 11 different “academies” housed in our regional cluster of four high schools. Her choice will determine which high school she will attend. The academies each impart a (very) specialized learning focus: environmental sciences; law and public service; information technology; performing arts; architecture and design; hospitality and tourism; health and biomedical studies; transportation technologies(!); global studies are among the options. (The 11 topics apparently were designed in part by polling students of their career interests over the last couple years). Every student will attend the academy of his/her choice, provided there is space in the lottery system. The stated goal of this reform is to get kids interested in going to school, reduce the dropout rate and “graduate 100% of students college and career ready” by exciting them in a specific, personalized experience with opportunities for real-world experiences (internships, etc.) In the process, each academy will “impact the ability for students to explore other electives” (quoted from the school board’s reform description).
To me this approach, especially for 14-18 year olds, seems sadly utilitarian: to narrow down the experience of kids to one possible career-focused curriculum, rather than appealing to general curiosity and exploration of the world. How does a ninth grader, so new to the world, choose a career-related academy? Reducing intellectual scope runs counter to every approach I have taken to excite my kids with general curiosity and exploration of the world.
Our school system is not initiating this reform in isolation. Specifically, it cites recent reform in Dade county, Florida schools. Is this the beginning of a new trend in secondary education? Do you, readers, have experience with this idea? Will it inspire students? Across the spectrum, or will it benefit some more than others? Will the shift in emphasis from general curiosity detract from intellectualism, critical thought, diverse problem solving in high schools or squelch academic freedom? Or is it an educational gimmick that won’t make much difference? Does this kind of shift speak to students in college found “academically adrift” in college? (see Scott Jaschik’s report  on this, and Libby Gruner’s commentary )