States Allow High Schoolers to Choose Majors, Coursework

Published September 1, 2006

Education officials in Florida and Mississippi are overhauling their approach to secondary education, allowing high school students to choose a major and giving students more choice in what classes they take.

In May, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) signed into law a measure permitting high school students to declare majors starting in 2007. In Mississippi, the state superintendent is pushing a five-year, $115 million plan, to be fully implemented by 2008, to allow high school students to design their course schedules to support their career interests. That plan still needs legislative approval.

Educators emphasize they’re not necessarily abandoning traditional secondary education methods entirely–students are permitted to change their majors without fear of losing their high school diplomas.

Empowering Students

Low graduation rates and high dropout rates, combined with the pace of technological change and international competition for jobs, are causing state educators to reinvent both the way they teach and what they’re teaching.

“If you look at kids going through 13 years of education, oftentimes there’s a lack of focus on what they want to do,” said Cheri Pierson Yecke, Florida’s chancellor of K-12 education. “You never want to [trap] a child. You want to make sure all doors are open.”

To do that, Florida is putting the decision-making power, at least in part, back in students’ hands. Beginning with the incoming freshman class in the 2007-08 school year, four of the 24 credits required to graduate from high school will be elective courses or a “major” that relates to a specific subject.

The goal is to help students identify their likes and dislikes. For example, if a student wants to be a veterinarian, Yecke said, he or she could sign up for extra science classes.

Discovering Interests

“Isn’t it better to find out [your interests] in high school than when you’re a junior in college, where you’re paying for your credits and you’ve invested three years of your life?” Yecke said. “As adults, we do students a disservice if we allow them to wander aimlessly through 13 years of school.”

The school system will not penalize or withhold diplomas from students who decide to change their majors, Yecke said. And students are still required to pass 16 general education credits. “Those are absolutely key,” she said.

For Mississippi Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, changing the way students learn is essential because of its dismal dropout rate. “Forty percent of our kids don’t graduate,” Bounds said.

To address that concern, Bounds has submitted to Mississippi’s state legislature an ambitious proposal that would allow students to design their own curricula, starting in 2008. Though the $115 million plan would take five years to implement, state legislators and the governor support it.

“It’s just a matter of funding now,” Bounds said.

Looking Ahead

In formulating the plan, Bounds said he and other educators examined the schools’ technology preparatory courses and found they were outdated.

“We looked at what the job market will look like 10 or 15 years down the road,” Bounds said. “Tech prep [from] the early ’90s is not necessarily what’s needed in 2006 and beyond. Most of the middle-school students these days know more about the Web than you or me.

“My 5-year-old can get on the computer and surf the Web,” Bounds said.

Partnering with Industry

Bounds’ plan focuses on seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders. In the seventh grade, students would be taught how to use technology for problem-solving. Eighth-graders would learn how to take online courses, while ninth-graders would work on self-directed projects, the parameters of which have not been set, Bounds said.

“We want to help students understand what various employment opportunity needs will be in terms of technology usage,” Bounds said.

The plan emphasizes strong academic counseling and significant parental involvement.

For career counseling, Bounds said the state is revamping high school career centers statewide and expanding their hours of operation. The state’s 50 vocational skills courses are also being boiled down to 20.

Bounds is hoping to partner with as many industries as possible in formulating a curriculum.

“We’re working with these industries to develop online courses,” Bounds explained. “Schools will be able to use that content, and industry will be able to use it to retrain their workforce online.”

Mat Herron ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Kentucky.