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Schools

Pick a major while you're still a minor

Gov. Bush's plan to overhaul the state's education system would get students thinking about career options earlier than ever.

By LETITIA STEIN and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published February 26, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Under Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed makeover for middle and high schools, students would begin tailoring their course selections to their future career as early as sixth grade.

Tenth-graders would pick majors and minors, just like in college.

Vocational students would head to work with wallet-sized job skills certificates.

In his final months in office, Bush is aiming to overhaul a high school system some say is stuck in the 1950s. Bush calls it his "A-Plus-Plus Plan," an exclamation mark on his "A-Plus" program that transformed public education with high-stakes testing and school grades.

"Florida's a place that has the courage to change things," Bush said when he unfurled his plans this month. "Right now, high school is about lowering things down to the lowest common denominator. What we need to do is have lofty expectations."

There is little argument that today's high schools aren't working. But some fear Bush's fix could create as many problems as it solves.

Parent advocates worry the state could end up forcing children into decisions they aren't ready to make. National experts want to see proof that the reforms will bring real change, not just new labels on programs that already exist.

"If you take the old teaching practices and put them in a new structure, you will not see a dramatic improvement in student performance," said Bill Daggett, a leading consultant on high school reform.

* * *

The case for change is clear: Nearly one in three Florida students fails to graduate high school in four years. State reading tests show a downward spiral from elementary school, where 67 percent of students pass third grade assessments, to 10th grade, where only 32 percent pass.

Bush would begin making changes in sixth grade.

Choosing a career path would start in middle school, where students would be encouraged to identify areas of interest and pick classes that reflect future goals.

That would mean big decisions for students like Joe Taylor, a sixth-grader at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg. The 12-year-old thinks he would like to be a lawyer or businessman when he grows up. But he hasn't ruled out becoming a veterinarian - or an alligator wrestler.

"One of my friends wants to be a skateboarder," said Joe, who doesn't think most of his friends know what they'll do either. "My cousin wants to be a football player."

State officials say sixth-graders won't be expected to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives. But it's too late, they say, to ask that question in high school.

Some students agree.

"In sixth grade, the future was not on my mind," said Christine Debbs, a sophomore at Chamberlain High School in Tampa. "When I got into high school, I realized college was only four years away. I needed to think about a career."

Tenth grade is when students would have to pick majors under Bush's plan.

Sample majors include college basics like humanities and advanced math and science. Students planning to head straight to work could major in "career specializations," such as culinary arts.

"It makes high school more like college," said Cheri Pierson Yecke, Florida's chancellor for kindergarten through 12th grade. "If you look across the country, nobody else is doing this."

A student would earn four credits in their major. A minor would require three credits.

Students would still have to pass 24 credits to graduate. Fifteen credits would be in core requirements, including English, math, science and social studies. Bush would require all high schoolers to take four math courses - one more than they do now.

That means a college-bound student majoring in history and minoring in a foreign language would have only two free electives during high school.

Not everyone thinks teenagers should focus so intensely.

"Sometimes it takes a student in a photography class in high school to discover their true calling," said Nancy Cox, president of the Florida Parents and Teachers Association. "We need to provide them the opportunity to develop. . . . I would hate to predetermine for a middle schooler where they are going to end up."

And in an age when many adults can expect to change careers, it's certain that children will change their minds.

Chris Oslebo, who will graduate from the medical magnet program at Palm Harbor University High in May, worked for years to secure a service academy appointment.

The 17-year-old was admitted to the summer program at West Point, but withdrew his application in December. That's when he learned he had been accepted at Stanford University.

"That changed everything," he said.

Now he's undecided on a major at Stanford.

* * *

Bush's plan reflects the new three R's of education: rigor, relevance and relationships. Those buzz words echo nationally at high school reform conferences.

While high school majors sound strange in Florida, students in some European nations pursue specialized studies at an early age. Even if they migrate to another subject, the effort teaches analytical skills valuable in any discipline, educational leaders say.

"The concept of having a child study in-depth is absolutely the right way to go," said Daggett, the consultant on high school reform.

But to work, it has to be done right.

When a school system creates different paths, it also creates the possibility of tracking students in ways that have nothing to do with their intellect or interests.

Joe DiMartino, director of secondary school redesign at the Education Alliance at Brown University, worries about an administrator steering students into majors based on race or family income. Or students self-segregating into classes with neighborhood friends.

"How do we know the humanities major isn't where all of the white kids go, and some major on auto technology isn't where the black kids go?" said DiMartino, who also works with the National High School Alliance, a partnership of nearly 50 groups trying to improve high schools.

Some officials say local high schools already are doing much of what is being proposed. They're just not using major-minor monikers. In recent years, Hillsborough and Pinellas schools have created smaller learning communities where students focus on career interests such as engineering or hospitality.

At Chamberlain High, senior Seth Parsons discovered his life's calling last year in a 4-year-old program preparing students for culinary careers.

"As a 10th-grader, I was thinking about sports medicine," said Parsons, 18. "My mind-set was, "I'm always going to have fun.' I didn't know anything about the career."

Now he has his sights set on owning his own restaurant.

Another feature of Bush's proposal would require differences in course loads to be noted on diplomas. This year, Hillsborough will debut diplomas that recognize whether students took advanced placement courses.

"I don't see it as a huge change," Michael Grego, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said of the proposed reforms. "I see it as a refinement of our high school program that we're constantly examining."

The majors and minors build on the four-year plans that Pinellas high school students are asked to develop. But Cathy Fleeger, assistant superintendent for secondary and work force education, is watching closely the distribution of credits.

Bush's plan lets students decide how to meet a half-credit required in physical education. Florida students currently need a full credit in P.E., including a health class.

"They are in those formative years, when we have to care very much about sexually transmitted diseases and having students have knowledge about the effects of drugs and alcohol," Fleeger said. "I do have fear (an elective) like that won't be chosen."

Republican leaders are gushing about the broad outlines of Bush's plan, which includes an increased emphasis on work force education. Students headed directly to work could be assessed on their job skills and receive a special credential to show to prospective employers.

Bush wants to spend $12-million on middle- and high-school reform. He would provide an additional $8-million on a bevy of related programs, including professional development for school principals. Work force certification would get $50-million over several years.

Democratic lawmakers are raising concerns - but lack the votes to do more.

House Democrats want to stop using a high-stakes test to grade schools, the hallmark of Bush's education efforts. On his way out of office, the Republican governor is urging lawmakers to stand firm on that policy - and grow his legacy in middle and high schools.

"We should not step back," Bush said. "We should always go forward."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Here's what would change under Gov. Bush's school reform plan:

High school students would pick college-style majors and minors.

Choosing a career path would begin in middle school.

Math becomes more important. High schoolers would need an extra math credit to graduate.

[Last modified February 26, 2006, 01:50:15]


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