College & Workforce Readiness

Picking a Major: Good or Bad Idea?

By Kevin Bushweller — September 07, 2007 5 min read
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A growing number of schools across the country are asking or requiring students to pick an academic major or specialty before they enter high school. Seems a bit premature for most kids, who probably do not have a clue what career they want to pursue. My oldest son, for one, picked engineering as his concentration.

Still, if picking a major gets students more interested in coming to school and paying attention, then it’s an idea worth considering. The Seattle Public Schools blog addressed this issue in a recent post.

What do you think? Should high schools have incoming freshmen pick their academic majors? What problems might occur with such efforts?

For a little more context on the issue, read the Associated Press story on the extended part of this entry. It comes from a new AP wire service Education Week is using.

New question for high school students: What’s your major?
Associated Press Writer

Picking a major can be a conundrum for college students. Imagine posing the question to students who are barely into their teens.

Well, for incoming ninth-graders at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood like Indee Jones, being asked to choose a major at such a young age is an adventure.

“It’s so much fun that we can pick something that I have interest in when I get older,” the performing arts major said the before scurrying off to cheerleading practice last week.

Her school is perhaps the first comprehensive public high school in New Jersey and one of a growing list of schools nationally that require all high school students to choose majors or concentrations.

“It offers them a relevance and a focus that does not come with comprehensive education,” said Michael A. Polizzi, an assistant superintendent in the district near New York City. “It provides them with a great opportunity to tap into their interests and aptitudes over a four-year period.”

The school, where more than 90 percent of the students are black or Latino, has not performed as well as its more affluent neighbors.

But one program at the school has been strong: a five-year-old magnet school called the Academies@Englewood. Students must apply to be accepted there, and come from all around Bergen County for five specialized programs in areas such as finance and pre-engineering design.

Some parents complained that other students in the school were not getting as good an education as the magnet school students.

The majors are part of the school’s retooled curriculum designed to change that reduce that gap.

Incoming freshmen are required to pick a major from among sports management, fine and performing arts, health sciences, international studies and global commerce, communications and new media, and liberal arts.

“Can our 13-year-old kids be capable of making a responsible decision about the path that they’re taking in high school?” Polizzi asked.

Parents may have doubts, he said, but students say they can. But Polizzi said it’s important for the students to understand what’s involved in the path they choose. For instance, he said, sports management is not basketball practice, but rather an interdisciplinary program that touches on subjects from ethics to finance.

As the school’s new curriculum is designed, most students will take one class each semester in 9th and 10th grade for their major, then more classes their last two years. All students will still have to meet state requirements for math, English, science, world languages and other subjects.

Polizzi hopes students will be more focused, and that will translate into higher standardized test scores, lower dropout rates and more college acceptance letters.

And students still have an opportunity to take elective classes outside their majors, he said.

Jones, 14, said she chose performing arts because she wants to act. This semester, she’ll be in a theater class; in the spring, it will be dance.

Initially, her parents would have preferred another major. “I did a lot of persuading,” she said.

In New Jersey, there are several vocational schools, academies, performing arts schools and others that require students to specialize. But officials at the state Education Department and the New Jersey School Boards Association say they have not heard of traditional schools other than Englewood that ask students to choose majors.

That could change soon.

In New Jersey, like many states, there’s a push to remake high schools. One objective is to break up big schools where students can easily get lost in the shuffle into cozier schools within schools, where teachers and students might be able to develop stronger relationships.

Organizing students around majors is one way to do that.

And across the country, more students are being asked to decide early on what they will study in high school.

Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver, said Arkansas, Delaware, West Virginia, Florida, Indiana, Michigan and South Carolina now require or are planning to require high schoolers to choose concentrations, career pathways or majors.

What that means varies from state to state.

For instance, Florida students can pick from among about 400 specific majors, while students in West Virginia select a “pathway": professional, with additional math, science and language requirements; skilled, which involves a concentration; or entry, which requires a concentration, but fewer classes.

Dounay said it’s too early to know for sure whether the programs are working but said there are encouraging signs. Without concentrations, she said, students “had no idea why they had to take these courses, what meaning there was to them.”

But there are critics of the concept.

Debra Humphreys, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said what students really need is more academic rigor, not specific concentration for jobs whose skill requirements are likely to change.

“It just sends the wrong message to ninth graders that somehow they can choose digital media in the ninth grade and that will prepare them for a career,” she said. “I think it’s giving them a false sense of security.”

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.