Every few years a new fad sweeps through the public schools. There's been self-esteem, new math, whole language, New Age, outcome-based education, school-to-work, mental health screening, school-based clinics, global education, diversity, multiculturalism, and early childhood education.
The newest public school fad was announced last week on the front page of the New York Times, so educators must be taking it seriously. If it hasn't come to your town yet, no doubt it will come soon.
Freshmen at Dwight Morrow High School in New Jersey, starting this fall, must declare a major, and they must take at least one course in that subject every trimester for four years. The major will be noted on their diplomas.
How many teens between the ages of 14 and 18 do you think ever change their minds about what they like and don't like? Let's rephrase the question: Do you know any teenagers who don't frequently change their minds?
Most teens have a hard time deciding what to wear, what to eat, and with whom they will go to the prom. Most students probably haven't selected their lifetime career when they start college.
But at Dwight Morrow, those who change their minds are out of luck. If they find they don't like their original choice, they can't change unless they produce a "compelling reason," but even that might not be sufficient.
In preparation for this "choose major" plan, students were asked to write essays about what they wanted to specialize in. The most popular subject chosen was sports management.
The Times quoted a girl named Akelia who at 14 declared she wanted to be a lawyer, but after two years realized how much work she would have to put in studying "boring" cases, so she tried to switch to computers. Alas, she found she was locked into her major and prohibited from changing.
Don't worry about students' difficulty in making a decision. They will be assisted by a school guidance counselor whose task is to map out a six-year career path that even includes the first year of college.
If a teen is a world-class genius like Michelangelo, it could be a good thing to get started developing his talent early. But most of us are not Michelangelos, and we can't count on the "choose major" experiment to produce modern Michelangelos.
Most teens are not ready to lock into a lifetime career so early; they need to explore and investigate options and opportunities. Anyway, there are magnet schools for those who are ready for specialization.
Some jobs students choose today might not be available when they graduate, and other jobs could become available four years hence that don't exist today.
It is customary for educators to initiate their new fads in poorer schools where they feel they have a better chance to con parents and students into believing that they are getting the most modern improvements in education. The Dwight Morrow classrooms are ridiculously labeled "Harvard, Yale and Rutgers." Dwight Morrow is a high school with low test scores and racial tensions. Three-quarters of the student body is black or Hispanic, and 60 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.
This "choose major" fad seems to have spread nationwide under the radar without prior publicity. Apparently, hundreds of high schools now require students to specialize, but most are not so rigid as to require a major.
Florida requires every ninth-grader to major in one of some 400 state-approved subjects ranging from world cultures to fashion design. South Carolina requires students to designate one of 16 career clusters from agriculture to architecture.
Mississippi has a pilot program to have ninth-graders choose one of seven career paths from construction to technology.
Like any new school fad, "choose major" of course requires more taxpayer funding. The New Jersey district has hired five new teachers, and set up advisory boards for each track that include performing artists, doctors, and lawyers.
Public schools should teach all first-graders to read by the time-tested phonics system, and teach all schoolchildren to know and use the fundamentals of arithmetic by the end of the third grade. This would end the shocking epidemic of illiteracy that now permits students to get into high school and even graduate without being able to read, write or calculate change at the grocery store.
Choosing a major won't solve the problem of high school dropouts who can't read, write, add, subtract, multiply, or divide. Public schools will remain a national embarrassment unless and until the fundamentals are taught in elementary classes.