Rebuilding the High School to Middle Class Pipeline

President Barack Obama visits a math classroom at P-TECH in Brooklyn, New York.

In December of 2014, The Washington Post reported on the decline of manufacturing in towns such as Downey, California—a once-proud aerospace manufacturing hub. The Post told the story of Bob Thompson, a man who, in 1965, walked to the Rockwell factory in his town and landed a job at the plant. He was in his early 20s and had never gone to college. Thompson worked hard and leveraged his free public education into a lifetime in the middle class and a pension that allowed him to retire. His story is an archetype of the era’s American dream. Today, however, many Americans believe achieving that dream is no longer possible.

Pessimism about the U.S. economy is especially strong among Americans like Thompson who do not have a college education. Considering the bleak trajectory of these Americans in recent decades—with stubbornly high unemployment, stagnant incomes, and a widening income gap relative to their college-educated peers—it is clear that non-college-educated Americans have suffered greatly from the decline of the middle class, in part due to manufacturing’s shrinking share of overall employment.

Meanwhile, employers face a skills gap that has left them unable to fill middle-income job vacancies. While the automation and offshoring of routine procedural tasks has caused labor market polarization in the United States, a Harvard Business School analysis found a major shortfall of labor market supply for so-called middle skills jobs. Such jobs cannot easily be automated or exported as they demand technical and behavioral skills, such as communication, problem solving, leadership, and teamwork. They also require education beyond traditional high school, but not necessarily a four-year degree. Middle skills fields—including computer technology, nursing, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, and similar professions—now account for 54 percent of all jobs in the United States, but only 44 percent of American workers are qualified to fill them. A Georgetown Public Policy Institute study found that 65 percent of the 55 million new job openings through 2020 will require at least some college or an associate’s degree; as many as 5 million of those openings will go unfilled.

The combination of the decline of the middle class and the growing skills gap raises serious questions about the public school system’s ability to provide economic opportunity and to drive broad economic growth. In the face of globalization and advances in technology, rebuilding the high school to middle class pipeline must be a leading policy priority. If the United States is to sustain an inclusive and competitive economy, its students need to complete their high school education fully equipped to earn and thrive in middle skills jobs.

Pathways in Technology Early College High School

Schools such as Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, show a promising start. P-TECH is a career and technical education, or CTE, public-private partnership. The first P-TECH, located in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, has partnered with IBM, the City University of New York, and the New York City Department of Education. P-TECH seeks to bridge the skills gap while preparing its students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields. The grade 9-14 model allows P-TECH to give its students four to six years to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in a STEM field; grades 13 and 14 are available if students need them to complete the postsecondary work. In addition, the program offers all of these opportunities to students at no personal cost. After completing paid internships and mentorships at IBM during their time at P-TECH, students either enter the workforce—and will be “first in line” for positions at IBM with annual starting salaries upwards of $50,000—or complete their educations at four-year colleges. The original philosophy of P-TECH’s pioneers was to create opportunities for students of color in STEM fields and to give low-income students access to postsecondary education despite ballooning college costs. At the Crown Heights campus, 96 percent of students are black or Hispanic, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

In a visit to the school, President Barack Obama praised P-TECH as “a ticket into the middle class.” This spring, U.S. Secretary of Education John King also lauded P-TECH while advocating for the renewal of the Perkins Act—the federal law that funds and regulates CTE programs and whose reauthorization is three years overdue. The P-TECH model is still growing—by the end of 2016, there will be 60 locations between the United States and Australia. It is also highly versatile, with some new programs opening inside existing public high schools and some traditional high schools undergoing full transitions. While program elements can widely vary from one P-TECH to another, all of them include mentoring, an open and inclusive program, and paid internships.

Supporting the expansion of CTE partnerships

Expanding public-private early college CTE partnerships offers a unique opportunity to satisfy labor market demand, establish inclusive opportunity for students, and bolster the nation’s economic competitiveness. However, in order to adequately support this expansion, Congress, states, and CTE program leaders must take the following steps: increase federal investment; attract new private partners by expanding local flexibility and partners’ standard-setting influence; and invest in the recruitment, preparation, and professional development of CTE and STEM teachers.

Increase federal investment

Congress should expand federal investment in P-TECH and similar early college CTE partnerships, particularly in areas outside large urban centers. Rural districts face unique challenges and greater costs to implementing P-TECH’s model due to transportation or infrastructure investments needed to bridge rural digital divides. The proposed Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, or H.R. 5587, approved 37-0 by the House Education and Workforce Committee with broad bipartisan support, would reauthorize the Perkins Act and is a promising start to satisfy these goals.

Attract new private partners

States and program leaders must attract new private partners. As evidenced by Germany’s work-based learning model and the praise it has attracted from U.S. businesses, the skills pipeline is not valuable solely to students. By providing employers with greater influence on standards and streamlined performance measures, high-quality CTE partnerships empower businesses to more efficiently identify and hire productive employees.

Especially for a program such as PTECH that relies on internships and mentorships to provide students with work-based learning, finding private partners is essential. Unfortunately, that task becomes more difficult as programs expand outside urban areas and must partner with fewer and smaller employers. Here, H.R. 5587 would provide states and localities with standards-setting flexibility to meet local labor market demand while requiring the participation of business and industry representatives in program development. More directly, the bill would require state leadership to create partnerships between local districts, higher education institutions, and employers. In this way, states have the unique opportunity to elevate the voices of small businesses—encouraging and supporting participation by employers who would likely otherwise lack the influence to make their investment worthwhile.

Invest in CTE and STEM teachers

Congress, states, and districts must invest in STEM and CTE teacher quality by improving teacher recruitment, preparation, and professional development. While this investment will be vital to the success of public-private CTE partnerships, strengthening the teacher pipeline would also help solve nationwide teacher shortages in STEM fields. California, for instance, is experiencing a drastic shortage in both STEM and CTE teachers; a sharp decline in its teacher prep enrollment across the board; and a lack of successful teacher prep programs to train teachers who do enroll. Congress, states, and districts should offer incentives for high-performing students to enroll in teacher prep; competitive compensation to attract highly qualified professionals from other STEM fields; and expanded clinical practice opportunities through STEM and CTE teacher residencies, such as those proposed last fall in the Creating Quality Technical Educators Act. Furthermore, long-term solutions must include policies that address the entire teacher pipeline—including recruitment and teacher preparation.

And even after STEM and CTE teachers have been recruited and prepared, they must be supported with professional learning. An American Institutes for Research analysis found a direct relationship between effective professional development of CTE educators and improved student outcomes. Importantly, current CTE educators ranked improving business and industry relationships—the hallmark of partnerships such as P-TECH—among their most essential professional learning topics.

Conclusion

As stories like Bob Thompson’s—and the 20th century American dream they represent—become less common, the nation is challenged to build a new dream and stories for a new century. Consider Janiel Richards, a young woman who emigrated from Trinidad as a child. Raised in a turbulent New York neighborhood, her parents enrolled her at P-TECH for the ninth grade. This May, at age 18, Janiel graduated and accepted a job at IBM paying $50,000 per year. She hopes to one day attend New York University for her bachelor’s degree and Columbia University for her master’s degree.

By expanding CTE partnerships such as P-TECH, Congress, the states, and education leaders can rebuild and fortify the high school to middle class pipeline and create a new, 21st century American dream. This expansion would help satisfy labor market demand by preparing more students for middle skills jobs, establish inclusive opportunity for those who cannot afford postsecondary education, and bolster the United States’ economic competitiveness. The high school to middle class pipeline is essential for widely accessible, enduring economic growth.

Andrew Miner is a former intern with the Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.