IBM-Backed High School Gets Obama Plaudits

Feb 13, 2013 (10:02 AM EST)

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Just back from a school meeting, Principal Rashid F. Davis was settling in to work on a presentation for yet another meeting when his phone and email went crazy.

He wasn't even watching TV when President Barack Obama gave a shout-out to his school, Brooklyn's P-TECH, as offering the kind of opportunity that ought to be available to every student. Organized as a partnership between the New York City schools, the City University of New York and the IBM Foundation, the Pathways In Technology Early College High School gives ordinary students an extraordinary opportunity to earn a combined high school and associate's degree and put themselves first in line to be hired by a company like IBM.

"I really haven't slept since," Davis said Wednesday, delighted that the president shares his view that "the associate's degree should be the new high school diploma."

Here is what Obama said: "Let's also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they're ready for a job. At schools like P-TECH in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this."

This was just one paragraph out of a lengthy State of the Union address, so how it will translate into federal action remains to be seen, but the P-TECH model is already being replicated in places like Chicago. Davis said his school has been visited by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and New York State education leaders. He has heard from officials elsewhere in New York (he mentioned Rochester), as well as Iowa, Oregon and Idaho, all interested in doing something similar.

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Obama's endorsement will be "a shot in the arm to really keep this train moving," Davis said. (Please forgive him the mixed metaphor; this is exciting stuff.) This is an opportunity for educators to rethink how to address the "skills gap" between what employers want and need and what our schools are teaching.

"A high school diploma is really not a ticket to a middle class life or career," agreed Stanley S. Litow, IBM VP of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of the IBM International Foundation. A typical high school graduate earns about $15 per hour, and those who start community college but fail to earn a degree do little better -- significant given that the community college dropout rate is about 75%, he said. Another pattern, which validates the school's emphasis on mathematics, is that of community college students forced to take two or more remedial courses, where one of those is a math course, 99% drop out without completing a degree, he said.

By taking students all the way through an associate's degree, with a focus on education in the skills required for a high-tech career, IBM is creating the kind of graduates it would want to employ, Litow said. Although it can't make a legally binding pledge to employ every student who graduates from the program, IBM has said those who apply will have a good chance at a job. "And if they want to go on to a bachelor's degree, we'll wait for them," Litow said.

Although you might not think of IBM as the kind of company that would recruit associates degree graduates, Litow said there are VPs and people in the IBM research labs who started as employees with that level of education, although they later went farther.

Do the Math (Infographic)

P-TECH is a public school, with union teachers, and admittance is not dependent on stellar academic performance. Students who apply are chosen by lottery, many coming from poor neighborhoods. The majority are black, and about 80% qualify for free lunch, Davis said. "We're right across the street from a housing project that discourages a lot of parents from sending their children here," he added. "We're taking students who are most at risk of not completing high school and getting them not only a high school diploma but a post-secondary degree."

P-TECH is designed as a grade nine through 14 school, with years 13 and 14 representing the college portion. After enrolling its first students in the 2011-2012 school year, it currently has 228 students in grades nine and 10 with the other grades to be added as those students progress. Many of the students are already taking college courses, and Davis said he expects to see some graduate in four or five years, rather than six.

Although the IBM blueprint for science, technology, engineering and math education talks about the use of classroom technologies, the emphasis at P-TECH is less on tablet computers in the classroom than on training the sort of people who will design and build tomorrow's tablet computers. Many student projects are built around goals like that, where students might design a tablet (or, for that matter, a new sneaker) and create the associated business and marketing plans in a way that integrates all the disciplines they are studying, including writing, math, science and business, in a "very practical and project-oriented way," Litow said. "We get everyone participating because it's exciting work."

A school like P-TECH also addresses the gap in the education system left by the collapse of the kind of vocational education that was successful in the years after World War II, when training in a trade discipline like machine shop could lead directly to a good factory job. As the nature of the economy and the job market have changed, educators have been looking for a new model to replace the old Vo-Tech schools, and that could be one of the roles the P-TECH model plays. Even those P-TECH graduates who never go farther with their education will escape the path to minimum wage employment, Litow said, since a typical associate's degree graduate earns about $40,000 today.

Policymakers need to "look at what that would mean for tax revenue and do the math," he said.

Even with the expense of adding two years on to high school, the P-TECH model would really be a "redistribution of money" away from programs like dropout prevention, both at the high school and community college levels, Davis agreed. "You'd be saving money from interventions that did not need to happen."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+.

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