Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gettin' Educated

I am a big believer in the transformative power of a good education in someone's life. I'm also a big believer that our public schools are a good idea in theory, but could definitely use some tweaking in practice. Thus, I found the following idea from Florida interesting, even if it did come from the Worst President Ever's brother.

From CNN via the commie liberals at Democratic Underground:

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (AP) -- Lila and Andrew Zoghbi are bored five days a week in classes at Chiles High School.

It's not that they are slackers. In fact, they are honor students with high ambitions. Lila, 15, plans to be an engineer, and her brother, 17, wants to design video games. The problem, they say, is that school is not giving them the career preparation they want...


Students like the Zoghbis would get an education more tailored to their career plans under a proposal from Gov. Jeb Bush that education experts say would make Florida the first state to require incoming high school freshmen to declare a major, just like college students.

Bush said the plan would help prepare students better for the real world and reduce the dropout rate by making school more interesting. Last year, nearly 3 percent of Florida's 800,000 high school students dropped out...


Some educators support the plan, while others fear it will deprive students of a broad liberal arts education and put even more pressure on young people...

While I'm as skeptical as anyone ought to be about any education policy from the Republican party (No Child Left Behind, anyone?) but this largely seems like a good idea to me. I certainly don't agree with some of Bush's justifications, which revolve largely around the building of a more educated workforce. While I think having educated workers in our society is a good thing, I also think making work training the primary focus of education sucks some of the life out of what can be a life-affirming experience.

I am one of those for whom the professor behind the lectern classroom model is not ideal. I spent a good deal of my youth being bored out of my gourd at school, which was reflected in my, shall we say "less than stellar" grades at times. I was actually fortunate in that my school annexed with another neighboring school prior to my high school years, and I was able to get a fresh start at a new school. I'm betting it doesn't work out so well for many others, but it was a gift to me.

However, for all that high school turned out reasonably well for me, I think it would have been much improved by a program like the one in Florida. A love of learning is often a difficult thing to cultivate in kids and I think a more focused education could really help capture the attention of many young people who would otherwise tune out in their teen-aged years. A student whose interests and talents lie more towards the fine arts is probably wasting their time learning the quadratic equation and the Laws of Thermodynamics. Conversely, a person like myself, who went on to work in the financial industry, would have benefited greatly from a focus on business and finance in high school. Finally, not every high school student is going on to college, nor should they need to, and our education system should be better able to accommodate student interest outside of mainstream academia. I firmly believe in the nobility of academics, but I also believe that most people are not going to have a career as professors or philosophers. To a certain extent, I suppose this sentiment does cleave too close to the Republican belief that schools should be worker production factories and little, if anything, more. That criticism may be valid, though I say in my defense that, as a solidly middle class working American, I recognize the need to balance a certain degree of pragmatism with my idealism. You may not agree, of course...

The biggest criticism I've seen of this plan so far, and there was plenty of it in the DU comments, is that high school freshman just aren't ready to make such important decisions. Hell, the thinking goes, even college freshman have a difficult time picking a major. While this is sometimes true, I think it's a problem reflective of our current educational system, not the students within it. Many young students do, in fact, know what they'd like to do professionally, or at least have some idea of the sorts of things they'd like to study. It's insulting to our young people to make a blanket judgment of their inadequacy. I firmly believe that we get from our young people the kind of behavior we largely expect from them. If we expect that our children will be mature enough to make such decisions, then perhaps our expectations will help give them the confidence they need to make the choice that works for them. Even if they choose a major that turns out to be a mistake, that's good as well. Part of knowing what interests you is knowing what doesn't. At the end of the day, they've still learned a little something about themselves and may have perhaps avoided heading into a career path the doesn't suit them. Any knowledge is a good thing, even if it takes a disastrous semester of Computer Science to realize one was meant to star on Broadway.

I really think this sort of program has the potential for some great rewards. If nothing else, it could help make kids more interested in school and learning, which pays dividends for the rest of their lives. Yes, it will have its difficulties and, certainly, it will not suit every student. No blanket institution ever works for everyone, including the education system we have now. But I have to believe that a high school curriculum that allows students to choose areas of study closer to their own interests is a good idea.

So, how wrong am I?

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