Why are teachers so rarely able to make their classes as challenging as in the few regular and public charter schools that focus intently on children from low-income families? Many teachers are just as talented as those in the focused schools but don’t have supervisors and coaches pushing for higher standards.
Every once in a while, however, I stumble across a program that has added those key elements to regular schools. A relatively new one that has gotten little attention is Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH — a charter-like program in more than 270 public schools across 28 countries, including about 180 in the United States.
Its underappreciated advantage: the backing it gets from a private company, IBM, big enough and demanding enough to give teachers the encouragement and support they need.
P-TECH is a six-year program, beginning in ninth grade and ending with students getting community college degrees in areas such as computer science, electromechanical engineering, cybersecurity and health care. Participants can take college courses as early as 10th grade and benefit from mentoring, paid internships and structured workplace visits. Early college high schools that inject the first two years of college into 11th and 12th grade have been popping up, but this is different.
P-TECH focuses intently, as do the best charters and regular schools, on minority students from low-income families, beginning with its first school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 2011. Its building had been a public high school closed for poor performance.
The man who conceived the P-TECH model was Stanley Litow, president of the IBM Foundation and the company’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs. He also was a former deputy chancellor of schools in New York City. He thought the six-year school could work but was worried when his police department sources said they didn’t think anyone would want to send their children to that neighborhood.
In his new book with education writer Tina Kelley, “Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway From High School to College to Career,” Litow said it was too late to switch to another building. The new school had only two months to get ready for New York’s annual school-enrollment schedule. As with popular public charter schools, admission to P-TECH would be by lottery. The school would not be cherry-picking students based on an entrance exam, as New York’s top magnet schools did. Its great advantage was that it could choose a new team of the most talented and ambitious administrators and teachers in the city.
The New York City College of Technology would provide the community college courses. The P-TECH courses it developed for these children had to be unusually challenging, with strong ties to good jobs. Litow checked with IBM’s human resources department to find out how many of its new hires had just a two-year associate’s degree. The answer was none. P-TECH had to be better.
Litow met the man whose toughness and imagination would bring success to Brooklyn P-TECH at a dinner organized by the New York City principals union. His name was Rashid Ferrod Davis. Litow described him as “a principal from a small engineering high school in the Bronx” who “kept asking questions.”
Davis had the same take-charge qualities the best inner-city charter schools look for. He was not told, as many public school principals are, to try to make everyone happy. He had to bring the venture up to IBM standards.
The idea was to teach skills that high-tech employers actually needed, so that P-TECH graduates could be hired with just a two-year college degree. About 40 percent also go on to get four-year degrees, according to Litow. “The model provides diverse graduates with an entree into the workforce,” Litow said. In the 10 years since Brooklyn P-TECH launched, none of the three dozen graduates hired by IBM have been White, he pointed out. “An influx of talented new workers of color can build the pipeline for more diverse employees and leaders in the years ahead,” Litow said.
Another key element of P-TECH’s success, it seems to me, is that Litow is still deeply involved a decade later. His career began a half-century ago, working for New York Mayor John Lindsay on the Urban Corps, which provided internships to thousands of city college students. He founded a think tank/advocacy organization that worked on education, economic development, and child and family services. He became deputy school chancellor and then IBM’s best-known expert on big-city education, leading to his creation of P-TECH.
The ranks of important P-TECH partners have grown from IBM to Thomson Reuters, Tesla, GlobalFoundries, Corning and other companies. Its schools have spread far from New York. One out of every 8 high school students in Dallas in 2020 was in a P-TECH program.
Community college programs have lots of remedial classes. There are none at P-TECH. The program does not usually increase the length of the school day as many successful charter programs do, although some P-TECH programs have cut back on supplies and furnishings and used that money to extend the school day, or asked staff to volunteer for Saturday morning classes.
Litow has won support both from Democratic and Republican officeholders. He even has endorsements from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, an archfoe of charter schools that operate much like P-TECH.
The intriguing experiment has thus escaped the political wars over charters that have plagued American education lately. And while Litow has retired from IBM, his book suggests he is not leaving this project anytime soon.