Few education issues in New York and nationally are as divisive as the racial disparity in specialized high schools. I experienced this first hand during my time as a student at Stuyvesant High School and later as deputy schools chancellor in the early 1990s. These elite schools accept only students whose performance on a test appears to make them most likely to succeed.
Data demonstrates two facts: First, those who pass and are admitted do have high achievement. The second data point is the unintended and troubling consequence: It leaves far too many low-income students and especially students of color on the sidelines. While the specialized schools have gotten the most attention, they are not the only schools screening for admissions. Dozens of others in the city and many more nationally have admissions screens. So some students get into the best schools while many are left behind.
Recent efforts are focused on changing the reliance on one test for admission and adding other screens like prior academic success, which raises the question: What would result? Would students admitted based on other criteria, or perhaps no criteria at all, still achieve? Would it undermine the academic success of elite schools—or expand opportunities and have no downside?
As we consider this issue, it’s worth examining P-Tech, a grade 9-to-14 school designed by IBM created as an open-enrollment, public-private partnership with the Department of Education and the City University of New York in 2011.
P-Tech has no screen for admissions—neither a test nor prior academic success. Its population is virtually all low-income students of color. Their exam scores and academic results at grade 8 were average, yet their achievement in high school is outstanding. Students get a rigorous academic program combining both a high school diploma and a STEM community college degree, providing a clear pathway from school to college to career. The data are compelling, but the personal stories are even more so:
Oscar Tendilla and Bryann Sandy both completed the six-year program in under four years, earning full scholarships to Cornell and Georgetown, respectively. Gabriel Rosa, Radcliffe Saddler, Janiel Richards and Leslieanne John also got their degrees early, and are working at IBM while completing their bachelor’s degrees at CUNY. ShuDon Brown completed the program ahead of schedule, earned her bachelor’s at Peace College and now works at IBM in North Carolina.
And it goes beyond these students. Overall college completion rates at P-Tech are 500% higher than the national average. Why do these students succeed? They are given a combination of opportunity and strong support.
After featuring P-Tech in his State of the Union address and visiting the school in 2013, then-President Barack Obama said, “Every student ought to be given this opportunity.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, based on the results, launched close to 40 P-Tech schools in partnership with SUNY, the State Education Department, IBM and hundreds of other companies across New York. Newburgh’s open-enrollment P-Tech school, a partnership with IBM, ended its fourth year with 35% of its students already completing both high school and college two full years ahead of schedule. In June the school accounted for two-thirds of all students achieving AAS cybersecurity degrees from SUNY Orange.
P-Tech is a public school operating within existing per pupil spending, but students have IBM mentors, paid internships, and structured workplace visits, with critical skills like problem-solving embedded into the academic program. Students take college courses beginning in grade 10, leading to a college STEM degree. Importantly, those who complete this dual-enrollment program are first in line for jobs at IBM and other companies with competitive starting salaries.
P-Tech success is being replicated in nearly 100 schools across the U.S. and globally. It is the model for the recent change in the federal law—achieved with business and education leaders assembling bipartisan support—so over $1 billion in federal funds for career and technical education can support this blueprint.
Admission into specialized school needs to be fair and equitable, but the most important challenge is to provide real opportunity for all students. This is not just the responsibility of K-12 educators. Business and higher education need to roll up their sleeves and be full partners. For those who believe this cannot be accomplished, a P-Tech school visit like the one a U.S. president made might change your mind.
Stanley Litow is a professor at Columbia and Duke University. He was president of the IBM Foundation, where he helped develop P-Tech, and is the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward published by John Wiley & Sons.