A new Texas law is requiring students to choose their career paths upon entering high school, meaning they need to decide at the end of eighth grade. Is this too soon to commit to a specific discipline?
Photo credit: Christopher Futcher/ iStock/360/ Getty Images

At 13 there were a few things I knew with absolute certainty. I knew New Kids on the Block were destined to change pop history. I knew there would never be another Batman as great as Michael Keaton. I knew Milli Vanilli were vocal geniuses. And I knew that someday some man who I was completely in love with would take me on a romantic getaway to the beautiful island of Kokomo. These were hard facts, and if you tried to debate any of these points you were in for quite a discussion.

Although I was totally right about the New Kids, the rest of my "facts" were arguably the opposite. Christian Bale smoked Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. Milli Vanilli turned out to be nothing but frauds. And don't get me started on how the Beach Boys tricked us with their song about the amazing (but nonexistent) island of Kokomo — I'm still a little miffed over that one. All of these errors of judgment can be excused though because I was 13. Thirteen-year-olds aren't expected to have it all figured out. They aren't expected to be able to predict world trends decades out. Heck, they're barely able to sit in the front seat of a car with airbags. But in Texas, they are now required to decide what direction their life will take by choosing their career path before entering high school.

Personal Graduation Plans

Texas House Bill 5 went through a pretty significant revamp in June 2013, with many of the changes taking effect in the 2014-2015 school year. Most were good changes: requiring schools to offer more advanced courses in technology-related studies, reducing the number of standardized tests required to graduate and increasing the number of counselors in both middle and high school to assist with career planning. But one change has raised quite a few eyebrows as it begins implementation: the new requirements for the Personal Graduation Plan or PGP.

According to Texas Governor Rick Perry's state website, PGPs "identify educational goals," "include diagnostic information... and evaluation strategies," "include an intensive instruction program," "address participation of the student's parent or guardian" and "provide innovative methods to promote the student's advancement." PGPs aren't new to Texas. They were actually developed and signed into Texas law by Gov. Perry back in 2003, with legislative changes made in 2007. But the 2013 changes now require each student to identify within their PGP their "endorsement," or education path, prior to entering 9th grade.

Eighth grade students must now decide between taking classes in one of five categories: STEM, business and industry, public services, art and humanities or multidisciplinary studies.

Eighth grade students must now decide between taking classes in one of five categories: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), business and industry, public services, art and humanities or multidisciplinary studies (which allow the student to select courses from each endorsement). They still have their "reading and writing and 'rithmatic", but must narrow down the field for their other courses between those five endorsements, and the decision must be made prior to entering high school. That seems like a whole lot to expect of children who may not have even gone through puberty yet.

Let's add more stress to puberty, shall we?

The reasoning behind the endorsement requirement is to better prepare students for higher education or directly entering the workforce. It's a good idea in theory, but in practice seems to be causing unnecessary anxiety for an age already strife with perceived stress. Do you remember being that young? I do — just barely — and I remember how even the seemingly smallest decisions could cause me to panic. I could hardly decide what to wear each day without tears, let alone deciding my future before I was a freshman. Dorothy Isgur, an eighth grade Texas student, talked with KERA News about the stress she feels from this decision: "I have no clue what I want to do but hopefully it will come to me. It's a lot of pressure. You don't want to make a bad decision because once you're on a path you should stay on that path." Clearly Dorothy is feeling the stress associated with such a massive choice early on.

And what about the children who feel as though they've made the wrong choice? They aren't locked into their endorsement selection permanently. Change requires parental notification, then courses of study would change to reflect their new endorsement. I wonder though what kind of scheduling issues this can cause down the road. The law doesn't specify a limit to the number of times an endorsement can be switched, and I can foresee problems arising if every semester droves of kids are asking to have their classes changed from one endorsement to another.

I also worry about the kids who don't like their choice but stick with it to keep from making waves. We all know these people-pleaser types, the ones who don't want to cause any problems. And we all remember the kids in school who couldn't bring home a poor grade without retribution. What about those kids? What about the ones who really want to study arts and humanities, but have parents insistent on them studying science and technology? In most schools they would get at least one class a semester dedicated to these topics, but now it's conceivable they will get none.

Adaptation is a learned skill

Brent Latta, a career counselor at Samford University in Alabama who also works with academically at-risk students, sees the potential for long-term issues with students who focus too furiously on one educational category. "Students that aren't taught to think across disciplines aren't able to think and adapt later on. This lack of mental flexibility will actually be a detriment to the individual. I can teach someone new skills as an employer: I cannot teach someone how to adapt to a cross-functional workplace." In our constantly changing world, flexibility is an attribute most will likely need. Pigeonholing children into a category so early on doesn't seem to foster this ability — in fact it seems as though it would stifle it.

In our constantly changing world, flexibility is an attribute most will likely need. Pigeonholing children into a category so early on doesn't seem to foster this ability — in fact it seems as though it would stifle it.

While good intentions appear to be at play by not muddying up kids' educations with knowledge they may not use, what legislators seem to have forgotten is all knowledge is power. Yes, students may learn things in high school and even college that they never use again. But by exploring different subjects they learn lessons about themselves: who they are, what they like and where they want their life to go. We shouldn't take that experience away from them. Everyone deserves a chance to discover who they can be organically, and not be forced to make that decision before they can even drive.

More on teen education

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