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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77 comments
upload70
upload70

I find it amazing that schools are not the number one priority for our country.


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iamthegif
iamthegif

 I am a product of what's now refereed to as "Social Promotion". Every year wold start off well until standardized test time came, that's when I'd fall behind. Everything would begin moving so fast and the teachers would keep saying "We're behind, we're behind!". Chapters got skipped, reviews got skipped, practice tests got lumped together. Once I fell behind my mother was offered SSI to put me in Special Ed but she declined. Every year, despite failing I was promoted and my issues with school only got worse. I never knew what the Resource Room was or why I was in it until now in my later years. It's a sad cycle because the parents are products of a poor educational system left to try to compensate for what they're kids aren't learning in that same system. Being that the parents don't know it, and the schools don't teach it, the kids suffer. In a song I did called "Good Job" which I used to talk about a lot of this stuff, I said "I wasn't bad enough to be saved or good enough to be praised, perhaps I was left alone to slip through the cracks" and I was. - Good Job http://youtu.be/USX7NHfiwyc

prock75
prock75

I have taught, for 6 years, in NYC. Well, in the poorest district in NYC...District 9 in the south Bronx. In 6 years, I have seen about 50 parents. That's out of almost 400 students, I've seen 50 parents during 4 parent/teacher conferences per year. Where are they? Some say they are too busy working. To that I say, what about a phone call? I attempt to call parents every week, and every week there are wrong numbers and no-longer-working numbers. Ask any urban teacher. There is so much more going on than poor instruction or lack of resources. Hell, kids need to learn to read and write. That shouldn't be so hard. However, it's teachers with their backs against the wall in the classroom, without the parental support, a number of kids who never learned to behave so the teacher is battling them and their upbringing, while the administration doesn't want to hear it and wants the teacher to jump through hoops to get an extra-disruptive kid out of the room, and state test pass rates for kids that come into the classroom anywhere from 1 to 7 grade-levels behind in reading and writing. Take a look at the numbers of students with special needs in District 9, or any poorer district, and see skewed numbers. I sit awake at nights trying to figure out a way to get the kids to show up (attendance numbers aren't what the city tells you, by the way) and start thinking about their future. I try to show them how much further behind they are than what the U.S. thinks a 10th grader should be reading and writing, but the number of students that actually take that to heart and really buckle down....I can count on one hand in each class of 30. Anyway, urban teachers are so bogged down with just trying to keep kids in their seats and stop cursing at each other (this is high school) that quality lesson plans get all chewed up and are spat out. All this, and I am a well-liked teacher. You don't want to see how they act in a less respected teacher's class. The problem is that, for instance, at my school, we don't do after school detention, unless the teacher can stay. There are no penalties for students who show up late, since we tried, a few years ago, to ask for late passes and ended up with an inundated office that got so backed up that kids were even later. My point is that instruction is only one part of a huge problem. Parents are relying on parenting at school, and kids know that there aren't any consequences at school or home, so things deteriorate. I'm still plugging away, but the feeling of helplessness is a seed that grows and grows. I see teachers leave every year because they've had enough of the system, and they get out. How do we fix this?

elizabethcarsonnyc
elizabethcarsonnyc

How about that After more than a decade using uber trendy Teachers College reading programs and NCTM "new-new" math programs in NYC we see what some warned of long ago, certainly parents in Manhattan where the programs were piloted - who were forced to tutor their chidlren halfway through their K-12 schooling to ensure they were prepared for college Numerous reading and mathematics experts repeatedly warned city education officials and elected offcials of what was to come- and were ignored. The whole language reading and "discovery" math programs and associated teaching practices are an experiment gone terribly wrong and have set our kids up to fail. Students aren't likley to learn what they're not taught and in NYC most students aren't taught the basics in reading, writing and arithmetic. Today 80% of NYC graduates require remediation in those basics  as freshmen in CUNY schools. ( skills they should have  leraned before high school, in K-8 ) Collapse? No this was an inside job - conducted by handsomely paid education "experts" and  partner consultants and to the great, great detriment of city school children

gold
gold

Public education is a failure in every big liberal city.  The kids don't matter - the teacher unions matter. Admit it, New Yorkers, you know it.  You keep the scam going and going and going because you think it's "fair," to destroy kids.  NYC has a system within a system - Bronx Science and Sty in Manhattan. A few more.  It's for the privileged few.  Not for you.  New Yorkers, you need to pay more in taxes so that your schools can be worse, but your teachers can reire early to FL.  You need to be grateful for the crumbs thrown your way by the liberals that run your lives.  Actually, you need to put your kids in private schools, just like the Kennedys and Cuomos and Obamas do.  Can't afford it?  You could if you got school vouchers.  It costs over 15k per kid in NYC public.  Take the 15k, take the kid out of the feedlot, save the kid.  Got it? Save the kid - take the kid out of the NYC system unless you have grooved into the schools within the system.  Best solution: leave NYC if you have kids. The rest of the country is pretty nice - when you leave big city, liberal city, degradation. Save your kids today. Leave.

AvenueJay
AvenueJay

@adultintraining I think community college has become the place for people who want a "college degree" & don't qualify for anything else.

INDEP
INDEP

Kids need to come to school every day, pay attention, do homework and study, all of which require discipline and commitment. Nowhere does the so-called education "reform" movement focus on the need to instill habits of discipline. I know I had less than stellar teachers when I was in school, but I never cut class, always did the work, and always studied whether the material was exciting or not. Failure or a minimal passing grade was not an option. When kids know that they'll get into a CUNY campus even with a 65-70 average, what's the incentive to study? Perhaps that policy needs rethinking. Though it is not policially correct to say, perhaps we need to refocus on vocational options for those who are not academically inclined or disciplined. Kids today are being coddled so that there are no consequences for poor habits. Only the teachers are threatened with consequences.

INDEP
INDEP

Unfortunately, most of the kids who need remediation do not come from a home environment in which parents read to them as children and then encourage kids to read. As a high school and former college instructor for reading and writing, the lack of reading experiences and thus lack of intellectual exposure is the fundamentals obstacle to college success. Even the best classroom teacher, merit pay, test score evaluation cannot compensate for the fact that the foundation must be established in a child's formative years.

INDEP
INDEP

College readiness begins in the early formative years prior to entering first grade and must be developed throughout the years, not just in high school. Learning these skills is a cumulative process from the first grade, and require practicing at home all the skills taught in class, and most importantly, reading skills that train the mind to analyze and connect the dots as well as develop high level academic vocabulary. When kids don't read at home for pleasure in order to hone these skills, the fail to comprehend high level academic material. Good readers are also better writers. This practice must take place throughout K-12. That is why CUNY's remedial reading cannot compensate for such a lack of previous learning and reading practice. You can't catch up in one or two semesters for what should have been learned and practiced over a period of 10 years in K-12. That's like taking a 10-day course of antibiotics in 2 days because you forgot to do it earlier. The same applies for math skills.

knova23
knova23

Does anyone else notice that it's only people who respond to edu policy articles who bring up the topic of student responsibility and accountability? I NEVER see this discussed in the media.... EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What are they afraid of? Is it not politically correct anymore? Have things gotten this crazy, that to mention the role of student accountability is now "bad"?

INDEP
INDEP

As a teacher for many years, one major problem is that students today simply do not read for pleasure on a regular basis. As a result, the mind doesn't develop skills that are necessary for reading comprehension that goes beyond mere decoding of words on a page.

Another factor is the fact that any NYC high school graduate can attend a CUNY campus regardless of their grades. In other words, a student may graduate with a minimum average of 65-70 and attend a community college campus. But, whoever graduates with such a low average clearly is not equipped with the necessary academic and analytical skills for successful college work. If a student knows that he or she will get into a campus regardless of their average -- albeit a 2-year campus -- what is the incentive to study hard every day in order to get accepted? What is the incentive to be responsible and disciplined, pay attention, do homework, come to class every day?

Today's education reform movement fails to emphasize student responsibility and accountability. 

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles totally, It's a challenging situation but what we have now is a band-aid for the problem, underfunded public schools.

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles basically, if you can't fix public education ie fund it, make it longer and subsidize it for the least able to afford it.

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida Most of my freshman can’t read or write at college level. Very difficult situation to overcome.

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles but it's a federal expectation at this point and programs like ASAP are extending public ed into 2 years of comm college.

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida college educators are experiencing this everywhere. Partly the results of “no child left behind”.

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles we're expected to send every kid to college, which starts to simply mean 'fill out the CUNY app'.

Urbablurb
Urbablurb

@macfathom @anya1anya The collapse? Higher grad rates plus increased remedial students doesn't equal collapse. It started from a low bar.

Ruth.Goldstein
Ruth.Goldstein

I taught 8th grade for 28yrs and just retired in 2012. The student pool is less intelligent and lack the discipline to work hard.  Blaming teachers is de riguer now.  Most of the students were thugs and criminals.

knova23
knova23

As a teacher in a New York City public high school I don’t think the article did enough to connect the problems identified with public school policy (lack of funding, adequate staffing, and overcrowding in classrooms) to supposedly low teacher performance reported on constantly in the media. Today teacher-bashing in ubiquitous in both liberal and conservative circles. It seems to be taken as fact that teachers are incompetent, and this is precisely why that assumption must be vigorously countered in explicit terms. I do believe that evaluations of teachers should be more rigorous to weed out the laggards, but on the whole, most teachers are competent hard workers; their devaluation in society will only mean that our nation’s best and brightest will choose other, more illustrious, professions to enter. One only needs sound reasoning faculties to see that teachers aren’t performing as well as society would like because our work and student loads are way too high, and schools do not have enough administrators to provide the support we need (some administrators are even hostile to their teachers). Most teachers don’t even have a quite work-space, let alone their own classroom equipped with necessary supplies – the problems I could list are nearly endless. Yet in some parts of the article Kamenetz”s comments could be taken to imply that teachers are a large part of the problem. When describing the problem of high costs for college Kamenetz writes “students also have to pay to learn material they should have been taught for free.” Is this meant to imply that teaching was not what happened during their high school years? This implication is reinforced later when in describing the touted START program’s instructional methodology, Kamenetz wrote “that process sounds an awful lot like what we used to think of as “teaching”.” Obviously, this implies that “teaching” is not what teachers in public schools do anymore, leaving teachers undefended, even if the article is primarily about NYCDOE policies. The articles does not explicitly demean teachers, but it does nothing to defend them either. In addition, how about shifting some of the focus from teaching to learning, which is the responsibility of students. A woman quoted in the article described her high school math class as being abysmal: “In my high school, math was kind of under a veil.” Of the START program the same student said “Nathan will break it down and do different examples until we get it.” What if the problem with her high school math class was that she simply wasn’t paying attention – maybe that’s why everything was “covered in a veil”? Also, couldn’t her engagement in the SMART program be attributed to the effect her awareness of the fact that the days of social promotion are over might have on her behavior rather than superior teaching methods? I agree with Kamenetz’s policy recommendations for the public system, but accountability has to be spread around equally from the top education brass, to teachers, to the students and their families, and to the public at large – an unwillingness to fund education is a major problem, but it is tied to a deeper problem: Americans respect material displays of wealth, not knowledge acquisition, and definitely not teachers.

occasionalreader
occasionalreader

bgk718   "  I have had  good opportunity to observe  the attitude of  the majority of    or minority students in college or   planning to  go there. They take it for  granted  and they  hate it and wish they did not have to do it.  I have heard it said that  all this  is an unintended consequence of   the  mentality that came about in the 1960's that everybody deserves to go to college  because it is not just for the proverbial "best and brightest"    but for everyone since everyone's future is equally important and should get the best preparation for  the best  jobs  and careers.   However   the  harsh fact is that  a lot of young people think that   too much is being expected of them to  excel academically and they are not interested in   studying harder or staying longer in school  rather than quitting  after high school. So what is happening is that  a lot of    academically  talent-less  or  under-motivated   people  are  flooding the system and  they are not achieving  anything  and  the system  has to  revolve around trying to make these people fit in; which  has meant   doing things such as   lowering standards, or   perhaps exchanging   curriculum   from     science and math to  easier subjects such as  cultural studies.   The idea that a mind is a terrible thing to waste  has  been   forgotten.  There should be more  highly educated  Puerto Ricans  and blacks. They were the  ones whom were   said to be  so  oppressed by  white society. Now many think that being educated is  "un cool"  and  "acting white."    Sure there are certain problems with the system,  but   students themselves  have been their own worst enemies. The cliche proves true.   It takes  a work ethic and dedication to  lifting yourself by your own bootstraps. 

mad1here
mad1here

Not to put down CUNY, but are they getting the high school students who were the highest achievers in their class as applicants?  If not, as I suspect, it stands to reason that they wouldn't have a sterling percentage pass an algebra placement test.

nikuchix
nikuchix

A student comes into class, from parents that have placed little emphasis on school, possibly never completing school themselves, and it is the school's failure that these students are unmotivated and feel privileged and that their whims need be catered.  This is the essence of the decline of the American Me Culture.

Serve me.

I want it now.

WWW (wealth without work)

carterm54
carterm54

A two-word solution to the problem of public "education" - home schooling!

When parents decide to NOT abdicate their primary responsibility of educating their children - "raising them up in the way that they should go" for the evangelicals out there - they will start seeing substantially better outcomes for their children. Especially if they undertake to teach their children HOW to think as opposed to teaching them WHAT to think.

BTW, the original idea for public education came from the Prussian philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte following the disastrous defeat of the famed Prussian mercenaries at the hands of Napoleon.

"Children would have to be disciplined through a new form of universal conditioning. They could no longer be trusted to their parents."... more at http://www.lewrockwell.com/gatto/gatto-uhae-7.html

dangelo136
dangelo136

@gold Bullshit! It's not the teacher's unions-stop; channeling dead Maggie and dead Ronnie. It's the nature of the educational system itself. You model the school year after a 18th century agrarian calendar, the schools are fashioned after 19th century factories, funded like the early 20th century and expect to compete in the 21st century? You "free market' deadheads thought that the 'ol "invisible hand" was the cure all to everything and what did you get? An overabundance of Finance majors who speculated the country's economy into the crapper and now because the geniuses de-industrialized the city and tied us to the now sputtering financial sector, we in NYC are just plain screwed. So now, downsized corporations found out that they could pay a Ph.D in India  a fraction of what an American with the same degree made and they took their companies and ran for the border, with the help of American taxpayer dollars. Leave? And go where, Texas? Sure. The same place where they teach "Creation Science" and that Jaysus, walked with dinosaurs, uh huh, just what we need to compete with Beijing and New Dehli. You know what the state motto is for Texas? "Thank God for Arkansas". Gold, your ideas are just neoliberal crapola. The same shit sandwich we've been fed since senile Ronnie took office and led us down the primrose path you neoliberal jackasses swore up and down would make us the "shining city on the hill". Well, that sure as hell didn't happen. So do us all a favor gold, shut yer pie hole and let us figure out how to get out of this mess you jackasses put us in the first freaking place. Other than that, have a nice freaking day, jackass!

dorisdoris
dorisdoris

@INDEP  How old are you INDEP? Seriously? The percentage of children that do not read is very low, Problem is what they're reading is not the requirements being asked for. In addition the computer supercedes paper books, Q:how many low income families have computers, which come along with a monthly bill. This economy makes the neccesity of the online & cell phone subscriptions an elective. In additon; Low income families have a hard time teaching their children and coming home from work @ 8pm.  When does/can the child see their parent read or study to be examples, especially if its a single parent who they themselves never finished school.  The discipline is there in these children, just not for academics.  Or what about the child of a college grad, who sees their parent haven gone 4yrs to major in a subject they will never be able to obtain. (occupy Wall Street), the excuses are many.  Finally, in this society if you dont have the look that a company wants, its doesnt matter what you do.

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida band aid indeed. I teach at a public Univ in ME. Most of students are excellent at memorizing but have few critical thinking skills

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida public Ed is systematically broken all the way down the line. Students are pushed through and out of HS unprepared …

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles I watch them head off to com college and it's very difficult. We tried (and failed) to get a grant for a college prep writing sem

nikuchix
nikuchix

@carterm54 Homeschooling... hah! Most parents can't be bothered to spend even 40 minutes with their children a day, rather, they stick them in camp, in daycare, sports, clubs, after school activities... and you think they have the patience and the brains to team them? Good luck with that.

dorisdoris
dorisdoris

@INDEP Inner city schools are designed to fail.  You know that.

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles I see it everyday, and as an art teacher I struggle to introduce texts and ideas that engage my kids. Shouldn't be so hard.

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida I’m not an English instructor! I spend a lot of time just preparing my students to think/read critically beyond a 9th grfd level

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida yeah, I teach painting! But part of what I’m instructed to do is teach my student read/write skills they should have gotten in HS

carterm54
carterm54

@nikuchix @carterm54 Sadly, I have to agree with you. Essentially it's a failure of the individual although the reasons behind this failure are myriad and more than a little complex. 

So it's a little ironic when you hear those people complain that the "schools are failing our children" after they have turned over one of the primary parental duties to strangers who have no reason to put the interests and welfare of those children first.

Of course, you must remember that those parents are the products of the same system that continues to deteriorate to the point that universities must now offer courses in Remedial English, so they probably never acquired critical thinking skills and have bought into our cultural norms that emphasize immediate gratification, self-interest, and reliance on the state to provide.

Does this mean that there is no solution other than collapse and destruction, with hopefully some survivors left to start over and try to get it right next time?

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida same here. It’s a constant struggle btwn what I hope to bring to class & what I need to bring to help them get up to college speed

yonjuro
yonjuro

@owlsmyles @Powhida Why are they teaching about ass sex in third grade?

owlsmyles
owlsmyles

@Powhida why am I writing in art? I get that all the time! I’d be willing to colab over the summer on a “work sheet” of needs etc.

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles neither am I, but when my kids ask "why are we reading and writing in art" I show then catalogues, reviews, and statements.

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles I say that now and may regret it, but even hearing what freshman art students are lacking in would be a help.

Powhida
Powhida

@owlsmyles idea; let's collaborate on a writing unit that might bridge expectations with the conditions on the ground.

 
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