In “Cool” Brooklyn, Obama Explains the Logic of Building City Schools with IBMs

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (in blue tie) and NYC Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott (in suit) accompanied President Obama to P-TECH on Friday. Credit: Flickr user ibmphoto24

Brooklyn’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School had already been graced with a high-profile presidential mention during the 2013 State of the Union address. But the unusual school, better known as P-TECH, got the real thing this past Friday afternoon: A visit and on-site speech by President Obama himself.

Though housed in Crown Heights’ crumbling Paul Robeson High School building, P-TECH has become an Obama administration favorite for its inventive educational model. The school, as Greg Lindsey detailed in an August Forefront story, is a joint project of the New York City Department of Education, the City University of New York and IBM, the technology corporation. Since its founding in 2010, it has been the subject of debate over whether shaping public education around the needs and vision of today’s private employers is a good trend.

Standing behind a presidential podium on Friday, Obama, for his part, used reverse engineering to explain P-TECH’s appeal. “This is a ticket into the middle class,” he told the crowd while dressed in blue shirt sleeves, with the sleeves rolled up. “And it’s available to everybody who’s willing to work for it. And that’s the way it should be. That’s what public,” — here the president emphasized public strongly — “education’s supposed to do.”

From there, Obama detailed his argument for why the competitive, placeless nature of the modern economy means that P-TECH’s public-private partnership makes sense.

“In the old days,” he said, “a young person, they might have just followed their parent’s footsteps, gotten a job in their parent’s line of work, keep that job for 30, 40 years. If you were willing to work hard, you didn’t necessarily need a great education. If you’d just gone to high school, you might get a job in a factory, or in the Garment District.” Such jobs could, Obama said, keep pace with those held by college-educated peers.

“But those days are over,” he went on, with clumps of students lined up behind him and to his left. “And those days are not coming back. We live in a 21st-century global economy. And in a global economy, jobs can go anywhere. Companies, they’re looking for the best-educated people, wherever they are. And they’ll reward them with good jobs and good pay.” IBM promises P-TECH students a first look at entry-level jobs available with the company.

Just a handful of years old, P-TECH has already inspired imitators. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who was in attendance, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty — has announced a plan for 16 “private-public partnerships” with schools and school districts around the state. And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced plans for five companies to partner on “early college” schools.

“Across the country,” Obama told the assembled P-TECH students, “companies like Verizon, and Microsoft, and ConEd, and Cisco, they saw what IBM was doing and said, ‘That’s a good idea. We can do this, too.’ So they’re working with educators in cities to replicate what you’re doing here. You should feel good about that. You’re starting something all across the country.”

As president, Obama has embraced the notion that college is critical to gaining entry to the middle class. At the same time, college costs are climbing. P-TECH’s education runs from grades nine through 14, with the last two years dedicated to gaining credits for an associate’s degree. “Here’s how much two years of college will cost P-TECH students and their families,” Obama said. “Zero. Nothing. Nothing.”

That got considerable applause. Joked Obama, “I notice some parents were the first to clap.” More applause.

The president’s trip to Brooklyn was something of a homecoming. He lived in nearby Park Slope in the 1980s, after graduating from Columbia University. Obama noted that while as a young man he lived across from Prospect Park, where on Friday afternoon he’d “actually landed Marine One.”

But even while in the borough that Obama noted was far more “cool” than in his days as a resident, Washington dysfunction was still on his mind. Obama joked that P-TECH’s “Real World Math” lessons “got me thinking whether it was too late to send Congress here.”

Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

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