Since the beginning of 2016, school districts across Vermont have gone through some sort of Act 46 assessment, trying to decide whether or not merging school districts was the right thing to do. As a result of those studies and the votes that followed them, the majority of valley districts will be taking the first steps toward some sort of consolidation. In the Windham Central Supervisory Union, Dover and Wardsboro will eventually merge into one district, while Townshend, Newfane, Brookline, and Jamaica will form another. In Windham Southwest, Wilmington and Whitingham will be further cementing their Twin Valley district, while Readsboro and Halifax will begin their own timeline toward becoming a single district.
While no one knows what the future will hold and how these new districts will take shape, it can probably be said that with that uncertainty is also opportunity. Those opportunities will manifest themselves in a number of ways, from staffing options to curriculum changes. Until the new, consolidated boards start meeting on a regular basis and begin the heavy lifting of developing policies and procedures, no one can say for certain just what those opportunities might be and where they may occur. We can only hope that members of the new district boards remain open-minded and see the opportunities when they present themselves.
One thing that seems imperative is the need for a change in thinking when it comes to curriculum. We are almost two decades into the 21st century, yet much of our primary and secondary education system still teaches using methods developed in the last century. Make no mistake, much of that fundamental teaching is still valid, but there is also a pressing need for teaching for the current and future world.
Take, for example, technology fields. Software writers, network and IT specialists, and graphic designers are just a few of the technology-related fields that can’t find enough workers to fill open positions. Schools need to prepare students for jobs in those fields, and that preparation needs to begin at the primary school level. There’s no reason basic computer programming and networking skills can’t be taught as early as fifth or sixth grades. That education must continue through high school, and it needs to be as mandatory as math, science or English.
Jobs are waiting for those with computer programming experience. Studies show as many as 10 times the number of jobs are available as there are American workers and graduating students with the skills to fill those jobs. That kind of basic skill gap is something this country never saw during the industrial boom in the middle of the last century. American schools turned out graduates who could fill jobs in American factories. But there has been a shift toward technology-based jobs in the past 25 years, and now schools don’t turn out graduates who can fill jobs in the tech economy. It’s not enough to have a worker who can twist a widget onto a thingamajig, now workers need to know how to program the computer that runs the robot that does the twisting.
Why is it that many consider it “nerdy” when someone knows how to code computers, set up a server, or use a scientific calculator? In many ways, knowing the way around a computer is no different than knowing the way around a car, a rifle, a farm, or anything else that in earlier times helped settle this country or build the industrial age. American schools need to continue to adapt to the needs of American industry. While that may be simple to say, changing educational systems will take a generation or more of effort, and this country has already lost ground.
It’s a new world out there, both in terms of governance structure but also in terms of what is a necessary education. We hope that as these new districts are formed in the weeks and months ahead, board members keep in mind the ever changing needs of the country, and of the students they are passing through their schools. To borrow a computer term, it’s time to add “reboot” to the “three Rs” of education.