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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Make Up Your Mind: Does Choosing a Career Early Help, or Hinder?

Counselors debate the need to declare a major in high school.
By Star Lawrence

Remember when you were fourteen? Maybe you liked numbers better than words. Or history might have been your thing. Perhaps chemistry was your passion. But did you know whether you wanted to be an architect, a physicist, a detective, a forest ranger, or an auto mechanic?

To a growing number of educational advocates, getting students to make an early career decision may be just the ticket to focusing the wandering teen mind and keeping kids involved in school.

West Virginia, and now Florida, have decided kids need a major in high school. A dozen other states encourage students to focus their vocational training early by funneling them into special charter schools or providing certificates that allow them to work in certain occupations right out of high school.

Last June, Florida governor Jeb Bush signed a law, called the A++ Plan for Education, that requires youngsters about to enter high school to declare a major and a minor. Barbara Blackburn, a counselor at George Washington High School, in Charleston, West Virginia, says picking a major and taking the requisite courses became a graduation requirement in that state ten years ago.

These moves are designed to help students focus on the skills that industry needs and that, in turn, give them a sense of purpose. This strategy, proponents say, will cut high school dropout rates, raise test scores and, ultimately, increase graduates usefulness to employers. "Studies have shown that if students have a goal or dream, they are more likely to be successful academically," Blackburn says.

To others, it's folly. "Most students will have seven careers before they are through," says Richard Wong, executive director of the American School Counselor Association, in Alexandria, Virginia. "A majority of college grads don't even work in their major field." He further notes that most high schoolers will just cherry-pick a number of electives. "They may think, 'Video Production -- that sounds interesting' or 'Look -- Criminal Investigation.' Then they end up with a bunch of electives that do not lead to anything."

But giving the typical teen's wandering mind a little focus could yield positive results. Under the Florida law, which is not yet in effect, students can choose to major in math, science, humanities, history, social studies, arts, English, communications, foreign languages, or vocational skills.

West Virginia high schoolers choose from among six interest areas, including engineering/technology, science/natural resources, health sciences, human services, arts/humanities, and business/marketing. When they prepare to enter ninth grade, the students select either an entry-level pathway, which could result in a diploma and a certificate in a field upon graduation, or a professional pathway, which would mean more math and science in core courses, probably leading to postsecondary education. As sophomores, they pick a career cluster of classes and must take four courses in their career area to graduate.

Skeptics say strong career counseling is the most useful approach to help teenagers choose their professional path. "It's good for students to see their future and think about their financial future," says Carolyn Stone, professor of counselor education at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville. "But I fear the students may be reduced to a quick look at a series of different majors. How informed are they going to be?"

Stone prefers that students aim for the most rigorous courses, so they are prepared for anything. "They can get to commencement, and then decide on a two-year or four-year college, work, the military, or whatever they want, rather than having this stratified in the eighth grade," she says. "Why shouldn't school be a time to broaden your opportunities?"

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