Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Electives in school — essential or entertaining?

You crunch equations in math class, test hypotheses in science class, read Shakespeare in language arts and explore historical documents in social studies. These core subjects have and continue to be the pillars of education. They are mandatory and high stakes tests revolve around most of them.

But after fifth grade, there are courses that students are asked to choose. In the world of academics it’s like choosing a flavor of ice cream. Classes like theater, world language, coding, wood shop, personal finance, creative writing and photography pique interest and stir inner passions.

These are known as elective classes — and they are dangling from a thin budgetary-constricted lifeline.

What is an elective course?

When I was in junior high — now affectionately referred to as middle school — we had two different elective classes each day. I took Home Economics, where I learned to sew dresses from patterns and how to make a wicked French toast. I took typing, which sure did come in handy when personal computers came along. The boys learned to use power tools in wood shop and how to change the oil in a car. They were life lessons, and they were given in school.

Most kids today would scoff at the idea of sewing a dress or changing a flat tire — they don’t know how.

Electives are thought to be interesting and don’t require a lot of homework. But in reality, elective courses are much more than fun-filled schedule stuffers. If offered correctly, elective classes can be game changers for many kids. Reading, math and science aren’t for everyone — and we need to realize that.

Choosing electives

In her article “Tips for choosing electives in middle school,” Andrea Stetson says that kids should try out new things, especially while in middle school. Where parents often dissuade kids from taking certain classes like art or music because they won’t like it or won’t be good at it, the decision should be left to the kids. Taking band in middle school could scaffold to being a member of the marching band in high school.

As a general rule students should maintain a well-rounded, sustainable, yet challenging schedule.

Marybeth Kravets, college consultant and former National Association for College Admission Counseling president, says that colleges look for the core curriculum, but they also like to see breadth and depth in the overall high school experience.

When electives such as art, fine art, music, journalism, computer programming or business can provide an interdisciplinary overlap with more traditional courses, it creates a richer learning experience while helping to break up rigorous schedules.

Preparing for college takes hard work and dedication. Electives provide your child a chance to show flair and develop interests and abilities. The school’s guidance counselor can help your child prepare for college by mapping out a challenging core curriculum and an enriching selection of electives.

Impact of the federal initiatives

Cuts to the arts and P.E. have been a nationwide phenomenon over the last two decades, dramatized in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus and have spawned VH1’s Save the Music Foundation and the Ford Foundation’s KeepArtsinSchools.org website.

Historically, high schools have always offered a rich diversity of electives. But a change in budgets and academic values turned everything around. The first cuts to elective/enrichment courses came back in the late 1970s and ’80s under a back-to-basics movement. More were eliminated after the No Child Left Behind law in 2001, to focus on bringing all students up to minimum federal and state standards. With the rise of the Common Core State Standards, the debate continues as to what courses students should be required to take and when.

Impact of electives

In addition to empowering practical skills, electives can help students find hidden talents or passions. In fact, several studies show that students are more likely to get a degree or major in a course they took as an elective. Electives offer options that allow individuals to seek out interests. Being able to choose a class is huge, and this tends to keep kids motivated to learn.

Cutting electives does not motivate the students who are least likely to pass a state test. In fact, the classes like music, shop and art are the academic breaks in an otherwise bleak day — the very extras that keep them showing up. And if students don’t show up, how will they improve in reading or math?

In her article “Making the grade: importance of electives,” Whitney Dorband says that these classes can fortify the rote skills learned in the core subject areas. The visual arts help strengthen visual learners, music strengthens oral learners, and P.E. strengthens kinetic learners. Compiled SAT data showed that students with academic experience in music scored higher both in math and verbal. Piano keyboard training boosted math scores.

Elective courses have helped students socially and behaviorally as well. The World Music Central and the Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse shared how secondary students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of all substances.

Teacher’s perspective

According to Education Week’s Ernie Rambo in “Why Electives Matter,” those who teach electives tend to have more freedom to plan for creative projects.

Teachers of electives play an important role in creating cutting-edge course work and objectives. They are charged with having a unique set of skills and expertise (auto mechanics, carpentry, marketing and finance, media production, sewing, architecture, etc.). They must be able to effectively parlay these skills to their students — while having eyes in back of their heads — to create an enriched environment where students learn to cultivate skill sets of their own. One of the challenges of offering enriching electives is finding teachers who have the specialized skill sets to teach them. We need talented teachers to offer great electives.

Money, money

Grace Chen, in her Public School Review article “Decreasing Public High School Elective Programs,” shows how vulnerable electives are. When budgets are cut, electives are the first to go. This not only stimulates a loss in opportunities for students, but it also stimulates a loss in jobs for teachers across the country.

To understand why some schools drop specific programs, it is necessary to understand how schools are funded. Expenditures on schooling are not equal from state to state. The disparity is affected by differing costs of educational input and costs related to real estate and teacher salaries. However, when the numbers are adjusted to reflect regional wages and prices, there is still a large gap among state spending.

This gap results in some schools being provided with higher budgets and thus having more opportunities for elective programs than others. Chen said that after adjusting for cost of living and price differences, New Jersey spent about twice as much as Utah per student.

Funding

School funding comes from a variety of money pots — federal, state and city. Since almost half of public spending on elementary and secondary schools comes from local government budgets, the local tax base size is one of the major causes of a large spending disparity. The bottom line is that to provide students with greater elective opportunities, each school community must have local financial support.

Creating foundations is a great way for public school districts to think about long-term funding.

Parental involvement is also crucial to supporting electives. By supporting the PTSA and local bond initiatives that help raise monies for school district expenditures, parents can become an important part in ensuring their children receive the proper elective education that will help stimulate academic success for a lifetime.

Testing, return on investment

Another cause of the decline in elective courses is the financial demand of high stakes testing. Millions of dollars are spent on test and test prep materials because of the implications of core subject test outcomes, not to mention the school’s and district’s ranking and subsequent funding ramifications.

Further thoughts

Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss shares some innovative thoughts in her article “Why all high school courses should be elective.” She says the level of mental disengagement in our classrooms has become the rule, rather than the exception, and that the longer kids stay in school, the less engaged they become.

What if every required course at the high school level was made elective? What if we put kids in charge of their own education? By expecting all kids to take the same courses and achieve the same level of proficiency, she refers to Albert Einstein’s comment, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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