The ill-prepared and the ill-informed – remedial education feud in New York

NEW YORK

City Council members presented three community college
students here with a special proclamation this month, congratulating
them on winning a national chess championship.

It was the first time in weeks anyone had uttered a kind word about
the City University of New York’s (CUNY) community college students.
And that was partly because it had all been prearranged before Mayor
Rudolph W. Giuliani began taking potshots at the six two-year
institutions — blasting them for rock-bottom graduation rates and
proposing the privatization of remediation.

But the hot-button issue resurfaced amid the staged niceties when a
college official asked the Borough of Manhattan Community College
students how many had ever taken a remedial class.

All raised their hands.

It was a poignant moment in what has become a pitched debate here
in the nation’s largest city over what to do about ill-prepared
students and ill-informed politicians.

But why should community college administrators and instructors
elsewhere care how the story plays out in this megalopolis that seems
so far removed from them?

* Because over the past five years, a growing number of state
legislators and universities have shoved responsibility for remediating
students off onto two-year institutions.

* Because developmental courses are the education world’s “dirty
little secret.” Even many community college leaders privately complain
about such classes.

* Because Giuliani’s rampage on remediation — no matter how
distorted some contend it may be — has played well with the public,
which has been largely sympathetic with his position.

* Because New York City’s Republican mayor, some believe, has
presidential aspirations, and his views on remedial education now could
become a harbinger of things to come.

* Because experts believe the hysterial here over the expense
developmental courses easily could spread across the country faster
than you could say “quadratic equation.”

“There is wide-spread disaffection nationwide with the numbers —
both of recent high school graduates and of returning students — who
show up under-prepared for the reality of freshman work,” says Dr. John
E. Roueche, a nationally recognized expert on the subject.

“I’m finding widespread unhappiness with community colleges having
to spend more and more money on remediation for more and more
students,” says Roueche, who heads the community college leadership
program at the University of Texas-Austin. “When people like the mayor
of New York look at the amount of money being spent and see what they
perceive to be miserable results, then you begin to get a sense of the
anger and hostility.”

A Plank in a Platform?

Giuliani proposes halting all remedial coursework at the six
colleges, where approximately four out of five students require at
least one development course in reading, writing, or math.
Additionally, approximately 21 percent of all instruction at the city’s
six community colleges takes place in remedial courses. And on top of
that, 87 percent of incoming freshmen fail at least one of three basic
skills exams.

But under Giuliani’s plan, students who require remediation in the
basics would be barred from the six colleges, which enroll nearly
70,000 students, until they could pass placement exams. By Giuliani’s
estimates, that could cut enrollment by 75 percent. Those students
would be required to take developmental courses from private companies.

The CUNY community colleges were chartered as open admission
institutions. Barring underprepared students might be difficult or
impossible, some educators say.

“We remain unalterably opposed to that type of restrictive policy,”
says Dr. David Pierce, president of the American Association of
Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.

“In most states, policies have been moving in the direction of
having community colleges take over more of the responsibility for
remediation,” he says. “This runs counter to that.”

Some have questioned whether Giuliani, whose name has surfaced as a
potential presidential contender in 2000, seized upon the issue solely
for some sort of political gain.

Although neither he nor his public relations staff returned calls
requesting an interview, Giuliani has stated publicly that he’s seeking
remediation reform because, “There comes a point after fifteen years of
tragically plummeting graduation rates and a total evisceration of
standards that someone has to say, `This isn’t working.”

Questions and Answers

Calling Giuliani “a bully,” Dr. Joshua L. Smith, a higher education
professor at New York University and director of the school’s Urban
Community College Leadership Program, said, “I’m puzzled because in a
$34 billion budget, you can barely find the money we spend on
remediation. But the community colleges make a convenient target.”

Giuliani’s proposal raises a lot of questions. For instance:

* Who would pay for the private remedial coursework? Would students
taking privatized developmental education be eligible for state and
federal tuition assistance?

* What effect would such a policy have on minorities and the most
down-trodden residents of New York, a historic entry point and haven
for poor immigrants from all over the world?

* Will private companies pick up the slack? Most prefer to work in
concert with colleges — not alone. And some companies question the
profitability of such services.

* And perhaps most importantly, will the numbers improve? The data
on the success and perseverance rates of students who take private
remedial courses are paltry and inclusive.

A recently released Maryland study on privatized remediation,
believed to be the first of its kind in the country, concluded that the
results are similar to those achieved by community colleges.

“The [private courses] produced results on par with those of
traditional remedial classes,” it states. “The study … did not
provide conclusive evidence that students in smaller, more personalized
[private courses] perform better or are more successful in future
college work than those who enroll in a traditional class.”

“What isn’t being discussed is that a lot of remediation is needed
because of the lack of attention in Americas’s large urban areas to the
state of public education,” Smith contends. “If we were to go back
three years in New York City and look at the city budgets, you would
see that this same mayor went after the public schools’ budget with a
meat ax.”

Should privatization occur, there are questions about what would
happen to the colleges and the large numbers of instructors now
dedicated to teaching developmental education at them.

Sandi E. Cooper, a faculty representative to the system’s board of
trustees, minces no words. She calls the proposal “a recipe for closing
down the colleges.”

Cooper, chairwoman of the university system’s faculty senate, also
believes that it is “a move a lot of small private colleges with empty
seats have been salivating over for a long time.”

Praise and Epiphanies

Dr. Dan Smith chairs the developmental skills department at Borough
of Manhattan Community College, which has 30 full-time faculty and 80
to 100 part-time instructors. The department serves 2,500 students a
semester for developmental reading courses and another 1,500 — mostly
recent immigrants — for English as a second language.

“You come in here at night and you see these halls packed with
people of all ages and races,” Smith says, sitting in a cramped office
during the first week of classes here. “These are a magnificent group
of students. Their personal histories are amazing: people trying to get
off welfare, people who come from impoverished neighborhoods, people
whose whole lives have been filled with crime and drugs.

“And the stories of the immigrants are equally moving,” he adds.
“The personal pilgrimages they have made to get here are extraordinary.
Many have worked their way through refugee camps. They have families
and work in kitchens and clean offices and then they come in here after
all that and show up with their homework completely done.”

CUNY records show that 55 percent of all freshmen entering the
city’s community colleges are not recent high school graduates and more
than 56 percent do not speak English as their first language.

Smith also questions the ability of private companies to improve students’ academic skills.

“We have twenty-five years [of] experience working with these
populations,” he says. “We have more ph.D.s in our department — thirty
of them — than any other in the college. The private companies won’t
have the same kind of dedication that we do.”

But not all of his colleagues agree.

“The acceptable response around here is that [Giuliani] is a
bastard for bringing all of this up,” says Dr. Toni Kasper, who taught
remedial math at the college for years. “Some of my colleagues question
whether the private companies can handle remediation any better. But
I’m not sure we’re handling it so well.”

Kasper quit teaching developmental courses, frustrated by what she
believes are dismal results and disgusted at how little information the
college maintained on effectiveness.

“My epiphany came a couple of years ago,” she recalls. “The most
dedicated student in my class was a woman who passed the course. She
was an instructor’s delight. But six weeks later, I had the same
student in a college-level course, and she was having trouble with
material right out of the remedial course.”

In the Proper Context

New York City’s three big newspapers splashed the remediation
ruckus all over their front pages and chastised the colleges
editorially for letting academic standards sink so far.

But lost among all the tsk-tsking here, some Giuliani critics
contend, is the context. Is the situation here in New York worse than
anywhere else?

Not really, national experts say, when you compare the 87 percent
remediation rate here with other community colleges situated in large
urban areas. For example, in San Antonio, the rate reaches 90-plus
percent. In Miami, Miami-Dade Community College remediates from 80
percent to 90 percent of students. It’s about the same in Orlando, Fla.

Nationally, about 41 percent of freshman at public community and
technical colleges take at least one remedial course, according to the
U.S. Department of Education.

Dr. Richard Richardson, a visiting professor of higher education at
New York University, believes that generally, the New York community
colleges are doing a good job.

“The colleges have been underfunded and under pressure for the kind
of work they are doing,” says Richardson, the former president of
Northhampton Community College in Pennsylvania. “The higher ed system
here is almost like that of a developing country. It’s under the same
pressure to expand rapidly to relieve social pressures, but doesn’t get
enough money.”

Smith, the New York University professor, believes the colleges
should do a better job of tracking students throughout their college
careers.

“Community colleges need to make institutional research on student
outcomes part and parcel of their operations,” he says. “The data that
emerge should be shared fully so that everybody knows what’s happening
— the good and the bad.”

Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. of the CUNY Graduate School and University
Center and the former president of the Bronx Community College,
believes nostalgia is carrying the current debate.

“Everyone likes to talk about the system’s glory days,” Brown says.
“But if you go back and read about City College in the 1930s, even
then, the average student coming in had a C average.

“The community colleges are the ideal target for the mayor,” he
adds. “They serve the people who are left out, and the traditional
standards of success simply don’t apply.”

The Horatio Alger Maxim

Brown, Smith, and other Giuliani critics have been puzzled by the
university system officials’ seemingly haphazard response to all the
point-blank criticism. A possible reason for the seeming haphazardness
is that the CUNY system has an acting chancellor, Dr. Christoph M.
Kimmich, who has been on the job only about six months. His
predecessor, Dr. Ann Reynolds, departed the system under a barrage of
attacks from Giuliani about the “lack of standards” and from CUNY
trustees about her management style.

For his part, Kimmich has pledged “to work with Mayor Giuliani to
strengthen the educational preparation of incoming freshmen before they
are admitted to CUNY community colleges.”

But not everyone is so congenial.

Giuliani “doesn’t care about education — he wants control,” CUNY
trustee Edith Everett told The New York Times. “If there are problems
here — and we know there are — the way to improve things…is to sit
down and talk.”

In fact, the university system has been examining the problem for
more than a year and is in the midst of drafting a plan to make its
remedial services more palatable.

“We have been working with the board and its committees to explore
methods to improve remediation,” says Dr. Antonio Perez, the president
of Borough of Manhattan Community College. “We want to come up with a
solution that provides the best possible education for our students. We
are as concerned as he is our students get in and out quickly.”

Others who have lined up in opposition to Giuliani’s privatization
proposal include state Assemblyman Ed Sullivan, chairman of the Higher
Education Committee, and New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone.

“It’s slightly strange to me that we should be penalizing students
who are paying $3,500 a year each to try and advance themselves,”
Vallone says.

The community colleges’ defenders also implore the schools’
detractors to look at their overall records and not just what they
believe is a skewed picture painted by Giuliani.

“The thing you have to remember,” says Brown, “is that CUNY still
graduates some 25,000 students a year into all kinds of fields and they
are very, very successful.

“Some of these same students who took remedial courses go on to
become doctors and lawyers,” he adds. “But like any large system, there
are places where improvement can occur.”

And Smith, the Borough of Manhattan developmental studies chairman,
points out that there is a certain ugliness about the recent
remediation debate that runs counter to history.

“Trying to better themselves — and working and raising a family
and going to school at nights and taking several years to get through
— is the American way,” he says. “I thought one was to be praised for
diligence in the face of adversity. It’s the Horatio Alger maxim, the
golden rule that helped make America what it is today.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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