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A Review of Educational Pathways to Careers

Our current higher education system is built on historical inequity that often makes marginalized students feel like they don’t matter. Designing learning for the future means ensuring accessibility and affordability. 

This is a review of Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH SCHOOLS Create a Pathway from High School to College to Career, by Stanley S. Litow and Tina Kelley. New York: Teachers College Press, 2021.

Part memoir, part history, part documentation, part guide, Breaking Barriers is the story of a passionate advocate for improved schooling for kids through private-public partnerships. The memoir and historical passages are interesting, but the documentation and guide fall short. The authors are ardent advocates but not sufficiently passionate about the policy dimensions of public education. With his co-author, Tina Kelley, whose role in P-TECH is left unexplained, Stanley Litow offers a surprisingly simple formula for such advances. 

I say “simple” because it has been shown in the most prestigious private schools that with high expectations, rigorous coursework with college in mind, support for learning and connecting the classroom with the broader world, conscientious counseling, frequent interactions with college partners and consistent leadership, students of all abilities and backgrounds have an excellent chance of success. Shouldn’t all students have such opportunities? 

Unfortunately, most public school systems cannot provide them. They suffer from policies that provide inadequate funding and enroll children from impoverished homes and neighborhoods, in many cases with English as the second language. On average, public schools in the U.S. are nearly 50 years old, obsolete and contain environmental hazards. They have antiquated textbooks and limited broadband. The 2020 pandemic revealed the depths of the economic and racial divides between schools and homes with resources and those without—hardly sufficient ground on which to support public education as the “lifeblood of our democracy,” as Litow states it is.

With support from IBM, for whom he worked, and willing partners in a public high school and an area community college, Litow and his colleagues claim to have increased high school graduation rates, college completion rates and career opportunities in major corporations. From one school in Brooklyn, New York, started in 2010, the P-TECH model—Pathways in Technology Early College High School— is said to be in 250 schools in 28 countries ten years later.

Litow prefers to call P-TECH a movement rather than a model, but movements are often based on a fundamental truth beyond questioning. I wish there had been more self-reflection and doubt exhibited in this book. While Litow and Kelley admit to some failures, they do not give summary statistics on student academic achievement and corporate employment. By now, there must be data on the students who entered in 2010.

Also, the authors do not question the need for voluntary corporate support in place of secure communities and strong schools supported by adequate taxation. This is especially troublesome as the former CEO of IBM, an early supporter of P-TECH, argued for the elimination of local school boards, which is the base support for the model.

Among the values promoted by P-TECH are serious involvement and collaboration by stakeholders, including superintendents, principals, teachers, college officials and committed corporate leaders. The authors discuss the mixed history of corporate involvement in school reform as well as various reform movements over time but seem to accept that the P-TECH model has staying power. 

This sounds good—and difficult—especially with corporations focused more on near-term quarterly results than on the long-term employee and community well-being. During the early years of its P-TECH support, IBM terminated the employment of thousands of workers, but Litow does not discuss the fragility of corporate partnerships. There should be more acknowledgement of the societal conditions that affect schooling and school reform and a stronger critique of the sustainability and effectiveness of corporate supporters.

One value expressed is also simple, yet rarely honored: The school principal is the principal teacher, not the building principal. The difference is profound. The principal teacher underscores a school’s mission and purpose. The building principal focusses on the facility, not on the purpose. On this I agree.

Also, at P-TECH, the school day and year are longer. Research has shown that a longer school day and school year can facilitate learning and achievement, but states and communities do not typically support the results of this research through taxation and other policies. Instead, they rely on nonprofit organizations and philanthropy to provide needed services, and they are not universally available. 

The book benefits from profiles of students, teachers and principals; examples of mentoring and paid internships; the value of free community college, with colleges and the state covering tuition; the benefits of preparing students, so they need not spend valuable time on remedial classes; and how principal teachers can help raise teacher expectations. 

The comments about failure are telling. As the founding principal in the Brooklyn P-TECH put it, “Fail early, fail often, but keep moving.” A student said, “P-TECH did not encourage failure, but it did not limit what students could eventually achieve just because they failed once.” Both give examples of the Pygmalion effect, or the effectiveness of high expectations, in contrast to the Golem effect, which describes what happens “when teachers believe the worst of a student’s potential and prospects.” 

Among the research findings discussed are the positive effects of same-race teachers on student achievement and increasing the number of minority group teachers by developing second-career pathways and elevating aides to teaching staff. 

The “takeaway” sections in several chapters detail how the federal and state governments, school districts and leaders and corporate partners can benefit from lessons learned, improve existing policies and programs and initiate new forms of support for student learning. Nevertheless, as P-TECH focuses on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) as well as on job-ready instruction, there is a lack of emphasis on the values of learning history, developing imagination, fostering reflection and compassion and preparing students to live life as citizens in a democracy as workers.

Since Breaking Barriers is part memoir as well as part summary of a particular school reform, a reader has a right to be skeptical of too much good news. Litow and Kelley include a short section on P-TECH school failures and the challenges of inadequate leadership, maintaining industry partner commitments and logistical issues such as transportation, but these comments are too brief and near the end of the book, almost as an afterthought. 

School reform is difficult in our country because we lack an adequate safety net ensuring students from all neighborhoods have adequate nourishment, healthcare, housing, safety and space to study. Only when we address these issues will we be able to say our public schools are designed, organized and funded as if students—all students—matter.

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