Xykademiqz Goes to Electives Night

I live and work in the US and am an American citizen, but I am not US-born; I came here to go to grad school. I spent my formative years in a small European country and had the equivalent of K-12 and undergrad education in a system considerably different than the one in the US. As my kids progress through American public schools, I get ever more aware of how many differences there really are between the systems.

My eldest will start high school in the fall, so I went to parent orientation and later to Electives Night with my son. Allow me to just say — Oh. My. God! So many awesome choices!

But let me start by describing the high school system I went through. I have no idea how the system looks now, but when I went to school you picked a general area of interest/specialization when you were entering high school and then picked a school that was strong in that area and that would take you (besed on GPA). There were also a number of vocational schools, and those on the academic track. As an example, I picked “Math and Natural Sciences” and my childhood BFF picked “Humanities and Social Sciences”. We both ended up going to a neighborhood high school that happened to be very strong in both areas, and it enabled us to continue playing volleyball, which was very important to both of us in high school. But once you picked the area and school, the curriculum was set for you. For instance, both my BFF and I had the native language, math, science, foreign languages, gym, art, history, etc., but the difference was in how much of each we had. For example, I had the native language 4x  per week all 4 years; math 5x days per week all 4 years; physics, chemistry, biology I think 4x  per week each  all 4 years; gym 2x per week days all 4 years; art 1x per week for maybe 2 years; geography 2x per week for 3 years; history 2x per week for 2 years; sociology 2x per week for 2 years; I think 1 year of philosophy (I loved it so much!) 2x per week; I had Latin 2x a week for a year, and I had one foreign language 2x per week all 4 years (that was one language out of 2 that we had in grades 3-8, I had to keep learning the one that I started in grade 5, which wasn’t English). At some point we got a computer lab maybe 2x per week; it would be laughable according to today’s standards. In contrast, my BFF also had math all 4 years but not 5x per week, maybe 3. She had most of the natural sciences for 2 years, but instead had much more social sciences and history, had 2 foreign languages all 4 years plus Latin for 2 or 3 years, I forget;  multiple sections of native language, courses in world literature, also what would here be advanced keyboarding. And she had a lot more art. I don’t think any of us had music in high school.

The state in the US where I currently live with my family has good public schools, and we also live in a good public school district. In my son’s soon-to-be high school, to graduate he has to have 4 credits of English, 3 credits of science, 3 of math, and 3 of US history, 2 credits of a foreign language, 1.5 credits of gym, and 0.5 credits of health, and a certain number of electives. [0.5 credit = 1 semester of class meeting every day (5x per week).]

OMG the electives! They are so awesome! First, I cannot get over how amazing the art department is. They have 0.5-credit (semester-long) courses in Art Appreciation (you get to choose different media, paint, draw, sculpt, photograph etc for 2 weeks to see what they like), Drawing (levels 1-3), Sculpting, Photography, Glass/Metal class, several courses in Digital Art (one one Adobe Photoshop, one on Adobe Illustrator, one on making animation — from storyboarding to the final movies…) How fuckin’ awesome is that?

Now, as you may have noticed, I doodle. I have no training whatsoever beyond the 2x per week in class during K-8 and the 1x per week in high school. I drew/sketched a lot in (the equivalent of) middle school; there was a period when I drew comic books and I was always an avid comic book reader (more on that some other time), but these were always regarded as frivolous pursuits. I doodled when I wanted but I never considered putting concentrated effort into it and wasn’t really encouraged to. I pretty much stopped drawing in high school, when it was first and foremost academics, then volleyball, then boys. Also, I was really into physics competitions so I spent a lot of time just doing problems, practicing. So I am not kidding when I say I probably draw as well or as poorly now as I did in high school, because I basically completely stopped drawing afterwards. I have no idea why, and I have no idea why I am getting back into it now, but it’s fun, even though I am oh so rusty. But it makes me happy somehow! I think this new place inspired me to experiment a little…

But I digress. OMG the art department! I started imagining how awesome it would have been for a kid like me to be able to take some art courses! That would have been such wonderful relaxation and a chance to perfect the craft. I so wish I were my kid taking one of these awesome courses… So many things to do!

Next we went to the business/IT department. They offer courses from keyboarding, intro to programming, as well as courses focusing on software (Excell, Word, etc), some that are open to upperclassmen like accounting, marketing. The computer lab is gorgeous, well equipped.

Then music — I had no music in any form in high school. These guys have chorus, band, and orchestra. Every kid gets to play an instrument! In my home country, the only people who played any instruments were the kids who passed auditions for music schools when they were in grades 1-3, and then attended these pretty serious schools extracurricularly; music in public schools K-8 did not involve anyone touching any instruments other than a recorder or a xylophone; we sang a bit and listened to music and sort of learned to read notes, but not much. My Spouse is gifted in music and did have a strong music education (had 12 years of music school); alas,  not me, as I didn’t pass the music school audition when I was in 2nd grade owing to the lack of natural ability and that was it. A few years ago at a party at an American colleague’s house, I was the only one who had never played an instrument, everyone else had, at least for a little bit; I felt really crappy. Now I know that’s because here in the US everyone has to play an instrument in middle and high school, regardless of talent, which does make me feel a little better.

Then the World Languages Department — so awesome! They offer Spanish, French, German, and Chinese. You can pick 1 or 2, perhaps even more, anything you like! I was kind of salivating. Where I went to school, a school taught English grades 3-8, then another language depending on the school  (German, French, Russian, more recently Italian) in grades 5-8. But by going to a certain elementary school you were locked into a specific language. Here, in my son’s school, languages are 1 credit courses, which means they meet daily all year. I would have loved to have daily instruction in 2 foreign languages…

There were departments of Family and Consumer Science (learn how to cook, sew, interior design,  healthcare leadership courses), then the Engineering/Automotive department (body shop, woodworking shop, and a pretty cool engineering design department where kids who are thinking about engineering can get a head start with pretty serious project-based courses).

My kid is taking several required honors courses and has 2.5+ electives credits to choose from. He  wants to take 1 credit of French, 1.5 credit of band/jazz, and is leaning towards 0.5 credits of digital art/animation.

I am also amazed at how helpful, open, and responsive all the teachers are. There are a number of young energetic ones, a whole bunch of counselors (we never had anything like that when I was growing ip), and generally a good network of adults keeping checks and balances. I can see why kids may find themselves a little bewildered when they go to college, especially to a big R1 like the one where I teach and where they are pretty much on their own. Sure, there are academic advisors, but professors mostly mind their own business and are probably nowhere near what the students are used to from K-12.

I have newfound appreciation for the US school system. I still stand by my opinion that the middle school curriculum is pretty vacuous, it seems like everyone just expects the kids to be busy growing, sprouting hair and zits while drowning in hormones, and that’s about it. But it looks like high school will be serious and a lot of fun. While there may be places in the world where kids get a better hard-core math and science background, a US public school in a good district seems, at least for the moment, like it will do a pretty good job. I don’t know of other countries where the public school system offers so many choices — my kid actually told me “For the first time, I can actually choose what I want to do!” When I was his age, I never missed such options because they were never available. In hindsight, it would have probably been awesome to explore a little bit off the academically rigorous math and science path. 


  1. High schools in this country offer a lot of great things. However, what they don’t offer is any reasonable assurance of competence in writing and math. Hence the freshmen that I have to teach.

    Other than that, American high schools are great.

  2. The observation that middle school is “pretty vacuous” is one that many US-born parents would agree with. It seems that our educational establishment gave up on a 3-year age group and decided just to warehouse them a couple of decades ago. It is a really good time to switch to a 6–12 private school that treats them like high schoolers or to home school.

    It does sound like your kids’ high school has a nice variety of electives. Whether they do a good job on the fundamentals remains to be seen. (From what I know of where you are, your kids have a better chance of getting a good high school education than they would at a neighborhood high school here in Santa Cruz, and much better than in one of the urban core schools anywhere in the US.)

  3. Wow – that sounds like a really great school. I know that in my (urban) area, public high schools are not like this. You could go to a charter school, many of which have a specific focus, like languages, arts, science, etc. Charter schools vary widely in quality. Most public schools provide a basic education, but I know of kids who see their counselors once a year, max, and then struggle to get the recommendation letters they need for college because the counselor knows nothing about them, or worse has changed in the time they’ve been in school. Most public schools also have no funding for art, music or sports. And most schools only have 1 language choice, which is usually either French or Spanish.

    We plan on either ponying up for private school or moving to the suburbs when our kids are older. Unfortunately, what we like about our urban schools is their diversity. Suburbs around here tend to be very racially segregated and we are nervous about sending our minority kids to a majority white or asian school.

  4. I assume it’s occurred to you that it was the narrower focus of your high school education on science and math that is why you are a successful physical scientist. If you had so many other enticing electives available, maybe you’d be a clerk in an art supplies store today. I think it is shameful that high schools are letting kids dicke around with photoshop and illustrator at the expense of putting in the motherfucken hours of practice it takes to get good at reading, writing, and math.

  5. @Comradde PhysioProffe, it is possible for a high school student to become proficient at reading, writing, and math, and still have time to learn graphic design. It’s true that not many do any of those things, but it isn’t clear to me that allowing students to learn graphic design as an elective really changes the outcome much on the fundamentals. The problem tends to be caused by low expectations, social promotion, and poor teaching more than by having a diversity of subjects.

    xykademiq’s kids’ high school sounds a lot like the mid-western one I went to around 1970: the languages were slightly different (we had Latin and Russian rather than Mandarin Chinese), the computer facilities cruder (we had an IBM 1130 and keypunches), but overall it sounds a lot like the school I went to. Even then US high schools were a year or two behind European ones (the top math class was Calculus and only 5% of each class took calculus), but things tended to even out quite a bit by the end of undergrad years.

    Not everyone who went to my high school was aimed at a math or science career (probably around 5–10%), but they did fairly well for themselves nonetheless.

  6. I tend to agree with @gasstationwithoutpumps rebuttle to Comrade PhysioProf. Learning a new, fun skill via electives is not going to singlehandedly ruin a great student. My husband teaches biology at an undergraduate college and he has the opinion that all of his student athletes are dumb as a box of rocks. However, my best biochemistry student at the nearby university is a star gymnast. She does tons of electives. She can do math and science independently. Electives do not ruin a student – not spending the time or resources on their core classes ruins students.

  7. I tend to agree with Comradde. These electives sound like great fun, and should be there to a degree (graphic design is a great skill to have for a scientist), but the major thrust should probably be a hard and demanding level of education in what’s important (math and sciences, if the school wishes, or humanities; but with hard work and high expectations of the students). But maybe it’s the Soviet-emigre in me speaking (or my Soviet parents…)

  8. Maybe I didn’t make it clear in my post, but the kids do get plenty of language and math instruction. For instance, in 9th grade (freshman year of high school) my son will have 4 core courses daily through both semesters, each of them can be “regular” or honors. He’s taking honors geometry (he has honors algebra in middle school, he’s a little accelerated in math), honors integrated science, honors US history, and regular English. On top of that he has a semester of Phys Ed, in the other semester is his 0.5 credit elective (which is, incidentally, an art elective). in addition to that, he is taking 2 other yearlong electives, which are French and music for him (he plays low brass and also plays in the jazz band). This looks like a pretty well-balanced freshman curriculum and he is happy with it.

    As he progresses through high school, he plans on following the honors math path which should get him through AP calculus, as well as keep having English, science, foreign language, and music, and selected few other electives along the way. For instance, he will at some point take intro to programming, and and in junior or senior year they move from integrated science to separate subjects as electives (this is one thing I think is ridiculous — I started having physics as physics in 6th grade, chemistry in 7th, biology and geography in 5th, why can’t kids have separate subjects taught by people with BS in those areas before they are 11th or 12th grade? That is my big peeve. That and the ridiculousness of putting arrows everywhere when they draw graphs. But that’s a peeve for another day.) Anyway, my kid will get a good math and language base near as I can tell, and he has the option to take a ton of science classes as upperclassman.

    One thing we as academics perhaps don’t fully appreciate is how much these electives do for kids who won’t go to college. For instance, the auto body shop is pretty great, and if you want to me a mechanic it looks like you could really get trained. The same with woodworking, and some accounting tools, as well as cooking, sewing, child care, health care administration. There are kids who may need or want to work right after high school, and they actually have options to get trained. In my home country there were vocational schools, where you went and they were great, but the academic path was entirely closed afterwards. Here, it seems like the a wide selection of electives does a good job of balancing what the students going into trades need with what the college-bound students need.

  9. “why can’t kids have separate subjects taught by people with BS in those areas before they are 11th or 12th grade?”

    Actually there is a push right now in US schools towards “physics first” curricula but that still only extends back to 9th grade. So kids would do Physics in 9th, then Chemistry in 10th, then Biology in 11th, then AP Physics in 12th plus any other AP a student may want. Unfortunately that does not guarantee a Physics BS will be teaching it… You’re still likely to get a biology major like myself for almost any high school science *shudder*.

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