Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Blending High School and Higher Education for STEM

By Stanley S. Litow — August 17, 2012 4 min read

The White House recently proposed a “master teacher” program that would reward those who excel at teaching STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—and can show their peers how to do the same.

In a related effort, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a new, far-reaching blueprint for career and technical education earlier this summer. Addressing how such learning is structured and funded, that plan proposes to reward schools that directly link their curricula to labor-market data, engage business and higher education meaningfully, and focus on innovative models.

The proposed initiatives are complementary, as the United States needs both innovative change and great educators. If we don’t improve teacher quality and restructure education, we will never advance.

The federal proposals are also timely because today nearly half of U.S. companies say they can’t find qualified applicants. In the 10-year period starting in 2008, 14 million new jobs will be created for those with two-year community college degrees or some four-year college training, according to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Folks with only a high school diploma put themselves and their country at an economic disadvantage. Improving teacher quality and the structure of our schools is vitally important to U.S. competitiveness.

One model we might look to for inspiration is a new type of school that blends high school and community college and emphasizes STEM. Such grades 9-14 schools link academics with practical workforce skills and provide students with mentorships, internships, an associate degree, and guaranteed job interviews. The design’s core elements reflect Secretary Duncan’s blueprint for reform.

The inaugural school for this model is called Pathways in Technology, or P-TECH, a school with which I and my colleagues at IBM are very familiar.

To create the nation’s first P-TECH, which opened its doors in September 2011, IBM engaged in a somewhat unusual public-private partnership, working with New York City’s department of education, the City University of New York, and the New York City College of Technology. Each partner made unique contributions, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. As a result, the school has enjoyed encouraging results in just one year.

In a school with no admissions exam, attendance is high, test scores are good, enthusiasm is palpable, and students’ families are engaged. In fact, some members of the initial 9th grade class began taking college courses this summer, and many more will also take these courses as 10th graders this fall. The model is now being applied in Chicago, which, under the mayor’s leadership, is working with IBM and other corporate partners such as Motorola and Verizon to open five schools this fall.

But the model’s adoption could be even more widespread, especially since its costs are not greater than those of any other high school, and it doesn’t need special waivers or charter status to be implemented. To help facilitate this approach, IBM has created a playbook for establishing such schools—a playbook that is generating considerable interest among leaders in other cities. But speed is of the essence.

Folks with only a high school diploma put themselves and their country at an economic disadvantage."

While we all believe strongly in the utility and value of bachelor’s and graduate degrees, all students don’t need to fit the same educational mold. The “Pathways to Prosperity” report, published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in February 2011, predicted that only one-third of jobs created in the coming years would require a bachelor’s degree, while almost the same number could take applicants with an occupational certificate or an associate degree.

We need something new because, the fact is, our kids aren’t even completing community college. Currently, nearly three out of four of those in community college don’t graduate after six years.

There is another way the private sector can play a role in ensuring that our kids are well educated: by addressing the issue of teacher quality. Technology companies should encourage charismatic retiring employees to embark on second careers as teachers in STEM subjects. These individuals can answer the age-old student question: “What can we do with all of this knowledge in the real world?”

To that end, IBM created a program called Transition to Teaching. It has grown to 120 participants, whom IBM has funded with $15,000 each to take the needed coursework and have time off to practice teaching. These individuals are no strangers to schools, having already performed community service there. States like New York and North Carolina have welcomed teachers from this program.

Another way the private sector can help is to give our teachers the support they need through efforts such as Teachers Try Science, which provides science lesson plans and video online to offer teachers some of the best STEM resources available.

It is good news that high school graduation rates have improved nationwide by 7 percentage points in the last 10 years, but that isn’t nearly enough. We used to think that increased high school graduation rates were education’s Holy Grail, but the economic realities make it clear that is no longer the case.

So, yes, one can say that it’s the best of times: High school graduation rates are up, and new technology jobs are being created here in the United States. But one can also argue that it’s the worst of times: Jobs are going unfilled, kids aren’t getting advanced degrees, and expert instruction is lacking when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math.

That’s why we need inspired thinking and something of a revolution in schools and in the workplace that can offer more students a better chance at success. Maybe it’s not the kind of best-of-times/worst-of-times revolution in A Tale of Two Cities, but we can agree that if we do the right thing, it can lead, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, to an age of wisdom, a season of light, and a spring of hope.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Blending High School and Higher Education for STEM

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