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Remedial Education Under Attack
Controversial plans for the City University of New York

By William Trombley
Senior Editor

Mali Heded, a part-time English instructor at Lehman College, a City University of New York campus, finds teaching remedial students "emotionally draining."
New York City
ON A RAINY SPRING afternoon in the North Bronx, 15 students sat in a freshman English class at Lehman College, participating somewhat reluctantly in a discussion of a Langston Hughes short story.

Pacing back and forth in front of the class, a young part-time instructor named Mali Heded tried to elicit opinions about the story or about Hughes, one of the nation's best-known black writers, or about race relations in New York City at the time the story was written (the 1930s). It was tough going. The students, mostly Latinos and African Americans, tried to answer Heded's direct questions but they volunteered very little.

Technically, this was a regular, credit-bearing freshman composition class, not a remedial class that would have carried no credit. This is because Lehman, one of the 11 four-year colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, has "mainstreamed" its students who have poor English reading and writing skills into the same classes with more capable students. But Heded said many of her students need remediation, especially in writing.

Many were among the two-thirds of Lehman freshmen who failed the CUNY Writing Assessment Test, one of three basic skills tests -- reading, writing and mathematics -- that all entering CUNY students take. Less than 25 percent of Lehman's entering freshmen passed all three tests, despite the fact that the college requires a high school average of at least 75, in prescribed academic courses, for admission.

"I find this quite exhausting and emotionally draining," said Heded, a 24-year-old doctoral candidate at Cambridge University in England, who was in her first and perhaps last semester of teaching at Lehman. "The adjuncts (part-timers) who teach this course are one of the more demoralized groups of people I've seen in awhile...these are sweet kids but (teaching them) can be devastating to a lover of literature and learning."

Heded has ended the year with ambivalent feelings.

"Objectively, I'm very sympathetic to the notion of raising the level," she said. "I don't think students should be graduating when, in fact, what they are doing is ninth grade work. That said, however, I believe these people deserve an opportunity and I think we are better able to provide that (opportunity) than anyone else."

Forty-year-old Gabriel Tirado, born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents, was one of Heded's better students. After working for the New York City subway system for 23 years, Tirado quit to enroll at Lehman last January.

"My family thought I was crazy to leave a job with decent pay ($16 an hour) and good benefits," he said, "but I wanted to have a profession. I wanted to work with people at risk from substance abuse and alcohol. I've seen what a negative impact they can have on my people."

Tirado said Mali Heded's class has been helpful. "I've always been a reader," he said, "but she has given me more focus on certain problems I have with writing."

Related information
The Remedial Controversy
Different states offer various solutions
But the future of classes like this is uncertain, following adoption in late May of a new CUNY Board of Trustees policy that no student who has failed any of the three basic skills tests will be admitted to a senior college.

City University officials estimate that new enrollments at Lehman -- first-time freshmen and transfer students -- could be reduced by as much as 60 percent.

But the new policy, which has been described as the most important change in CUNY admissions standards in 30 years, is being phased in over a three-year period and will not affect Lehman until September of the year 2000. By then, college officials hope that intensive summer programs and better performance by local high schools will make more students eligible for admission.

"The potential loss is great," said Steven Wyckoff, director of freshman year programs at Lehman, "but a lot can happen to mitigate the effects before we get to 2000."

Many potential Lehman students might be diverted to Bronx Community College, several stops south on the "D" subway line, since the two-year colleges remain open to anyone with a high school diploma or its equivalent. But Caroline Williams, president of Bronx Community College, said her 7,800-student campus is close to capacity and also would need more money to accommodate an overflow from Lehman.

"If there are going to be significant increases in students, there certainly will be a need for additional resources," Williams said.

Bronx Community College is located in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the nation. Forty-six percent of its students come from families with annual incomes of less than $15,000. Ninety-three percent are African American or Hispanic, and 53 percent were born outside the United States. About one-third are on welfare. Close to 90 percent take at least one remedial class.

As the spring semester wound to a close, 15 freshmen, all African Americans or Latinos, were gathered in an "immersion writing class," paying close attention to Jeff Spielberger, a faculty veteran of 30 years who once taught drama and poetry at the college but now devotes his time to remedial instruction.

All of the students in Spielberger's class had failed the CUNY writing proficiency test, as did most of the two-year college’s entering freshmen. Some had graduated from New York City high schools, others had earned equivalency certificates or were recent immigrants from Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with uncertain high school preparation.

The idea behind this "immersion" class, which meets for three hours a day, five days a week, and lasts five weeks, is that intense concentration on one subject -- writing -- over a short period of time, will produce better results. The classes are smaller than most -- 15 students instead of 26 to 28 -- so each student receives more individual attention.

At the end of the five-week period, students must be able to write a short essay that is graded by two outsiders. Those who pass can move on to the first freshman credit course in English. Those who fail must repeat the remedial class, which they may do as many times as necessary, although paying tuition for non-credit remedial courses is a luxury not many of these students can afford.

As Spielberger worked on sentence structure, he bantered with his students, most of whom seemed to be involved in the work. There was no break in the three-hour class but the instructor let them leave the room to smoke a cigarette or to allow one of the many single mothers in the class to pick up a youngster from child care.

"Most of these students have been out of school for awhile," he said afterward. "I spend a lot of time showing them how to be better students. Some of them just don’t know. But their attitude is good; they take coaching well."

Remedial Students work in a computer-assisted writing laboratory at CUNY's Herbert H. Lehman College.
Spielberger has found that teaching these young men and women, who come from uneven educational backgrounds, who work at part-time or full-time jobs while attending classes and who have serious personal problems, involves more than the classroom.

"We butt into their lives as much as they'll let us," he said.

This approach seems to work. Twice as many students in the immersion classes pass the CUNY writing test as in other freshman remedial classes, according to Joe O'Sullivan, who runs the immersion program.

"These students have tremendous problems," O'Sullivan said. "Their apartment burns down or they get mugged or one of their kids gets sick. We can only do a little to help. Our goal really is to get them to class the next day."

"A lot of them think they can't make it in college," he added. "They have a very exalted idea of college. But then you see the light come on when they realize, 'hey, I can do this,' and that's one of the really nice things to see."

Classes like Mali Heded's, at Lehman College, and Jeff Spielberger's, at Bronx Community College, have been at the heart of the controversy that has swirled around the City University of New York in recent months.

Early this year, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York State Governor George E. Pataki, both Republicans, began to complain that CUNY's graduation rates were too low and that too much remedial instruction was offered, cheapening the value of a City University degree. Their complaints echoed arguments that have been made in recent years by the Manhattan Institute and other conservative think tanks in the New York City area.

In a series of typically vivid speeches and press conferences, Giuliani called on the CUNY Board of Trustees to eliminate remedial instruction in the system's four-year colleges, farm it out to private companies in the community colleges and do away with the university’s "open admissions" policy, which, since 1970, has guaranteed a place in the system for anyone with a high school diploma or its equivalent.

"There comes a point, after 15 years of tragically plummeting graduation rates and total evisceration of standards, that somebody has to say, 'This isn't working,'" the mayor said.

If these changes were not made, Giuliani threatened, the city might withdraw financial support from the City University.

However, that was something of an empty threat. The city's financial contribution to CUNY has been cut sharply ever since New York came close to bankruptcy in the mid-1970s.

In the 1997-98 academic year, the city provided 23 percent of the operating budget for the community colleges but only four percent for the four-year senior colleges. Most of the rest of CUNY’s annual $1.25 billion operating budget comes from the state and from student tuition, which is relatively high for public institutions -- $3,200 for the senior colleges, $2,500 for the community colleges.

Giuliani also has insisted that CUNY faculty members should take attendance, as they did when the mayor attended Manhattan College, a small, Roman Catholic institution in the New York City suburb of Riverdale.

In one of the lighter moments of what has been an increasingly bitter dispute, Giuliani held aloft an attendance book at a press conference and said, "You get a book like this. You put down the names of the students at the beginning of the semester and then you call out their names at the beginning of class. And if they're there, you mark 'yes' and if they're not, you mark 'no.'"

From the back of the room, someone called out, "Where'd you get the book, Rudy? We haven't had money for those for years."

City University officials said attendance is taken in all community college classes and in most senior college classes as well.

Governor Pataki, running for reelection this fall, has echoed Giuliani’s criticisms but at a lower decibel level. On the CUNY Board of Trustees, the argument was taken up by Anne A. Paolucci, the current board chair, and by Herman Badillo, the vice chair and a close Giuliani political ally.

Defenders of open admissions and remedial education said the mayor was ignorant of the needs of the City University, where half of the 200,000 students were born outside the United States, 70 percent are racial minorities, 42 percent have annual household incomes of less than $20,000, 30 percent are supporting children and 60 percent work either full-time or part-time.

Some speculated that Giuliani's attack on remedial education was intended to curry favor with conservatives, should he decide to seek a Senate seat from New York State or run for national office.

Students protesting the phasing out of remedial classes march in front of City University of New York headqwuarters in Manhattan.
Since then, student protestors have marched in front of CUNY headquarters on Manhattan's East 80th Street, each time the Board of Trustees has met, demanding that open admissions and remedial instruction be retained. At the May 26 meeting, when the trustees voted to phase out remedial classes in the senior colleges, 14 protestors were arrested.

One of them was Edward C. Sullivan, the 65-year-old Democratic chairman of the State Assembly's higher education committee, who refused to leave the board room after Paolucci evicted everyone except reporters. Sullivan was hauled off to the local station house in handcuffs and was not released until the next afternoon.

The newspapers took sides in the growing dispute -- the tabloids Daily News and Post supported the mayor in their editorials, and The New York Times opposed him.

The "op-ed" page of The Times became a forum for the debate. One day, Frank McCourt, best-selling author of "Angela's Ashes" and once a part-time CUNY instructor, pleaded for continuation of remedial classes. A few days later, historian John Patrick Diggins, a professor at the City University Graduate Center, urged the board to allow remedial instruction only in the two-year community colleges.

For months, the trustees wrestled with the issue. Even though Pataki has appointed six of the 16 voting board members (there is a 17th, a faculty representative who does not vote), and Giuliani appointed five, it was difficult for them to gather the nine votes necessary to change the admissions policies. There was strong opposition from students, faculty members, the presidents of most of the colleges and from some trustees, notably two who were appointed by former Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo -- Edith B. Everett and James P. Murphy.

Civil rights organizations argued that the policy change would harm minorities the most, since they fail the proficiency tests at a higher rate than white students.

Systemwide, 55 percent of Hispanic students, 51 percent of Asians and 46 percent of African Americans probably would fail to meet the new standards, according to CUNY estimates, while 38 percent of white students would be affected.

Colleges with the highest minority enrollments would be the hardest hit. At Medger Evers College, a Brooklyn campus with a 96 percent minority enrollment, only 14 percent of first-time freshmen passed all three basic skills tests last fall. At City College, which is 89 percent minority, 29 percent of first-time freshmen passed all three, and at York College, in Queens, which is 92 percent minority, the pass rate was 31 percent.

Related information
Sample Test Questions

THE CITY UNIVERSITY of New York tests all first-time freshmen in reading, writing and mathematics. In the past, these tests have been used to determine which students need remedial work. In the future, however, students who fail one or more of the tests will not be admitted to one of the 11 four-year colleges in the CUNY system, although they still can attend one of the system’s two-year community colleges.

The new policy will be phased in over a three-year period, beginning in fall 1999. These are sample questions from the tests:

You will have 50 minutes to plan and write the essay assigned below. You may wish to use your 50 minutes in the following way: ten minutes planning what you are going to write; 30 minutes writing; ten minutes rereading and correcting what you have written.

You should express your thoughts clearly and organize your ideas so that they will make sense to a reader. Correct grammar and sentence structure are important.

You must write your essay on one of the following assignments. Read each one carefully and then choose A or B.

A. It always strikes me as a terrible shame to see young people spending so much of their time staring at television. If we could unplug all the TV sets in America, our children would grow up to be healthier, better educated, and more independent human beings.

B. Older people bring to their work a lifetime of knowledge and experience. They should not be forced to retire, even if keeping them on the job cuts down on the opportunities for young people to find work.

Do you agree or disagree? Explain and illustrate your answer from your own experience, your observations of others, or your reading.

Simplify st2(3-t) - 2st2
(A) 3st2 — 2st2 (B) st2 — t
(C) st2 + st3 (D) st2 — st3
(E) st2  
1 3/4 ÷ 4 =
(A) 7/16 (B) 2
(C) 2 2/7 (D) 7
(E) 1 3/16  
A room is 20 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 8 feet high. The area of the floor is?
(A) 240 square feet (B) 240 feet
(C) 1,920 cubic feet (D) 1,920 sq. feet
(E) 1,920 feet  
However, senior colleges with large white enrollments also would be affected. At Queens College, where 57 percent of the students are white, less than half of first-time freshmen passed all three tests. At the College of Staten Island, where white students make up about three-quarters of the enrollment, the pass rate was only 33 percent.

Faculty members said many students do well on two of the tests -- usually math and reading—but need help with their writing. They believe that these students would be better off in a senior college, where they could combine regular course work with remedial writing, than in a community college filled with less-qualified students.

The plan's supporters contended that tougher standards would enhance the value of a CUNY bachelor's degree. They noted that two of the senior colleges -- Baruch and Queens -- already had announced they would do away with remedial classes. (However, both will provide extensive tutoring for students in need of remediation.)

A few days before the board met on May 26, it appeared that the Giuliani-Pataki forces still lacked one vote. Then Richard B. Stone, a Columbia University law professor and a Giuliani appointee, announced he would provide the ninth vote, and the plan was approved.

Stone was subjected to "very heavy pressure from the highest levels at City Hall," said a CUNY official who followed the maneuvering closely. "You might say they left no stone unturned."

The board voted nine to six to terminate remedial instruction at four senior colleges in September 1999 (Baruch, Brooklyn College, Hunter and Queens College); at five more a year later (City College, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Lehman, New York City Technical College and the College of Staten Island); and at Medger Evers and York colleges in September 2001.

The new policy also applies to students taking English as a Second Language classes, except for those who attended high schools outside the United States.

Afterward, Giuliani said the vote "sends a powerful message that CUNY is starting the important and difficult process of restoring its reputation as one of the great public institutions of higher learning in the country."

Board Chairwoman Paolucci told reporters, "We are cleaning out the four-year colleges and putting remediation where it belongs," comments that have been widely condemned as racist.

How valid are the criticisms that Paolucci, Badillo, the mayor, the governor and others have been leveling at the City University?

Low Graduation Rates?
The four-year and two-year graduation rates are indisputably low -- less than eight percent in the senior colleges, less than two percent in the community colleges.

But officials contend that short-term rates are not meaningful for a system like CUNY, where half of the first-time freshmen were born outside the United States, 42 percent come from households with incomes of less than $20,000 and almost 60 percent hold full-time or part-time jobs.

"This isn't Amherst or Princeton or even Berkeley," a Lehman College dean said. "These people have very complicated lives and it takes them longer to finish, but they do get there."

Long-term graduation rates appear to be comparable with those of other urban public institutions. Six years after entering CUNY in fall 1990, 32 percent of bachelor's degree candidates had graduated, while the average for 15 other urban universities -- such places as the University of Alabama, Birmingham; the University of Illinois, Chicago; and the University of Louisville—was 33 percent, the CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Analysis has reported.

A 1997 study by David Lavin, professor of sociology at the City University Graduate Center, and several colleagues, found that 30 percent of CUNY community college students had earned diplomas after eight years, and another ten percent had received bachelor's degrees or diplomas from other institutions.

"Both at CUNY and nationally, extended college careers have become the rule rather than the exception, and transfer rates are high," the report said. "For these reasons, graduation studies that use short time intervals and which fail to take account of transfers, seriously underestimate the educational success of community college students."

Lavin and others pointed out that many community college students enroll in a few courses to brush up their business or computer skills and have no intention of completing a full diploma program.

Too Much Remedial?
"If we are promising a college education, we should deliver one," Mayor Giuliani said at a press conference last spring, repeating one of the major themes of his campaign to cut back on remedial instruction at CUNY.

The mayor and other critics charge that the City University spends too much time, money and energy teaching students things they should have learned in high school.

Supporters of remedial education have countered with the argument that the City University, with large numbers of low-income, immigrant students, is bound to require more make-up classes.

They also blame New York City high schools for graduating students with a frail grasp of fundamental skills like reading and writing.

"The New York City schools are terrible," said Joe O'Sullivan, who runs the freshman writing "immersion" program at Bronx Community College. "If they were doing their job, we wouldn’t be doing all this remedial work."

CUNY officials applaud recent efforts by New York schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to prepare more students for college work, but they say it will take at least several years for these efforts to pay off.

University records indicate that remedial instruction has declined in the four-year colleges in recent years -- from 55 percent of first-time freshmen in the fall of 1994 to 39 percent two years later. However, some of this improvement might have been achieved simply by changing the names of remedial classes or by "mainstreaming" students with remedial needs into regular freshman classes, as has been done at Lehman College.

At Lehman College, inThe Bronx, two-thirds of the entering freshmen fail the City University of New York's Writing Assessment Test.
While the need for remedial work might have been declining in the senior colleges, it has been increasing in the two-year community colleges -- from 68 percent of first-time freshmen in 1964 to 75 percent in 1996.

CUNY records also show that remedial classes account for only five percent of total instruction in the senior colleges. In the community colleges, the figure is 20 percent.

As long as there is a City University of New York, there will be a need for some remedial instruction, said Louise Mirrer, CUNY vice chancellor for academic affairs. "We will always have some unprepared students," she said in an interview. "So does every university in America."

Privatize Remedial Education?
Initially, Mayor Giuliani insisted that all entering CUNY students, in the community colleges as well as the four-year campuses, should be able to pass the basic reading, writing and math tests. He said this probably would eliminate three-quarters of the 65,000 students now in the two-year colleges.

The mayor said remedial work in the community colleges should be done by private companies like the Kaplan Educational Center or the Sylvan Learning Center.

However, as it became clear that getting rid of remediation in the senior colleges would be a major battle, the mayor dropped his community college proposal (though many expect him to revive it next year).

Vice Chancellor Mirrer said contracting out remedial work would cost two and one-half times more than CUNY now spends and that the instruction would not be as good.

CUNY's remedial instruction is relatively inexpensive to provide because much of it is done by part-time faculty who earn only $3,000 to $4,000 per semester course and receive limited benefits.

For teaching two sections of freshman composition at Lehman College, "I take home exactly $572, after taxes, every other week," said Mali Heded, the young instructor who was struggling to interest her class in the writings of Langston Hughes.

Many educators believe the rapid expansion of remedial education is a real problem, not only in
Related information
Cuny Campuses

Graduate School and University Center

Senior Colleges
Bernard M. Baruch College
Brooklyn College
City College
Hunter College
Herbert H. Lehman College
Queens College
York College

Comprehensive Colleges (offering both two-year and four-year degrees):
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Medger Evers College
New York City Technical College
College of Staten Island

Community Colleges
Borough of Manhattan Community College
Bronx Community College
Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College
Kingsborough Community College
LaGuardia Community College
Queensborough Community College
New York City but in many other places around the country. However, they doubt that the problem can be solved in a superheated political atmosphere.

"There is a legitimate issue here but, unfortunately, now it's all politics," said Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "The legitimate issue is, at what point is enough, enough? The government's got to ask, 'How long do we do this?' We do remedial education in elementary school, in high school and then again in college. What are we getting for all this expense?"

"So this is a real issue," Levine continued, " but I'm sorry it has come up in this political context, where everybody is taking shots at remedial and nobody is giving careful thought to how it might be done more effectively."

As a matter of fact, quite a lot of careful thought had been given to the subject at the City University of New York -- by faculty members, campus presidents, systemwide administrators and the Board of Trustees -- and last fall they seemed to be close to consensus.

"Rational discussions about the missions of the different colleges were underway," Louise Mirrer, the academic vice chancellor, said. "We were also having a highly rational discussion about remediation and areas of agreement were emerging."

Then Mayor Giuliani began his public blasts at the City University and the rational discussions ended.

Photos by Mitsu Yasakawa for CrossTalk

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