Using a New Model to Create Pathways to Higher Learning

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American schools have been too narrow in their one-size-fits-all approach of preparing students to go to four-year colleges. That’s the important conclusion of a report published earlier this year from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-authored by one us—Robert B. Schwartz. The report, titled “Pathways to Prosperity,” goes on to outline a new vision, one that would expand opportunity for all students.

The report argues that “preparing for college” and “preparing for a career” should not be mutually exclusive options. Because while preparing for college has become the nearly exclusive focus of educators, the fact is that seven in 10 Americans don’t earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s. Moreover, only slightly more than 20 percent of students who enroll in community colleges obtain a two-year associate degree, even after three years. This is a huge missed opportunity with a significant cost because, as the report points out, roughly one-third of new jobs over the next decade will require some form of postsecondary education or training but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

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For more on guiding students for life beyond high school, read the commentary pieces from our Diplomas Count 2011 report:

The solution is to create new, more holistic education options, built on public-private partnerships, that provide new paths not just to higher education, but also to careers.

One innovative approach is taking shape in New York City. It is a new, grades 9-14 school called Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH. P-TECH is a collaboration between the New York City Department of Education; City University of New York, or CUNY; New York City College of Technology, or City Tech; and IBM. When P-TECH opens its doors in September, students will have the opportunity to complete a high school diploma and an associate degree, along with the opportunity to be first in line for a job at IBM or other companies with a demand for IT workers. Or they can choose to go on to a four-year college to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Students will begin earning college credit in the 9th grade through a curriculum that combines the best in STEM education—or science, technology, engineering, and math. As part of this program, students will be immersed in project-based and workplace learning experiences that will provide them with academic and career skills. The focus is on mastery, not seat time, so students who excel can earn their degrees at an accelerated pace. Because the demands will be great, students will be supported with mentoring and extended-day and summer learning opportunities.

This model requires a solid commitment among its partners. While each partner is a member of a steering committee that meets regularly and is involved in every aspect of program development, the model also acknowledges and depends upon the unique expertise that each brings to the collaboration. The city’s department of education plays a critical role in securing vital resources for the school, and among many key tasks, has identified the principal, Rashid Davis, who is leading this new education venture. CUNY, which has significant experience in developing early-college high schools in the city, is ensuring that P-TECH is a successful model in its network, in large part by working with City Tech to develop a program that will enable students to take a mix of both high school and college classes required for graduation. IBM, as a potential employer, is helping to define the skills it seeks in new hires with an Associate in Applied Science degree, reviewing these skills with an Industry Council it is convening for the school, and feeding this information into the curriculum development.

"This innovative model need not be restricted to one school, one city, or just to the IT field."

This innovative model need not be restricted to one school, one city, or just to the IT field. Indeed, there are some 220 early-college high schools, enrolling more than 50,000 students, in more than 20 states across the country. While the P-TECH model is unique, the partners are learning from the successes of innovative high schools and early-college schools, including visits to programs like Tech Valley High School in New York state and Metro Tech and MC2 STEM High School in Ohio. With each visit, the partners are culling effective practices and determining how they can be adapted to fit the needs of the students and teachers.

In New York City, there are plans to bring the P-TECH model to scale. This will include opening other new schools based on this model, with a focus on banking or health—not just technology. The initiative will include efforts to expand the P-TECH model to existing schools and incorporate it into existing school programs. The partners are committed to making the curriculum and other information about the school available online and free to use. The project has hired an independent organization to document the planning process through the first year of school. This record—of how the collaboration among partners works, the decisions that are made and why, and the lessons learned—will be made publicly available to help inform public-private partnerships intent on replicating the model.

This new approach of creating public and private partnerships in the education space is not, as some have wrongly suggested, an argument for creating different tracks and standards, thus consigning low-income students to a path of low achievement. Quite the contrary, it enables more students to obtain the education and real-world skills they need to launch successful careers. In fact, most students entering community colleges today require remediation and are not prepared for college-level work of any type. This new P-TECH model gives employers confidence that the diplomas and degrees earned by students will meet the employers’ workforce expectations.

American school districts, colleges, and businesses have a shared interest in pursuing innovative designs like P-TECH that address a largely outdated agrarian model of education. We need our children to achieve at the highest academic levels, to become an educated citizenry with the skills to compete and win in today’s global economy. We know that countries like India and China are turning out growing numbers of graduates who are well prepared for careers in science, engineering, and math. This is putting the United States behind the proverbial eight ball. It is also one reason why President Barack Obama has urged all Americans to obtain at least a year of training or postsecondary education following high school.

By shifting our focus from “four-year college for all” to an education system that provides “new and more diverse options for all,” we will be ready to meet the challenges—and capitalize on the opportunities—of the 21st-century economy. The new, grades 9-14 school in New York City is one example. Now let’s work to make similar models available for as many students as possible.

Vol. 30, Issue 35, Pages 26-28

Published in Print: June 15, 2011, as America Needs New Pathways to Higher Learning and Careers
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Clarification: At the request of the authors, Education Week has updated and clarified information in the second paragraph of this Commentary.

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