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New data on P-TECH spurs a Twitter debate over school’s merits and model

Geoff Decker

A school visit from President Obama invites plenty of intrigue and attention. But it can also make a school a high-profile target for criticism.

Take Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, which offers free associates degrees from a local college and a high-profile partnership with IBM. Though the Crown Heights school has only been open for three years, it’s been praised and visited by the president and replicated around the state and country.

But its merits were challenged on Monday with a provocatively titled blog post by high school teacher Gary Rubinstein. He pointed to new data showing P-TECH’s average Geometry Regents exam score was 47 out of 100, seventh-lowest in the city, and 36 out of 100 on the Algebra II Regents exam, good for eighth-lowest.

“This could be the most un-miraculous miracle school I’ve ever investigated,” Rubinstein writes, comparing the scores to what students earned at Boys & Girls High School, which has fought off closure for years.

The debate resumed on Twitter, where it grew to include a number of city teachers.

Will Ehrenfeld, a former teacher who joined IBM in September as a liaison to P-TECH, said Rubinstein’s analysis was unfair and misleading. And it left out critical information about how P-TECH’s testing policies are different from many other high schools.

For one, not all students at many schools take Geometry and Algebra II Regents since it’s not required for graduation (At 101 schools, no students took Geometry and at 185 schools no students took Algebra II, which Rubinstein did not mention). At P-TECH, Ehrehfeld said, all students have to take those tests, including the ones who are behind or barely on pace to graduate.

In an email, Ehrenfeld said the right test with which to compare P-TECH’s performance in math to other schools’ would be Algebra 1 because most students would have taken that TEST. At P-TECH, the average score was 72, with 76 percent of students passing and 33 percent scoring above 80, CUNY’s standard for being ready to take college-level course. At Boys & Girls, the average Algebra 1 score is 58, with a 41 percent passing rate and 2 percent meeting the college-ready bar.

P-TECH, one of the schools that replaced Paul Robeson High School, was often cited as evidence that school closures are the most effective way to turning around a school system. Former Chancellor Joel Klein begins his new book by recounting Obama’s visit to the school and writing how “change had come, kicking and screaming.”

In an interview, Rubenstein said he had nothing against P-TECH, but believed it was important to poke holes in beat-the-odds stories heralded by politicians and education leaders. But he acknowledged the limitations of what data is publicly available, saying that more detailed information is needed to probe a school’s effectiveness.

“Once there is more transparency, we’ll realize that these miracles aren’t so much better than the schools they replace,” Rubinstein said.

One thing that Ehrenfeld and Rubinstein seemed to agree on was on the question of where it makes sense to push students to take tests that they might not be prepared to do well on. Rubinstein called it “absurd,” a point with which Ehrenfeld said he didn’t outright disagree.

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