Stanley S. Litow and Tina Kelley

Sep 27, 2021

Breaking Barriers

How P-Tech Schools Create a Pathway from High School to College to Career

Teachers College Press 2021

What is the purpose of education? Folks outside the field are likely to think of a relatively clear or concrete answer—learning, citizenship, preparation for life, which for the vast majority encompasses work and skills. Upon probing, however, most are likely to realize that these explanations are deceptively simple. Learning what, how, and according to which or whose values? Citizenship within what communities, through which policies and enacted with how much equity, not to mention care? Why are we preparing certain kids for certain kinds of work, especially if laboring in certain ways will not necessarily earn material dignity or social capital?

Consensus on the purpose of education has perhaps always been elusive, and maybe it is now most of all. So I appreciate when authors in the education space disclose their perspectives on this perennial and critical question. In Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway from High School to College to Career, Stanley S. Litow and Tina Kelley are quite forthright on this matter: “Public education is the lifeblood of our democracy. If our schools fail, our economy fails. Our students’ achievement is eventually connected to every issue of consequence our country will face, including racial justice, public health, closing the digital divide, income inequality, and economic empowerment” (p. 170). The authors position P-TECH schools as more than a scalable model working towards “fairer” public schools; they argue for P-TECH as a reform movement that centers students within a coalition of education stakeholders. Ultimately, they show that “education stakeholders” is a category encompassing literally everyone.

P-TECH stands for Pathways in Technology Early College High School. This six-year secondary education model “gives a smooth and supported 6-year route from 9th grade to a career with potential for significant growth” (p. 1). Through the triangular partnership of community colleges, P-TECH, and employers, students graduate with a free associates degree, relevant work experience, and “hard” as well as “soft” skills that map onto positions that corporations like IBM struggle to fill, and don’t necessarily require a 4-year degree. The authors position P-TECH as an innovation that breaks with the inequitable history of Vocational or Career/Technical education through ample statistics. Citing an article that cites Rashid Davis, the celebrated principal of the first P-TECH school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the authors write that 80% of those students who earned an associate’s degree went on to a 4-year college, compared with the New York City average of 55%.

From Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) to P-TECH administrators’, teachers’, and students’ testimonials, a range of voices are featured in Breaking Barriers that address the purpose of this model, if not education more generally. In the book’s Afterword, Davis writes that “the definition of success in this high school is a completed college degree, and it really gets to the crux of equity” (p. 171). As an example, Davis references a PTECH student identified for special education—and the roughly 15% of students at PTECH who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan)—who now holds a college degree and works at IBM.

When the purpose of education is linked to employment, or when businesses become involved in education, red flags go up for many members of the public—not to mention activists and intellectuals. If schooling is for working, it reinforces individualism and private property: what you earned is ascribed to you alone, regardless of how many helped you get it, and ‘it’ is now your personal possession (private property being a bastion of white supremacy), regardless of whether that ownership is sustainable or contributes to fairness, from a wide-angle lens. Is this kind of thinking innovative, or an echo of the mentalities that created the problems the authors of the P-TECH model earnestly seek to solve?

A powerful example of how business might contribute to ending white supremacy in education comes from a story told by the legal, spiritual, and educational visionary john. a. powell in 2018, on an episode of On Being. In the Wake County school system, the largest in North Carolina, voters and politicians rejected policy efforts to integrate public schools racially and economically. Only the business community, in his words, stepped up and “pushed it through.” In an area of the country that has more Ph.D.’s than almost anywhere else in the U.S., private sector involvement may have been crucial to making Wake County one of the best education systems in the nation.

To be certain, powell can be located in a lineage of thinkers ranging from John Dewey (“P-Tech’s patron saint” (p. 156)) to Angela Y. Davis who claim the purpose of education as struggling within our collective awarenesses (conscious and unconscious) to uncover layers of connectedness. The connection that bridges individual selves has been on full display during the pandemic, what with the uncontainable transference of COVID-19. Connections are also intersections. In ravaging countries, socio-economic classes, and racial/ethnic groups located at various intersections of power and oppression unequally, the pandemic has also illuminated the inequity and injustice that frame our networked, nested selves.

The Breaking Barriers book is generally written with replicable specificity. This transparency is good. It breaks with the precedent of elites’ involvement in education behind closed doors, and is forthright about their involvement in P-TECH. Thus the book invites those who read it to give its premises and promises a try—through real-world implementations, or by contemplating it longer than your ideological positioning might normally allow. This also makes it an invitation to push past cynicism, in the long struggle for solidarity and justice we have ahead.

Listeners can get 15% off the cover price and free shipping by entering the code NBNPTECH at the Teachers College Press

Christina Anderson Bosch is faculty at the California State University, Fresno. She is curious about + committed to public, inclusive education in pluralistic societies where critical perspectives on questions of social and ecological justice are valued enough to enact material dignity and metaphysical wellbeing on massive scales.

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Christina Bosch

Christina Anderson Bosch is faculty at the California State University, Fresno. She is curious about + committed to public, inclusive education in pluralistic societies where critical perspectives on questions of social and ecological justice are valued enough to enact material dignity and metaphysical wellbeing on massive scales.

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