Alan Singer suspects that the reason so many school “reformers” keep promoting dramatic stories about miracle schools is that it relieves society of any responsibility to attack fundamental issues like poverty, segregation, and unemployment.
Pathways in Technology Early College High School or P-Tech is a small high school with 330 students in Brooklyn, New York. Its student population is 85% African American and 11% Hispanic. Three-quarters of the students are eligible for free lunch and one-in-six is considered special education. Because of a partnership with IBM and the City University of New York to prepare students for 21st century careers in technology, it has been presented as the academic wave of the future, including in the 2013 State of the Union Address by President Barack Obama, who also visited the school in October 2013.
For proponents of P-Tech, the message is clear. The United States does not need to put more money into public education. We don’t need to rebuild inner city minority communities. We don’t need a full employment jobs programs. We don’t need to tax companies that are masking profits by shifting income overseas. All we need for a bright and rosy future in the United States are private-public partnerships to jumpstart more P-Techs for Black and Latino students.
P-Tech Brooklyn is so highly regarded that New York State Governor Andrew Como has pledged $28 million in state aid over the next seven years to open sixteen new P-Tech programs and another ten programs are planned down the line. There are new P-Techs in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens and Cuomo has promised P-Techs for Geneva, Poughkeepsie, and Yonkers. Meanwhile, IBM is taking the P-Tech model nationwide and hopes to help create 100 new P-Techs by 2016. Five P-techs are already in operation in Chicago and P-Tech’s Brooklyn principal Rashid Davis has become a national spokesperson for the program, traveling to Idaho in 2013 where five P-Techs were being developed.
To their credit, New York State Commissioner John King and Board of Regents’ Chairperson Merryl Tisch have been wary of the hype around P-Tech. Singer reviews test score data and can’t figure out why all the hoopla.
Overall, P-Tech ranked 951st out of 1079 high schools in New York State on student math and reading scores. This placed it in the lowest 12% of state schools. My intent is not to denigrate the students of P-Tech or their teachers. It is to challenge the idea that the P-Tech model being promoted by politicians and business leaders is a magical solution to problems plaguing the American economy and inner-city minority schools.
What do all the numbers mean? If you neighborhood P-Tech successfully attracts students who are already performing above the academic norm, they will continue to score above the norm and your P-Tech will be declared a miracle school. But if your local P-Tech becomes home to students who are struggling academically, they will continue to struggle academically and your P-Tech will perform below expectations.
On a deeper level the performance of students at the Brooklyn P-Tech means State Education Departments, corporations, foundations, and the federal government have no idea how to improve the educational performance of inner-city minority students and that they are selling the public a fairy tale.
The “P” in P-Tech certainly does not stand for “performance.” It may well stand for “phony.”
I don’t think anyone should put down the hard-working educators in schools like P-Tech. It is not their fault that politicians are overhyping their success. There is a moral to the story, however. Schools alone can’t compensate for the social and economic problems of our society. We need a government that will stop pretending that school reform will end poverty and close income gaps. It won’t. We must work for the day when politicians take responsibility for problems that only social policy can address and stop spinning tales of miracle schools.