Is High School a Sorting Hat?

Photo courtesy of Qwirksilver, aka Kristine,
via a CreativeCommons license.

What courses should one take in high school, and why?

When speaking with academically focused rising juniors and seniors about course selection, I feel that I have to share with them the perspective that many years of working on “the other side of the desk” has given me. Highly selective colleges will look for them to have completed four years of each of the five academic “solids.” (English, science, math, history, and language.) These same colleges may place a greater value on AP Calculus than on AP Statistics. On balance, students applying in very selective circumstances may stand a better chance if they take Physics as a senior than that fourth year of Ceramics which meets during the same class period.

Many of the admissions offices at selective colleges in the US are overrun with applications. Many if not most of those applications come from students who are absolutely qualified to do the work. So it’s understandable when colleges express their desire to matriculate a class full of students who have shown a willingness to take on challenge and a desire to have a positive impact on their communities.

What’s problematic is the rush to a “one schedule fits all” mindset. Colleges see AP Calculus as being a more challenging course than AP Statistics, and so students are encouraged to take the former, even when the latter might be a better fit for their current interests or long-term goals. Students join clubs they have no real interest in because they’ve been told that colleges care about that.

What can we can do, in high schools, to move our schools beyond the role of sorting hat? What kinds of outcomes can we aspire to, beyond a list of college matriculations that seem impressive to an outsider who knows nothing about the individual students involved?

What class are you most grateful for having taken in high school?

Me? I fought the powers-that-be and took typing. I had a hunch that this computer stuff was going to mean something to me.


Posted on May 13, 2008, in course selection, parents, students. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Sadly I don’t remember taking any electives. I ran the gammit of the core subjects and would have loved the chance to take something that interested me instead of hitting all the required classes to get into a competitive school. Oh well.

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