5 Principles for Scaling Change From IBM’s High School Innovation


P-TECH has bolstered graduation rates for students of color while creating a new tech hiring pipeline. Rosabeth Moss Kanter and program architect Stanley Litow discuss the social impact lessons for other organizations.

Without leaving the hallways of their public high school, dozens of students from the economically distressed city of Newburgh, New York, have earned associate’s degrees in cybersecurity, arming them with in-demand skills and preparing them for jobs with starting salaries approaching $70,000.

These students are graduates of Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), an innovative six-year public high school program spearheaded by IBM that has improved college completion rates among disadvantaged youth and created a hiring pipeline for technology firms seeking a more diverse talent pool. Now in 266 schools across 13 states and in 28 countries, P-TECH started 10 years ago as a pilot program in a Brooklyn high school, offering students of color from underprivileged backgrounds the chance to stay in high school through “grade 14” to earn both a high school diploma and a tech-oriented, two-year college degree.

“P-TECH is a great example of what I call ‘thinking outside the building,’” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Kanter chronicled P-TECH’s development and growth in a series of HBS cases and featured the program in her 2020 book, Think Outside the Building. “I consider it the first reinvention of high school since high school.”

Duke University Professor Stanley Litow, a former IBM vice president, is the architect of the P-TECH model, a “school-within-a-school” approach that relies on local employers to provide admitted students with mentors and paid work experience starting in grade nine. Co-author of the recent book, Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway from High School to College to Career, with journalist Tina Kelley, Litow says the success of P-TECH illustrates the importance of embedding a scale-up strategy in the initial design of a program that aims to solve a widespread problem.

In the following discussion, Kanter and Litow talk about the process through which creative, “outside-the-building” thinking and strong, inclusive strategies can change the world. The conversation, including five key insights from the P-TECH experience, has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Plan for change at scale

Kanter: Just to develop the first P-TECH school, you had to deal with the K-12 system, which had not necessarily worked closely with the two-year college system, and then you had the employer connection, with IBM. How did you structure the program and make it appeal to these different parties?

Litow: To bring about change, you have to have a conscious change strategy. If you expect there to be change produced, and you expect it to go to scale, and you expect it to be sustainable, you’ve got to think about what the barriers are and build [from there], eliminating the barriers within the design of what you’re doing.

For example, there was a suggestion by the school system that we give an exam or only select the students who have the highest grades. I believe that would have been a huge mistake, because if you cherry-pick the best students, they might do well, but then you build in a barrier to replicating [the model], because critics might argue that it only works for the brightest students. The fact that it was open enrollment—the students were 100-percent students of color, and 60 percent of them were more than two years behind in reading and math—eliminated a barrier to scaling it.

Some suggested making it a charter school. That way, you wouldn’t have to pay attention to collective bargaining rules. But if you do that, you immediately build in a barrier because then it will only work in those kinds of schools.

People also said IBM should spend a whole lot more money. But if you do that, if you look at the results, when you’ve spent a lot of private money, it won’t sustain itself because the government will not be able to spend that kind of money. So, every single one of those potential barriers was eliminated in the design.

Kanter: You’re talking about doing radical change in a fairly conservative way. That’s one of my principles of making change. You want this innovation to flourish, so you don’t try to change everything at once. You don’t try to take on the teacher’s unions; you don’t try to have IBM control it. You’re reducing the amount of resistance it’s going to get, which is always a brilliant change principle.

People think if you’re going to be radical, you start from nothing. But we have charter school companies that have done well with their schools, but they’re still tiny compared to the several hundred P-TECH schools in the US alone and then in 28 countries.

2. Get on the ground and build a coalition

Kanter: You were an incredible coalition-builder in getting all these parties together. How did you get them to set aside their differences, their traditional rivalries, and work together?

Litow: We created a governance structure in which the community college system, through the City University of New York and the chancellor of the city university system (who was a very close personal friend of mine), and the company, were represented. A steering committee met monthly to essentially go over what each one of those constituencies needed to do differently and what they needed to do collaboratively to bring about the change and sustain it. We built that model governance structure into any other state or geography that implemented P-TECH. So, you got the key players not just to donate something, but to be part of the decision-making process.

The new principal of the first P-TECH school went door to door in the public housing project across the street to talk to parents before the school opened. He got on the agenda of every single major church in the area on Sunday to explain what this was about. We organized meetings at key community organizations. We heard people out. The same was true with the teachers’ union and the principals’ union. All the key stakeholders were involved and engaged in the process because if you leave out a key stakeholder, ultimately, they become the opposition, and then they are the ones that tear down the reform that you are trying to implement.

3. Foster a culture that assumes success

Kanter: At that first school, the principal, Rashid Davis, as well as the teachers and the students, were all highly motivated, which is not always the case, particularly in New York City schools. I have a hypothesis that young people are totally underchallenged and that school is often very boring. It doesn’t seem very relevant to them, and it doesn’t seem worth it. What was motivating these students to make this a high priority, even before they had mentors, internships, and job interviews?

Litow: That’s a very good point, and I wrote about this in the book Breaking Barriers about the P-TECH story. I wanted to tell the story through the lens of individual students. Oscar Tendilla was a young man, a Mexican immigrant, who gets admitted into P-TECH. His family is under severe financial circumstances, and he’s significantly behind in grade eight. He believes he probably won’t be able to even graduate high school.

At P-TECH, there’s a culture in the building that says to Oscar: “You’re going to succeed, and you’re going to complete college, and you’re going to have a career.” Things start to snap and click in Oscar’s mind. He can walk through the hallways of the school and see pictures of students who look like him and under the pictures it says, “college ready.” He has a mentor starting day one in grade nine, and the mentor encourages him to work with him on a regular basis and provides him with support.

Very quickly, Oscar starts rising in terms of his achievement levels. He starts thinking, “Yes, I can complete college. I might have a career.” Three and a half years later, Oscar graduates the six-year program in three and a half years, and he gets a full scholarship to Cornell. He just graduated with his bachelor’s degree. Oscar wants to be an education reformer, and he wants to take an idea like P-TECH, and he wants to spread it around the world.

Kanter: You’re talking about something important. This innovation is definitely systemic. It’s working on many levels. It’s working on the level of the individual. It’s looking at the level of the culture in the building, which means the leadership of Rashid Davis, the principal, and other people. It’s working on the level of new alliances, and for IBM, a new set of relationships.

4. Be flexible to replicate success

Kanter: The next step for P-TECH is replication. You have the support of [New York] Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he isn’t yet convinced that he wants to have more [P-TECH] schools. Then, the new mayor of Chicago at the time, Rahm Emanuel, jumps on this and says, “I want five.” Suddenly, you’re going from one to five schools, and you can’t do that entirely with IBM. You have to recruit other employers as well as replicating the process of working with K-12 and the community college system. How did you convince companies to get involved? How did you go about working with peer companies that you didn’t control, without telling them there’s only one way to do it?

Litow: When I first talked to Rahm Emanuel about the idea of five P-TECH schools in Chicago, I told him: “We’re going to need other companies involved, and you’re going to have to reach out to them. They have to hear it from you.” He agreed to aggressively pursue new corporate partners. When he called the CEOs and said, “I want you to do this,” they couldn’t say no to the newly elected mayor of Chicago because they wanted to be able to have a good relationship. So that’s what helped get them to the table. And then I could work with the individual companies to explain how they would meet the commitments that the mayor had asked them to meet.

I soon realized that because education is a state function, it was crucial to get the governors on board. Working with the governor of New York, we developed a strategy to spread P-TECH across every economic development district in the state, ensuring a mix of urban and rural schools. With the governor and his power and clout behind it, that helped get the engagement and involvement of school districts around the state, local legislators around the state, and the state business council, which convened all of their members so that I could speak to them in a large setting and say: “This is something that’s going to spread across the state, and all of you businesses want to be engaged and involved.”

Then we moved on to other governors, in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, getting each one of them to help spread it across their state. Finally, and particularly important was getting the then-President of the United States, Barack Obama, to include it in his State of the Union address and visit the first school. Once the president provided that visibility, and it was on the cover of TIME magazine, it began to get more interest at the top.

Kanter: That’s a really good way of thinking about other principles of this kind of big, systemic change. First of all, the bottom-up component is incredibly important. You have to get people individually feeling committed and connected. But you’ve also got the top-down component. You’re building a network of support, which grows as people move on. Gina Raimondo, the former governor of Rhode Island, is now US secretary of commerce. The former education commissioner for Connecticut is now secretary of education.

You’ve built this network, in part, by never attacking anybody or saying the way they were doing it was wrong, but by being additive, which is another important principle of this kind of big change. You’re not telling anybody to change what they’re doing. You’re not saying that the whole high school system is wrong. What you’re doing is providing an alternative, an add-on, with playbooks and systems that you created to help guide others in the replication, while also allowing them to do it their own way.

But, once you start expanding outside of the traditional, urban setting, and away from a single big company, there are lots of differences that the model has to take into account. You need to have a certain flexibility as you scale, to modify the model.

5. Focus on the shared benefits

Kanter: This is enormous innovation and an inspiring story. It’s a great example of cross-sector, multi-stakeholder, systemic change in something that’s been very hard to change—education in America. Here is something that IBM started, but it’s now taken on a much bigger life. It’s not just an IBM program or just in a few places. What state has the largest number of P-TECH schools?

Litow: It’s Texas. They have nearly 100 P-TECH schools across the state of Texas, with plans for more. There is a P-TECH school embedded in every single comprehensive high school in the city of Dallas. This last spring, 1,000 students in Dallas graduated with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

The employer hiring the largest number of students in Texas and in Dallas is Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters had 28 students from one school who did remote paid internships in their final year in the P-TECH program in Dallas, and they extended job offers to 23 of the 28 students. Thomson Reuters owns the P-TECH program in Dallas. They are not IBM, but they start to feel that this program is tied to the future of the company. And, as companies are being asked to make commitments about how many people of color they’re hiring, P-TECH provides the pathway for them to hire.

A little school up in Buffalo, New York, had 17 graduates, and 15 of them got offers from Tesla, the partner of the school. Tesla doesn’t see it as an IBM program. Neither do the many other companies, like Global Foundries or Corning, who are collaborators and partners.

Kanter: That’s fantastic. You used a magic word, “pipeline.” We’re talking about something systemic that not only addresses education, but it is building new pipelines, and that’s a very big concept. In fact, IBM’s Ginni Rometty has joined [Merck CEO] Ken Frazier and others in a commitment, which HBS is part of, the OneTen project, to enhance upward mobility for one million Black professionals in 10 years. How do you do that without new pathways?

I think an important point here is that the benefits of this new model are shared benefits; they don’t just benefit IBM. Making systems better for everybody is also good for your company.

About the Author

Kristen Senz is the growth editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

[Image: iStockphoto/Vladimir Vladimirov]

What does it take to scale change?

Share your experiences in the comments below.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.