Magnets may draw students away from a brighter future

August 31, 2006|By Barnaby Wickham

It's been painful to see the steady drumbeat of news articles about how American high school students aren't measuring up to their counterparts in other parts of the world, about how high school graduate Johnny can't read, and about how colleges are offering more remedial classes to freshmen who still haven't mastered the fundamentals. How vexing it has been, then, to see the concurrent trend of an increasing specialization of high schools.

Conceived in 1968 as an alternative to forced busing, so-called magnet schools were originally meant to attract a more diverse population from a wider area to underperforming urban schools. In that regard, they have been successful.

Less clear is whether this integrated student body is being well-served by offbeat magnet specializations. You can hardly fault a rigorous magnet program in math or science - after all, these are the fundamentals. But a specialization in law (New York's H.S. 494 Magnet School of Law and Government), environmental studies (Arkansas' K-5 Langston Aerospace and Environmental Studies Magnet) or, recently announced by Maryland officials, the nation's first magnet program focused on homeland security?

Yes, Maryland has a unique role in the young and fast-growing homeland security industry, mostly because of its proximity to the Pentagon and National Security Agency. But what government entity, or independent contractor, is going to want to fill any position of import with a high school graduate? They'll look to college or graduate school graduates of relevant programs. And what do those institutes of higher learning prize most of all? A student who is well-schooled in the fundamental subjects of language, math and science.

But what about those students who aren't interested in further study, who want to immediately join the work force? In entry-level jobs, employers are more interested in a bright kid with a good attitude who can be easily trained to tackle the type of work that is unique to that employer. In other words, someone who has mastered the basics and is open to further on-the-job learning. As the hiring manager for a small custom machine builder, that's certainly what I look for.

Perhaps I'm biased. I attended a liberal arts college where a rigorous general course of study was highly prized as a means of excelling in any number of disciplines.

Where I went to high school in the late 1980s, there wasn't much opportunity to stray from the basics. The one time that I did - a Pascal computer programming language course - I was sorry. The high school format didn't allow for much in-depth study, and Pascal was soon brushed aside for more-flexible programming languages.

I've always been perplexed about how the U.S. has been able to stay atop the world's economies despite such poor testing among its school-age youths. Economists have said that it is because U.S. firms have fewer restrictions on hiring and firing, allowing companies to more rapidly respond to market forces. Equally important, then, is the ability of displaced employees to quickly become redirected into work that is of higher value to the market. Would U.S. workers be so nimble in their retraining if they had been raised in a Japanese-style system where children are tested and segregated into specialized training early on?

My 5-year-old daughter is starting kindergarten next week in a parochial school. For first grade, we're exploring sending her to a magnet school. But you can be sure of one thing: We won't send her to one that specializes in law, or the environment, or homeland security. At this point, I want to keep all of her options open.

Barnaby Wickham, a Baltimore resident, writes frequently about business, technology, real estate and manufacturing. His e-mail is

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