Curious Capitalist

Foroohar: To Compete, America Needs 6-Year High Schools

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Buddy Mays / Corbis

Back in April of 2012, I wrote a column touting a 6-year high school in Brooklyn as a model for a new kind of secondary education. On Friday, President Obama traveled to New York to visit this same school, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), where he discussed the importance of ensuring that the next generation of middle class American workers and entrepreneurs have the skills they need to compete and win in a global economy.

In his State of the Union Address earlier this year, the President lauded the P-tech school, which is a collaborative effort between New York public schools and City University of New York and IBM, which donates time, expertise and mentors, but no money. Student at P-tech, many of whom will be the first in their families to graduate from high school, will come out with not only a high school diploma, but also an associate’s degree in a high-tech concentration like computer science or engineering. As the President put it, “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”

In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that P-tech should be the future of high school nationwide. Hundreds of billions of dollars of government money, as well as countless man-hours of time and energy are spent trying to get kids to graduate from high school. But the truth is that a high school degree is, in today’s economy, largely worthless. Of the 14 million new jobs that will be created in this country over the next decade, nearly all will require at least a 2-year associates degree.

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Having only a high school degree means a future of $15 bucks an hour or below. But only a quarter of students who enter community colleges actually graduate (the rates are only slightly better at 4 year schools). Meanwhile, many of them that do graduate have skills that aren’t suited to the jobs they’ll actually need. We’re graduating too many sports marketing experts, and not enough web programmers, and so on.

Enter IBM, and the vision for the 6-year high school. A few years ago, Stan Litow, the former vice chancellor of the New York City Schools, joined IBM and began working on a solution for what the company believed was its biggest long-term economic challenge — the skills gap. IBM could find plenty of PhDs, and plenty of lower level workers in both the US and abroad, but it didn’t have the people to do the millions of jobs in the middle — entry level software engineers, marketing executives, sales force, even skilled assistants.

Training the middle-income workforce of the future is the core of the P-Tech model. Aside from exponentially beefing up the science and tech curriculum, P-Tech schools do something even more radical — they turn 4 year high school into 6 year high school, in which students not only graduate with an associates degree, but are guaranteed a job with IBM. The company doesn’t give the schools any money — they use what’s already in state and local budgets — but it sends full-time staff to make sure they have a curriculum that will teach kids the skills, hard and soft, that they’ll need to get a middle class job (in classes known as “workplace learning,” kids are taught how to present themselves in meetings, speak in public, argue their points constructively, all the things you need to thrive in the corporate world). Students also get a corporate mentor to guide them throughout their educational career.

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The model started in Brooklyn, but it has since spread to Chicago, New York state, and other spots nationwide. Corporate interest has grown too — dozens of blue chip firms, including Microsoft and Cisco, are signed on to work with schools like this in other cities. The model not only fills their own labor needs, but encourages a more competitive workforce in general — kids that have an associates degree are much more likely to get a 4 year degree and even more advanced education.

While the concept is new, it’s possible that the P-tech model may actually shift the definition of secondary education itself. In the Brooklyn school, 40% of the kids are on track to actually complete the 6-year curriculum in 4 years. If the 6 Year High School becomes the norm, it will be the biggest reset for education since the U.S. made high school itself mandatory after WWII. That’s when we realized that shifts in the global economy had made education beyond 8th grade essential. It’s not hard to make the argument that we’re at another such inflection point now. For more on P-tech and what it might mean for national competitiveness and secondary education in the U.S., check out the latest episode of WNYC’s Money Talking, where Joe Nocera, Charlie Herman, and I discuss the topic.