Unprepared in the Big Apple

New York City high schools are flooding community colleges with unprepared students, reports the Village Voice. Eighty percent need remedial reading, writing or math — especially math — when they enroll, up from 71 percent a few years ago.

City University of New York’s community colleges have doubled spending on remediation in just a decade, to $33 million a year, reports the Voice. “Faculty members have been transformed into de facto high school teachers.”

The Voice blames the push to raise graduation rates, but it’s also a sign of increased academic ambitions:  More high school graduates are enrolling in community college.

Seeing very low success rates for remedial students, CUNY began experimenting in 2007 with other ways to prepare students for college-level courses.

Jahleah Santiago and Ashley Baret, who hated math in high school,  are in the START program, an intensive 12-week immersion, at LaGuardia Community College. They spend 15 hours a week in math class.

Nathan Stevens . . . stands at the whiteboard, going over eight homework problems, encouraging all 14 students (average class size is 20) to verbalize their thought processes. . . . “How do you know that you’re finished with the factors now?” . . . as the class simplifies polynomials and multiplied exponents: “Put it into words, Manny. Tell me how you got that answer.”

. . . “In this program we seek to show what’s really happening in the math,” Stevens says. “Rather than teaching my students to memorize the formulas, tricks, rules, I try to reinforce the underlying ideas of what they’re looking at, with the hope that they could solve any problem they see.”

“In my high school, math was kind of under a veil,” says Santiago. “You didn’t know what was going on—you just do that and that and get the answer. Nathan will break it down and do different examples until we get it.”

Sixty to 70 percent of START students reach proficiency in one semester, compared with 20 percent who take regular remedial courses.

CUNY also offers ASAP, a full-year intensive program. It costs more per student plus less per graduate.

. . . of the original cohort who entered ASAP in 2007, 55 percent earned their associates’ degree in three years, compared with 24.7 percent of similar students in the broader CUNY campus and just 16 percent of urban community college students nationally. According to an independent study by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Columbia, the graduation rates were so much higher that ASAP cost about 10 percent less per graduate.

If New York City’s public schools invested in  ”small class sizes, mastery-based course design, one additional counselor or adviser for every 25 students,” it’s likely more students would learn math in middle and high school, instead of struggling to learn it in college, the Voice suggests. That would save money in the long run, but it would be saved by CUNY and by students, not by the K-12 system.

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John Garvey

Let me just bullet some of my reactions to the Village Voice article:

The leadership of the DOE is making much of the fact that college readiness had not been embraced as a system goal until the last few years. There is some truth in that claim but what it leaves out is that CUNY had been pressing the case for the need to address college readiness since 1999-2000. The DOE essentially wasn’t interested because their over-riding goal was to increase high school graduation rates and they recognized, more or less self-consciously, that the strategies you use to improve graduation rates are not the same as the ones you use to enhance college readiness. In the first case, you devote time and energy to working intensively with the students who are not on track to graduation by, for example, having them take Integrated Algebra (the 9th grade course) as many times as necessary until they finally pass the Regents Exam. That kind of strategy clearly does little to prepare those low performing students for college but it also deflects attention from the needs of somewhat higher performing students who are on track for graduation but not on track for college readiness. Even now, I don’t think the DOE has any real strategy to improve college readiness other than to use data to put pressure on principals and schools.

I have written about this before but the claim that CUNY, with its $2.6 billion budget, cannot afford $33 million for remediation for the three-quarters of community college students placed in remedial courses is an outrage. Indeed, it’s likely that CUNY makes money from its remedial students.

For more than forty years, CUNY has been teaching remedial courses and, far more often than not, been no more successful in teaching basic skills than the public school teachers have been. There should be no surprise here–teachers at both levels are using very similar and deeply flawed instructional approaches. That is most extreme in the case of college math faculty.

I do not believe it to be the case that the DOE’s budget has been slashed the way that the author describes. I’ve been reviewing reports from the Independent Budget Office and, while there have been some cuts, the overall trend remains a steady increase in budgets.

It is true as Barbara Bowen pointed out that there has been a huge shift in public higher education from state aid to student tuition and fees and that steady austerity deserved to be examined in light of the mounting burden of student debt. I have no hard evidence but my guess is that those who profit from student loans have been especially pleased by and may even be proponents of such a shift.

CUNY START was not modeled on ASAP (nor was the new community college). There are some similarities because some of the same people worked on all three projects,

CUNY START’s curriculum should not be described as “mastery-based.” It’s much more thoughtful than that.

As we have seen in the recent report on Statway, that approach is not Orwellian–it’s just potentially far more effective than anything else in sight.

John Garvey

[...] New York City high schools are flooding community colleges with unprepared students. Eighty percent need remedial reading, writing or math — especially math — when they enroll, up from 71 percent a few years ago. “Faculty members have been transformed into de facto high school teachers,” complains the Village Voice. [...]

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