In the last year, America has been pulled apart by two forces: A once-in-a-century pandemic and the systemic racism embodied in the murder of George Floyd just over a year ago. As the threat of Covid-19 recedes, we must face the fact that a recovery from the destructive and divisive challenge of racism is still in its early stages.
Congressional action on policing remains elusive. More encouraging steps have come from the private sector. A range of companies have made specific pledges to be more equitable and inclusive by changing their hiring practices. Companies like
and Merck have joined to form OneTen, to create 1 million careers for Black talent in America over the next 10 years. In New York City,
has led an effort to increase hiring of low income people of color by 100,000 over the same period.
Still, in the long-term, building opportunities for truly diverse and inclusive economic success depends not only on what a few employers do, but more importantly on what kind of education system and pipeline to employment and careers we create. A real focus on diversity and inclusion demands a realization that our current public education system, which we rely upon to provide real equity, stands counter to the goal of diversity.
Students in all of our nation’s public schools, but especially our high schools, far too often experience institutions that are more segregated and are disadvantaging Black students more often than perhaps at any time since Brown v. Board of Education. If students of color are denied the highest-quality learning opportunities, no pledge about hiring practices will ever truly deliver.
Far too often, entry into a state or school district’s exemplary high schools and programs is restricted based on prior achievement levels or performance on a standardized test. In New York City, my alma mater Stuyvesant High School—one of the highest-performing high schools in the U.S.— has an admissions test that restricts entry. This year only eight Black students passed with a score high enough to gain one of 749 seats. That’s one more Black student than last year.
This is in a word unacceptable. But the problem is much larger than just one high-profile school. Admissions criteria are in place in high schools across geographies. Too often states and school districts lack a plan to improve their disappointing results in college readiness, dominated by large numbers of students of color. The result is an inequitable education system that leads to social inequity. Just like employers need to make pledges about their hiring practices, our school and political leaders need to pledge to open the doors of the best schools to all students and invest in increasing the number of exemplary schools by incorporating some of the best attributes that lead to success. They should be judged not just by high school graduation numbers, but outcomes connected to college completion.
This fall is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the nation’s first P-Tech school, short for Pathways in Technology Early College High School. This innovative grade 9-14, combined high school and community college opened across from Brooklyn’s Albany Houses. Over 10 years it has served almost 99% students of color, the majority of whom did not achieve at high levels in the eighth grade. Yet without an admissions screen, its achievement levels have set records. Replicated across New York State, data from the State University of New York, whose community colleges partner with P-Tech schools, shows that nearly 95% of the initial cohort of students graduated, compared to the statewide rate of 80%. College completion rates were significantly higher than the national average. Similar success has been achieved by P-Tech schools across the U.S. in states including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and Texas. There are now 266 such schools across the U.S., and they have spread to 28 countries.
How many global examples of educational success that started in low-income U.S. communities have been replicated in places like Australia, France, Ireland or Taiwan? Graduates get well-paying jobs at companies like IBM, Global Foundries, Tesla and
This pipeline will increase from hundreds of students to thousands, but it should not stop there.
I was involved in the design, launch, and replication of the P-Tech program, which was supported and championed by IBM. In the new book I co-authored, Breaking Barriers, we show the effectiveness of the model through the lens of individual students’ success stories. ShuDon Brown is pursuing her doctorate. Radcliffe Saddler completed his bachelors while working at IBM. Morsaline Mozahid is on his way to medical school. And last month Jose Quiroz Yanez graduated with his high school diploma and associate’s degree and has a full scholarship to Harvard. In the combined grade 9-to-14 program, they all got both their high school diplomas and a college degree, coupled with internships and mentoring that advanced their skills. And yes, having the right college degree does matter. It is the ticket to the middle class and beyond. When students are given the opportunity, assumptions about who can achieve, based on race, zip code, or prior level of achievement can be blown apart.
P-Tech is by no means the only effective high school innovation, but there are lessons to draw from its success. First is to make sure that the barriers to bringing success in one school to scale need to be eliminated from day one, and that includes engaging all key stakeholders and getting them to buy into the reform. Leave teachers, principals, or parents out of the design and you risk building them into a high barrier later on. Second, schools benefit from real meaningful public-private partnerships and industry involvement and collaboration. So reach out, engage, and make sure their assistance goes beyond checkbook philanthropy and involves internships, mentoring and employment—meaningful partnerships. Next, high school is not an end. It’s the launching pad to college success. So invest not only in a high school diploma but in college readiness and success. That means connecting high school to college classes by engaging our higher education institutions as full partners. Finally, don’t rest on your laurels. Continue to engage collaborators and open more opportunities so that career success is available to all.
Achieving all this is needed will not be easy, but it is within our grasp and it can be done. And most importantly it doesn’t require an act of Congress.
Stanley Litow is a professor at Duke and Columbia universities, and serves as innovator-in-residence at Duke. He is a trustee and chair of the Academic Affairs Committee at the State University of New York. He previously served as deputy chancellor of schools for New York and as president of the IBM Foundation.