US schools ask 14-year-olds to declare a major

Cory Doctorow:
Some US high-schools are forcing students to choose “majors” in the ninth grade. This sounds similar to the UK system, where teens take O- and A-levels and seal their post-secondary education choices at the age of 15 or 16. Maybe this works for some kids, but it would have been a disaster for me. I’ve changed “careers” every 2-3 years since graduating from an alternative school where I spent seven years inventing courses that reflected whatever I was interested in that year. Every professional thing I’ve done since then wasn’t invented when I started the previous one — if this had been around in 1988, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have offered a major in “blogging” or “writing science fiction novels” or “working on Internet standards.” In fact, the one computerized aptitude test I took in high-school recommended a career in “geriatric nutrition” — cooking meals at old folks’ homes.

For Dwight Morrow, a school that has struggled with low test scores and racial tensions for years, establishing majors is a way to make their students stay interested until graduation and stand out in the hypercompetitive college admissions process.

Some parents have welcomed the requirement, noting that a magnet school in the district already allowed some students to specialize. But other parents and some educators have criticized it as preprofessionalism run amok or a marketing gimmick.

“I thought high school was about finding what you liked to do,” said Kendall Eatman, an Englewood mother of six who was president of the Dwight Morrow student body before graduating in 1978. “I think it’s too early to be so rigid.”

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Update: Zhan sez, “As a product of the UK secondary education system, I have to say that Cory’s description of the UK A-level/GCSE (the O-level was phased out in the mid-1980s) is not really accurate. Students typically take a wide range of topics at GCSE (formerly O) level to be taken at around age 16 – the above-average state school and average private school will expect its students to take a selection of sciences, foreign languages, maths, humanities. For the A-levels (about age 17-18), students can become much more specialized, OR they can take a diverse selection from both sciences/maths and the humanities. While being more specialized gives an advantage when applying to a related specialized UK university program, there are many interdisciplinary UK university degrees which would fit a student with mixed-up/broad interests (I was one of these kids)”

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