P-TECH Schools are Unproven and Threaten Public Education

This article is summary of a Policy Brief published by SOS on P-TECH schools. The Brief can be downloaded below.

Last year, the Federal Government announced $0.5 million funding for a new type of school in Australia incorporating high school education and two years of tertiary training. It is based on the P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College) school in Brooklyn, New York, established by the giant IT multinational IBM and now being rolled out in several US cities. The model is personally endorsed by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Under the proposal, two existing schools in Ballarat and Geelong will be converted into P-TECH schools.

The introduction of P-TECH schools is proceeding without any evidence that they work and without any open discussion of their implications for the curriculum, how public schools are governed and how education is delivered in the classroom. IBM says that the new schools will replicate the New York model but it appears to be incompatible with the provisions of the Victorian Education and Training Act relating to school councils and curriculum development and accreditation and with the national curriculum for Years 9 & 10.

There are good reasons for concern about the introduction of P-TECH schools in Australia. First, the model is unproven. The flagship school in New York continues to be one of the lowest performing schools in the city after four years of operation and its results are well below those of many other schools with a similar demographic composition.

Second, the P-TECH curriculum is much narrower than the requirements of Australia’s national curriculum for Years 9 & 10. There is a very real danger that students will be tracked into vocational specialisation too early. It gives priority to serving the labour demands of individual firms rather than providing a broad education needed by all young people.

Third, the model also involves IBM having a key leadership role in public schools. An IBM Vice-President has said that it will “take responsibility” for the Ballarat school and have a support role in the Geelong school. In effect, the P-TECH model represents a new form of school privatisation with IBM and other firms having de facto control over public schools.

Fourth, the two schools and their students will be hostage to the future profitability of IBM and the other corporate sponsors. Students will not be guaranteed a future job and the schools could be abandoned in the event of a profit downturn or a change in global corporate strategy.

Fifth, P-TECH initiative is part of IBM’s ambitious program in education to use data analysis to “transform” education. ‘Big Data’ could dramatically change the nature of schooling and how it is delivered. But, this could be more about delivering greater profits than better student outcomes. Data analysis can help good teaching but it cannot substitute for good teaching.

Sixth, the heavy involvement of IBM and other IT firms also raises a very significant privacy issue about firms having access to detailed student records, a development which is being strongly resisted by parents in the US.

For all these reasons, the P-TECH model should be carefully assessed before it is implemented in Australia. The details of the program are shrouded in secrecy and are being developed and negotiated behind closed doors. If it is to follow the New York model it will require changes to the Victorian Education Act. Parent, teacher and principals’ and other public school organisations should be consulted about the proposal to convert existing schools to P-TECH schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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