Education

High School Majors Help Some States Cut Dropout Rate

Requiring freshman to “specialize” in particular subjects helped Florida significantly increase its graduation rate and decrease its dropout rate. Georgia is hoping for similar results.
by | August 2012

In 2007, Florida graduated 70 percent of its high school students. Four years later, the state’s graduation rate increased 10 percent and the dropout rate decreased. Aside from the portion of Floridians walking around with diplomas, what changed in the interim? In fall 2007, the Sunshine State started requiring freshmen to choose a major of interest -- an area of study that they hoped would help them in a career down the road.

Florida’s decision to require students to “specialize” in a particular subject came on the heels of a nationwide trend in individual high schools and districts. Florida was among the first to require high school majors statewide. While somewhat controversial, the move has proved successful at getting students to leave high school the right way -- as a graduate rather than a dropout.

Schools push and sometimes require students to pick concentrations upon entering high school with the hope that it will increase the graduation rate and decrease the dropout rate by making their educational experience more relevant to their interests and life after high school. Students’ common complaint that school is boring and that they’ll never use what they learn as an adult isn’t a new one -- but states are finally trying to address it.

South Carolina started offering “career pathways” in 2005; Mississippi tested the idea in 2007; and next fall, Georgia will follow Florida’s lead and start requiring ninth-graders to choose what it’s calling “career clusters.”

States’ motivation for these programs isn’t just about graduation rates. They also hope to educate and train enough students in certain subjects to close the gap between the number of jobs available in a particular industry and the number of qualified job seekers. In Georgia, for example, Tricia Pridemore, director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development, says the state is in desperate need of skilled workers in manufacturing, carpentry and telecommunications. While students are free to choose whatever career cluster they want, state officials hope that preparing students for careers early on will fill at least some of the positions in demand.

In South Carolina, the top three most popular pathways are science, technology, engineering and math; health science; and arts, audio/visual technology and communications, according to Jay W. Ragley, the legislative and public affairs director for the state education department. South Carolina offers 16 pathways -- ranging from agriculture to public administration to marketing -- each of which breaks into more concentrations. Georgia will offer the same 16 pathways, but has added energy as its own cluster. The state is working with municipalities and utilities to offer students a hands-on learning experience, says David Turner, the state’s director of career, technical and agricultural education.

In Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, certain clusters, such as nursing and automotives, allow students who complete the program to walk away from high school with an official trade certification in addition to their diploma.

Majors of interest, clusters, pathways -- whatever a state chooses to call them -- should not, however, be confused with traditional college majors. The number of classes that states typically require students to take in their specialization comes nowhere near the number of classes required for college majors. In most cases, states are simply adding structure to electives -- the classes that students get to choose. In Florida, for example, students must take four classes toward their major of interest -- one each year, according to Mary Jane Tappen, the state’s K-12 deputy chancellor, and the same goes for South Carolina. But in Georgia, the state is only requiring students to pass three cluster classes throughout their four years.

Concerns have been raised that high school majors could keep students from graduating within four years if they decide to switch to a different area of interest. It’s not uncommon for college students to take longer to finish after changing majors. But Florida’s Tappen says, so far, that hasn’t happened.

“Adults felt students would continuously change their mind and want to change [their specialization] every year,” she says, “but we found that was not a problem.”

Georgia officials don’t expect students to hop from one pathway to another, either. “[Still], we have to get away from the idea that everything happens in four years,” says Matt Cardoza, the communications director for the state’s Department of Education.

However, schools do whatever they can to make sure students can take the cluster classes they want and need to graduate. In Georgia, Turner says this may mean offering cluster classes online, especially for rural school districts where they may not have teachers for all 17 clusters. In Florida, Tappen says this meant hiring additional teachers, and in some cases, reassigning teachers to instruct different classes.

The idea has generally been supported by teachers. “There are still pockets of resistance to it,” says South Carolina’s Ragley, “but those pockets get smaller and smaller every year as parents, students and teachers see the importance of this.”

In South Carolina, the Legislature appropriated $21 million from the state’s general fund to hire career specialists in every public high school. These faculty members -- rather than teachers -- shoulder the burden of working with students to select and complete their pathways. In Florida, the cost, if any, of implementing the program fell to the individual districts and schools. (The state, however, ended the program last spring when it adopted increased career and technology core requirements.) Georgia has provided no additional funding for the program and plans to use its existing staff to manage it. Turner says that most teachers are excited about it, but according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some worry that it may take away from their classroom duties.

Students, overall, have also been enthusiastic about high school majors, and in many cases, more engaged in their cluster classes than any other, according to state officials. Even in South Carolina, where students aren’t required to choose pathways, most do, says Ragley. “It’s become part of the school culture.”

And it’s paying off. The improved graduation and dropout rates aren’t as drastic in South Carolina as in Florida, but they’re heading in the right directions. In the three years after the state started allowing students to pick concentrations, the dropout rate has declined, while the graduation rate has remained steady.

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