July 16, 1997

Plan Offered for 'Majoring' in High School


NEW YORK -- To get their high school diploma, students in New York state will be required to declare a major in fields like advertising, health, or foreign languages, under a proposal by state Education Commissioner Richard Mills.

Under the proposed graduation standard, which would be the first of its kind in the country, all high school students would concentrate on one field of study linking five or six yearlong courses and internships.

The initiative, which the Board of Regents will discuss at their meeting Thursday and vote on sometime this fall, is part of the state's efforts to upgrade graduation standards. Last year, the state began requiring all students to pass a battery of college-prep regents examinations to graduate and said that it would phase out the easier competency tests now required.

"There should be a core of courses, a common core of study required of all students," Mills said in an interview Tuesday. "In addition, students should have an in-depth knowledge of something."

Supporters of the proposal include some of the city's alternative high schools, which already have curricula built around themes and require related internships.

The proposal also helps address the concerns of business leaders seeking high school graduates with workplace skills. Some education experts agreed with the commissioner that such specialization will encourage students to learn to study a subject in depth, not just gloss over it.

But other education experts were more critical. They worried whether smaller schools could offer many choices in majors and whether New York City schools, where large numbers of teachers are ill-prepared in the subjects they teach, could offer adequate programs.

"It would mean that more attention would have to be paid to teachers teaching in the field for which they received a degree," said Kathy Christie, an analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver, Colo.-based group that monitors state education policy. "If they're teaching math, they better have a degree in math."

Moreover, the new requirements could extend the time it takes many youngsters to graduate; in New York City, for instance, half of the high school students last year took more than four years to graduate.

State officials could not immediately say what portion of the state's 800,000 high school students would see their schedules radically altered under the proposal. But for most of New York City's 300,000 high school students, the proposed requirement would force them to alter their schedules by choosing a set of electives in an area of specialization. About two-thirds of the 20.5 credits required for a diploma are already determined: four years each of English and social studies, two of math, science, physical education and a semester of health. (Unlike with college, one high school credit represents a yearlong course.)

For a health major, for instance, a student at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn could do an internship at an area hospital and take a course in anatomy at a community college, as well as biology and health courses offered at the high school.

But for many college-bound students, the proposal would have little practical effect. A student aiming for MIT, for example, now ordinarily takes four or five units of math, and several Advanced Placement science courses. Under the new proposal, he could take the same classes and declare himself an engineering major. Other college-bound students might not see much change because they already take enough courses to qualify as a major in, say, English or the humanities.

In addition, thousands of students in New York City attend specialized high schools that focus on a particular field of study, like the performing arts, law or health.

The proposal is part of Mills' initiative to spell out the state's tougher high school graduation requirements, which are being phased in over the next several years, starting with the class of 2000. All high school students will have to pass five regents exams -- in English, math, American history, global studies and science. But Mills has proposed creating several tiers of diplomas.

As a temporary safety net for the state's most vulnerable students, the commissioner has proposed that special education students be granted a diploma if they pass the competency tests, but fail the regents exams. The state will evaluate how well special education students perform on the regents exams and decide whether to continue offering them a regular diploma.

The most severely disabled students will still be allowed to graduate with what is called an individual education program diploma.

Those who score above 85 on eight regents exams will earn a regents diploma with honors, while those who earn high marks in their area of concentration will be awarded a regents diploma "with distinction."

Of the 162,760 students statewide who graduated from high school in June 1996, nearly 40 percent earned a regents diploma. About 2 percent graduated with an individual education program diploma, and the rest earned a local diploma. In New York City, however, fewer than 20 percent of students graduated with a regents diploma.

State officials said most students have the time to concentrate on a particular field of study. Most high-achieving students in the state already take up to seven classes a year. And Mills said that while he recognized that the tougher graduation requirements would be difficult for many students, he did not believe students would leave school.

"I do not, and never have, feared the dropout issue," he said. After all, he added, when New York City began requiring that all students take three years of regents-level math courses several years ago, the dropout rate did not rise. "It's very hard for them. But they're learning math."

Heather Lewis, the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, which has helped establish 23 alternative high schools across the city, praised the proposal for allowing students to choose their area of concentration. Most students at the center's schools are required to perform community service and integrate that experience into their classwork.

"What we want is for the state to set the standards, to specify the core general areas of learning that students should be proficient in," she said. "And also, we support the concept of having more flexibility and more student choice driving what students do."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company