System Failure: The Collapse of Public Education

From our high schools to CUNY, New York City's numbers are in—and they are terrifying.

System Failure: The Collapse of Public Education

"I hated math. Math was like, the worst thing on the planet. I would be late. I would go to the bathroom and just sit there." Jahleah Santiago, 18, widens her eyes, outlined in cat's-eye makeup. Santiago grew up in Flushing, Queens, of Puerto Rican and Native American descent. She graduated from the Academy of Environmental Science in Manhattan and sent in just one college application, which brought her to this windowless fourth-floor classroom at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. Both of her parents dropped out of high school; she is the third person in her family ever to go to college. And given her attitude toward math in high school—and the grades to show for it—the odds are stacked against her finishing.

In the Michael Bloomberg era of school reform, we hear a lot about rising educational standards. "When Dennis Walcott became chancellor," Josh Thomases, a deputy chief academic officer in the city's Department of Education, tells the Voice, "one of his first acts was to say the correct bar was no longer a high school diploma, but career and college readiness."

Put another way, New York City officials openly admit that a high school diploma earned in our public schools today does not mean that a student is ready for college. In fact, 80 percent of New York public school graduates who enrolled in City University of New York community colleges last fall still needed high school level instruction—also known as remediation—in reading, writing, and especially math. Despite the department's proclamations, that percentage is up, not down, from 71 percent a few years ago. Algebra, which is a CUNY graduation requirement, is by far the most challenging for the city's public school grads: Just 14 percent pass the CUNY algebra placement exam.

CUNY students like Jahleah Santiago don’t earn college credit for the remediation classes they must take after graduating from New York City public high schools.
Caleb Ferguson
CUNY students like Jahleah Santiago don’t earn college credit for the remediation classes they must take after graduating from New York City public high schools.
Ashley Baret’s low Regents score placed her in remediation; now she’s hoping a new program called START will help her make up lost ground.
Caleb Ferguson
Ashley Baret’s low Regents score placed her in remediation; now she’s hoping a new program called START will help her make up lost ground.

With 272,000 students and a $2.6 billion budget, CUNY is the fourth-largest public university system in the country. CUNY's four-year colleges don't accept students who need remediation, but its community colleges are required by charter to accept every New York City high school graduate who applies. Some 98,000 students—most of them working class, 82 percent minorities—are in the community college system and 10,000 more graduates of New York public schools enrolled in 2011 than in 2007. The city points to that growth along with rising high school graduation rates as evidence of its improved performance.

But something is clearly wrong when the high school graduate the education department holds up in the spring as a success story is, by the fall, an undergraduate unable to do college-level work. In an era of shrinking state funding, a flood of underprepared students is becoming a disastrous stress on the system. CUNY's community colleges have been forced to double their annual spending on remediation in just a decade, to $33 million. Faculty members have been transformed into de facto high school teachers.

That's a job they haven't asked for—and, apparently, it isn't getting done. Of those students who place into remedial math at CUNY, 20 percent have progressed to a for-credit course two years later. After six years, just one in four have managed to earn any degree. A national research report published last year called remediation a "bridge to nowhere."

The problem starts here: Harry S. Truman High School is a Brutalist hulk that's visible from I-95 in the Co-op City section of the Bronx, housing almost 2,000 students, with rusty railings outside and metal detectors within.

Principal Sana Nasser is hesitant to speak on the record with a reporter, although Christine Quinn praised her school in an educational policy speech in January, saying that "Truman is doing lots of great things that can be replicated elsewhere."

Truman currently boasts an A grade from the city. Yet only 10 percent of its graduates are able to enter CUNY without remediation. It's worth letting that sink in: A school with the city's top mark for "progress" sends 90 percent of its students out the door incapable of the most basic skills high school is supposed to teach them. This, in Mayor Bloomberg's system, constitutes success. (One thing that may help explain the contradictory grade: The Daily News recently reported that Nasser instructed her teachers to coach their students to give the school high marks in the annual survey all New York City public school students and parents fill out; the survey counts toward the school's grade, and can even earn her a bonus.)

Nasser and every other high school principal are under constant and increasing pressure to improve both test scores and graduation numbers. Four out of five of Nasser's students come to her two, three, or even four years behind in math and English. She gives most of her freshmen an extra class period to review basic concepts and study skills, and a math teacher pulls struggling students out of classes here and there for tutoring. But there's only so much she can do, she says. "I cannot delay their progress," she explains. "I need to move on."

What she means is that she can't hold them back in perpetuity. Social promotion, briefly "banned" by Mayor Bloomberg, is officially sanctioned once again these days, as administrators capitulate to the onrushing numbers and the prospect of ninth-grade classrooms filled with 18-year-olds.

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