Remediation Woes at CUNY
Ten years ago, Community College Week received what we still today consider one of our most cherished honors: The American Association of University Professors’ Award for Excellence in Coverage of Higher Education. We had sent then-editor Scott W. Wright to New York in a pinch when the rumblings grew loud over then-mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s plans to retool remediation at the City University of New York. He came back with a great story.
Remediation Woes at CUNY
The Story Behind the Numbers and Mayor Giuliani's War of Words
By Scott Wright
NEW YORK (1998) - 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 this city's community college students, and that was partly because it had all been prearranged.
That was before Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani began taking pot shots the six two-year institutions, blasting them for rock-bottom graduation rates and proposing privatizing 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 to his position.
• Because the New York City 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 hysteria here over the expense of developmental courses easily could spread across the country faster than you could say "quadratic equation."
"There is widespread 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 at 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."
Giuliani proposes halting all remedial coursework at the six colleges, where about four of five students require at least one development course in reading, writing or math.
About 21 percent of all instruction at the city's six community colleges is for remedial courses. And 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 Devil's in the Details
Many questions remain unanswered:
• For instance, could remediation be eliminated? The community colleges were chartered as open admission institutions. Barring under-prepared 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."
• Has Giuliani, a Republican whose name has surfaced as a potential presidential contender in 2000, seized upon the issue solely for some sort of political gain?
Giuliani and his public relations staff did not return repeated calls from Community College Week requesting an interview and more information about his proposal.
But he has stated publicly that he's seeking remediation reform because "there comes a point after 15 years of tragically plummeting graduation rates and- a total evisceration of standards that someone has to say, 'This isn't working.'"
"The mayor's a bully," complains Dr. Joshua L. Smith, a higher education professor at New York University and director of the school's Urban Community College Leadership Program.
"I'm puzzled because in a $34 billion budget, you can barely find the money we spend on remediation," he says. "But the community colleges make a convenient target."
• 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 downtrodden 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.
• Will the numbers improve? The data on the success and perseverance rates of students whotake private remedial courses is paltry and inconclusive.
A recently released Maryland study on privatized remediation, believed to be the first of its kind 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."
• When recent immigrants and returning older students are removed from the equation, why do so many college students need remediation in the first place?
"What isn't being discussed is that a lot of remediation is needed because of the lack of attention in America'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," he adds, "you would see that this same mayor went after the public schools' budget with a meat ax."
• And should privatization occur, 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," he says. "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 cleaning offices‑and then they come in here after all that and show up with their homework completely done."
City University of New York records show that 55 percent of all freshmen entering the city's community colleges are not recent high school graduates and more than 5‑6 percent do not speak English as their first language.
Smith also questions the ability of private companies to improve students' academic skills.
"We have 25 years experience working with these populations," he says. "We have more Ph.D.'s in our department ‑ 30 of them, more 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," she says. "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," Kasper says. "And she was having trouble with material right out of the remedial course."
Nitty Gritty Numbers
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, junior 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 Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania.
"The higher ed system here is almost like that of a developing country," he adds. "It's under the same pressure to expand rapidly to relieve social pressures but doesn't get enough money."
Smith, the other 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."
A Subdued Response
Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. of the CUNY Graduate School and University Center; 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."
Brown, Smith and other Giuliani critics have been puzzled by the university system officials' seemingly haphazard response to all the point‑blank criticism.
One reason? The CUNY system may be weakened because it 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,” he says. "We are as concerned as he is that 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 says. "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," he adds. "It's the Horatio Alger maxim, the golden rule that helped make America what it is today."