Why Obama Praised IBM's Brooklyn Education Model

Students taking class at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn Photograph courtesy of P-TECH

As pundits pick apart the State of the Union address for clues as to what’s likely to stick, pay attention to P-TECH. That’s the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, an innovative collaboration between New York public schools, the City University of New York, and IBM.

The 18-month-old experiment has caught not only the president’s eye but the attention of companies, politicians, and educators across the nation. The Brooklyn school takes students in the ninth grade and aims to have them graduate six years later with both a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering—not to mention a likely job at IBM. As President Obama said, “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”

What’s unusual about P-TECH is educators’ willingness to work with private-sector partners to design an academic program that’s heavy on workplace skills. (Ten years ago, this would have been greeted with greater skepticism.) The students all have IBM mentors, who help them navigate. Because there are no academic screens or special tests to get in, no charter-school freedoms, no tuition, and no ability to dispense with core standards, the model has been widely embraced by educators as one that can be replicated.

In fact, although barely into its second year, P-TECH’s early successes have spawned five schools in Chicago and New York. A version is also being set up in Idaho. Stanley S. Litow, IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, thinks the grade 9-14 model is on the verge of a breakthrough. “It’s a clear path to a career,” says Litow, “because you’re giving students the skills to get good, technology-oriented jobs.”

Sam Palmisano likens it to an apprenticeship. The thought came to the former IBM chief while chatting with then-New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein during a rain delay at the U.S. Open. As they talked about the skills gap, Palmisano said: “we’re not graduating kids with the qualifications to fill those jobs.” What was needed, he realized, was a program that gave kids those skills. “Everybody talks about the issues, but nobody does anything. We thought this will work.”

The first real test of P-TECH will happen in 2017, when its first class graduates. Principal Rashid Davis says he faces the same harsh realities confronted by peers at other schools. “The biggest challenge, frankly, is that they leave every night to families who may or may not understand the value of education,” Davis says. And how would he like to fix that? By boarding students for six weeks or so over the summer so they can stay focused on doing the hard work in a nurturing environment.

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