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Straight Up Conversation: IBM Foundation Chief Jen Crozier on P-TECH Schools

By Rick Hess — October 18, 2018 12 min read
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As President of the IBM Foundation, Jennifer Ryan Crozier oversees IBM P-TECH, a grades 9-to-14 school model that seeks to integrate high school with community college and workplace learning. P-TECH graduates earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree in a STEM field within six years—and some in less than four years. Since its 2011 launch with a single school in Brooklyn, New York, the P-TECH network has scaled to 110 schools across eight states, as well as Australia, Morocco, and Taiwan. Jen and I spoke recently about P-TECH schools, preparing young people for 21st century jobs, and the challenges of this work.

Rick Hess: So, Jen, how do you explain P-TECH to someone who’s not familiar with it?

Jen Crozier: P-TECH started as a way to connect high school to college and career. Even with today’s high employment rates, employers like IBM have tens of thousands of positions we can’t fill because people lack the necessary skills. That’s why we started P-TECH in partnership with New York City Schools and The City University of New York, and why each P-TECH school is a similar partnership with school districts and community colleges. Each P-TECH student gets an industry mentor, and each P-TECH program includes workplace skills development, paid internships, and first-in-line consideration for jobs with a school’s corporate partner. At the end of this six-year experience, which many finish in less time, students walk away with their high school diploma, a free associate degree, hands-on experience in an in-demand STEM field, and a network of resources and contacts that are there to support them throughout their journey—be that going on to a four-year degree or joining the workforce.

RH: What’s the big idea here?

JC: The big idea is to give all students, especially the underserved, a seamless pathway to competitive STEM careers. By doing so, we raise community college graduation rates, provide opportunities to enter the middle class, and strengthen the overall economy—which benefits all of us. Instead of just giving cash to “support STEM education,” we’ve created a sustainable and scalable model for open-admissions public schools that can work anywhere. We have P-TECH schools in inner city New York and Chicago, in suburban Connecticut, and in rural upstate New York, for example. These schools provide young people a unique opportunity to be college students at an early age and to envision themselves as future professionals. The longer-term implications of this change in the way young people see themselves and how they fit into the economy are profound. This will be especially important as new technologies such as AI and quantum computing create new jobs and alter existing ones. Our P-TECH graduates are what we like to call “new collar” job ready, whether they choose to go into a STEM career path or not. “New collar” jobs, a term we coined here at IBM, are growing rapidly—particularly in areas such as cybersecurity, data science, artificial intelligence, and cognitive business—but they don’t necessarily require a traditional four-year degree. What “new collar” jobs do require is flexibility, constant learning, resilience, and communication skills. The P-TECH model is poised to transform how we teach our young people for the world of today and the future.

RH: You mentioned that the associate degree is free. How does the funding for that work?

JC: P-TECH students earn their associate degrees at no cost to themselves or their families. This is another critical aspect of the program, given America’s spiraling student loan debt crisis. The newly revised and re-authorized Perkins Career and Technical Education bill, which IBM and more than 500 other organizations championed, will enable P-TECH implementation. Perkins re-authorization garnered bipartisan congressional support, and will provide more than $1.2 billion to states to support P-TECH and similar programs. IBM’s investment is the model and staff who work with each school principal, as well as mentors and internships. There is no monetary investment as such. Given that these are public schools, there is no need for additional funding from the school. The local community college must provide free access to the school, but this is structured according to each community college system’s specific parameters.

RH: Speaking of funding—I saw a commercial for P-TECH on Monday Night Football not too long ago. So how much is IBM spending on this school program, and what is it hoping to get for its investment?

JC: While I know an impressive cash contribution number would be wonderful to share, the truth is that IBM’s role is multi-faceted, and much deeper than just writing a check. We are invested culturally. Once a P-TECH school opens, IBMers from every discipline volunteer as mentors for the students. Each P-TECH student has a mentor. This is huge—especially for young people from underserved communities. For many students, that mentor may be the first person they’ve met with a STEM background or career who looks like them. In addition, IBM internships for P-TECH students are paid internships. Our students work on real issues as team members with IBM professionals. This is a far cry from traditional “work study” jobs that often are low-paid and have no relevance to a student’s career goals. Finally, qualified P-TECH graduates get first-in-line consideration for entry-level positions with IBM.

RH: Besides IBM, what other businesses do the schools partner with? And more broadly, what role do these business partners play? Do they shape the curricula, oversee the schools, help select faculty?

JC: IBM leads 11 schools, and more than 550 other businesses, many working in consortia, serve as lead industry partners in the other 100 or so schools—demonstrating the potential this model holds for reinvigorating local economies. Further replication is underway. In some areas, a group of employers provides support, including mentors and internship opportunities. In these cases, a local industry association, chamber of commerce, workforce investment board, or other local business group with experience in workforce development and community partnerships can be a very helpful intermediary to represent the employers in the planning phases.

RH: How does a student gain admission to a P-TECH school? Must they apply, and are they screened?

JC: A student must express interest in P-TECH and STEM subjects by applying, but admission is open enrollment without any testing or pre-screening. The resources and supports are built into the model. We ask students to meet us half way—to apply themselves—which they’ve been doing because they’re engaged and can see a clear pathway of opportunity in front of them.

RH: What outcomes are you seeing?

JC: The graduation rate for the first cohort of P-TECH students—from the pilot school in Brooklyn—is more than four times the national on-time community college graduation rate, which persists at 13 percent, and five times the rate for students from low-income families. Roughly 50 percent of students entering community colleges take at least one non-credit bearing remedial course, requiring significant public and personal investment and significantly reducing their potential to complete a degree. But P-TECH graduates receive such rigorous academic training that none has required remedial coursework—either at the community college or four-year college level. We have P-TECH graduates at a number of state-supported colleges and universities, as well as graduates majoring in engineering at Cornell and Syracuse, and math at Georgetown, who are excelling in competitive fields. Most students are going on for more college, but IBM has hired 20 Brooklyn P-TECH graduates, who on average are earning more than fifty thousand dollars per year.

RH: While that sounds pretty compelling, NPR reported that P-TECH students earned D’s and F’s in 21 percent of their college courses in 2014 and 14 percent in 2015. That sounds like a problem. What was going on?

JC: The criticism of P-TECH from some quarters is to be expected. However, and now even more so since that coverage, the success of P-TECH is borne out by examination of the data. The initial P-TECH school serves virtually 100 percent low income children of color with no admission screen, unlike many other school programs. At the end of the first six years of the full model, we have graduation rates four times the on-time national community college graduation rate. The issues raised in that report neglected to contextualize the fact that these are rigorous math and science courses, which are qualitatively more challenging for any student, but especially so for those who have not been cherry picked as unusually talented, as charters or selective high schools sometimes do. It’s also important to point out that student learning is not a linear process—challenging coursework, even in cases where a student does not excel, is an important part of learning and growth. One poor grade does not mean a student’s entire academic career is over; indeed it points to areas where a student needs extra supports. Even given these inherent challenges, P-TECH students’ overall pass rate and graduation rate is higher than typical community college students’, particularly those that come from underserved backgrounds. Some of them completed their “six-year” programs in as little as three and a half years.

RH: The number of P-TECH schools has increased rapidly, from one in 2011 to about 110 now. You’re expanding to such varied places as Morocco, Australia, and Taiwan. Korea has committed to opening in 2019. The age-old song in schooling, of course, is of pilots posting promising results—only for the model to disappoint when it’s replicated with less care. How do you guard against this?

JC: IBM’s philosophical approach to P-TECH is as responsible stewards of the model we created. In tandem with launching the first school, we created a multi-year roadmap that lays out elements critical to successful replication—such elements as public-private partnerships among employers and educators to focus on college and career in ways that are rigorous and measurable. These elements must be in place for us to add a new school to the global P-TECH network. IBM is the conceptual originator and we continue to serve as a key industry partner representative. We are proud to be in a position to recommend best practices to those contemplating adoption in their state or district. In fact, IBM established ptech.org as an online resource hub for all interested in the model to use, and we continue to update it. Once the framework is in place, communities truly make it their own by deciding what degrees to confer, how to structure public funding, and the industry focus.

RH: It sounds like a lot of states are looking at expanding P-TECH programs. Just this summer, California allocated $10 million to new P-TECH schools. North Carolina and Minnesota are considering similar moves. This has raised complaints in some quarters that taxpayers are being asked to subsidize a corporate job training program. How do you respond to such criticism?

JC: P-TECH is not a corporate job training program, in fact it is a new model for career and technical education in the 21st century—a new model for how to do high school. The phrase “corporate job training program” suggests a task-specific approach without flexibility or opportunities for advancement. P-TECH graduates emerge with two distinct, and versatile, types of skills: They’re ready to enter the workforce immediately because of their experience with the so-called “soft skills” of teaming, problem solving, and communication; and they’re ready for baccalaureate study because of their rigorous academic grounding. That’s why P-TECH graduates have been successful as employees, as university students, and as young adults who are earning their four-year degrees while they work. And P-TECH graduates come into their success with zero student loan debt, and the flexibility and skills to go wherever they want professionally or academically. Our graduates are prepared to give back to their local communities as leaders, workers, and citizens.

RH: What have been the one or two biggest challenges to launching and then growing a school model like this? And what recommendations do you have to offer policymakers?

JC: Policymakers play a critical role in the success of the model. They serve as champions for this new way of high school by creating seamless pathways for students to go from high school to college and career. Government leaders encourage business involvement, ensure that education is aligned to industry needs, and put the funding in place to ensure that students can focus on their studies and not the cost of college. What we’ve seen with P-TECH is a true collaboration between public education, the private sector, and policymakers. It requires patience, trust, and perseverance, but we have seen the results and they are impressive.

RH: How feasible is it for smaller companies to get involved in schools like this? After all, IBM is a massive corporation. How about smaller or less mature firms?

JC: We have more than 550 industry partners and we are always looking for more. Our goal is to see the model available to more students across the country, in urban and rural areas, adding more industry partners. What is required? The commitment of public-private partnerships that will support all students to degree completion and career readiness. In some areas, given the profile of local businesses, it may be necessary to identify a group of employers to support a school, including through mentors and internship opportunities. In these cases, a local industry association, chamber of commerce, workforce investment board, or other local business group with experience in workforce development and community partnerships can be a very helpful intermediary to represent the employers in the planning phases and to limit the principal’s time recruiting individual businesses.

RH: Last question: What advice would you give to a large or small business that wants to get more involved in supporting schools?

JC: While active engagement in a P-TECH 9-14 school often comes through the leadership of corporate citizenship professionals, it also requires employers to tap into all their resources. This includes human resources staff, front-line managers, technical experts, in-house trainers, marketing staff, and in-house professional development staff. That can be a tough ask, but it makes all the difference. Remember that you are only one piece of the puzzle. Find ways to work with educators to invest in your community’s talent pipeline early and learn from your education partners about what it is that your business can contribute to make systemic, long-term impact.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.