Regional Technical Academy

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(Host) A proposal to build a tech ed academy in Chittenden County passed its first test on Town Meeting Day. Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks the academy is a significant departure from the way tech ed has been provided in the past.

(Gilbert) Chittenden County voters have glimpsed the future of technical education, and they think it works.

On Town Meeting Day this year, Burlington area voters approved creation of a new tech academy board. Many people were surprised by the vote. The academy is a huge project — 58 million dollars, the largest school project ever in the state. Participating towns are sure to see their taxes rise if the academy is built. And some towns worry that their own local high schools will be drained of students. That means less money for local schools.

Shovels aren’t flying yet on the project. The Town Meeting vote simply approves creation of a board to present a comprehensive tech academy plan. Area residents will get another chance to give the project a thumbs up or down.

Despite the Town Meeting vote, there’s an unease about this project. And I think the unease is not just about money, or the impact on local schools. I think it’s about the changing face of technical education generally — and who’s in charge of schoolchildren’s curriculum.

The Chittenden facility is to be a tech academy, not a tech center.
The distinction is important, because an academy is a school unto itself. Education for tech students is now a joint responsibility between a student’s local high school and a regional tech center. Students spend roughly half their time in their local school learning core subjects, and half their time at a tech center learning specific trade skills.

The tech academy model changes that. Students would attend the academy full-time. Ties to the local school would be cut. The new tech academy board would oversee students’ technical as well as academic programs. The business community, through representation on the board, would have a strong say in the curriculum.

This is the tech ed model used in Europe. It’s not been popular in America because we haven’t wanted to separate students into strict academic and vocational tracks. And we haven’t viewed the purpose of public education as training kids for specific jobs. But in many European countries students take exams around the seventh grade and are “sorted” and sent to different schools.

Germany, for example, has three different tracks — university, professional school, and job training. There’s a different high school for each track. The education in each of the schools is very good — but narrow. The Germans stress specialization and training for a particular job or profession. We Americans, on the other hand, try to train all of our students to think broadly and to be capable of fitting into any of a number of jobs over their lifetimes.

There’s much to be said for the high-level of training given students in tech academies. Supporters say tech academy graduates will have greater job opportunities. But the separation and tracking of students is a departure from our usual way of educating kids not for a job, but for a lifetime. With jobs, and job requirements, changing so quickly, one wonders if the end result could, ironically, be diminished opportunities.

Chittenden County voters have a big decision ahead.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a writer active in civil liberties and education issues.

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