Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the six-year high school model, where four years of high school are combined with two years of college for an equivalent of an associate’s degree. Known as the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (or P-Tech for short)—made famous by the high achieving P-Tech school in Brooklyn, New York, and by President Obama in his State of the Union speeches, this approach allows students to learn in-demand 21st century workforce skills—with the help of industry partners like IBM. Time magazine recently profiled another P-Tech school, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, “middle skills” jobs (like technical support, medical technicians, and high-tech manufacturing workers) are increasingly in high demand. In fact, they are as much in demand as high-skilled STEM jobs, which only account for 5% of all U.S. jobs. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, but they need more than a high school diploma. Workers with an associate’s degree will earn 74% more than those with only a high school diploma, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
A six-year program would be more in line with a career and technical education (CTE) model, where students learn real world skills from tech firms and would graduate with concrete job skills. Corporate partners, in turn, are eager to hire those they have trained. Connecticut and upstate New York are also rolling out this approach. The question is, can this model be expanded at the national level?
A few issues to consider. One, how will the teacher’s union react to this? So far, the P-Tech approach has operated within the public school system, rather than outside it (like charter schools), so unions don’t seem to be opposed to the idea. Problems might arise, however, during teacher training. Who trains the teachers–education schools or corporations? Traditional teacher preparation programs will not have the expertise, which can open the door to corporate influence. Issues of power and politics will certainly play a factor. This will be the most significant obstacle to expanding the six-year high school model.
Two, how do we expand funding? President Obama has been pushing for more CTEs and alternative models of education that involve public-private partnerships, and as such, has earmarked $100 million in new grant funds for schools like P-Tech. Funds can also come from the Perkins Act of 2006, which seeks to provide more focus on the academic achievement of CTE students. It is up for congressional reauthorization this year.
Finally, we will need the help of more local leaders and industries. P-Tech programs are easier to implement in large cities where Fortune 500 companies are located, but what about rural and depressed areas? Local leaders, like governors, mayors, and school superintendents must push for these programs.
The benefits of a six-year high school or CTE model are obvious. It would drastically improve the inequality issue as we improve the majority of students—i.e., those that are struggling and those that are average performers (i.e., B or C level students) by giving them opportunities. Not every student needs to learn algebra II or trigonometry, and they need multiple pathways to succeed. Four-year colleges would be reserved for academically talented and/or motivated students. Furthermore, six-year programs would reduce student apathy and the dropout rate – a significant problem in the U.S.
The key, however, is to allow students and their families to decide which track they wish to go, rather than be assigned. Schools can provide counsel. That simple move will minimize problems associated with tracking (the practice of separating children according to ability), such as apathy and mobility.
European countries like Germany have long understood the importance of providing alternatives for students who are not academically inclined. But can we institutionalize them at a larger, and perhaps national, level? It seems we are starting to understand that accountability is not enough to prepare our students for the 21st century. The move to CTE and six-year high school models suggest we are beginning to understand the balance between individuality and the national economic wellbeing.