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.

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.

“People have all these flowery words,” says Nasser, acknowledging the conundrum. “Our mission is to graduate kids in four years without their needing remediation in college. Ultimately, if they’re not ready to do college work, what have we done?”

What Truman and most other high schools around the city have done is accede to a national education reform agenda that is so data-driven that it has lost sight of basic realities, demanding that schools immediately improve their numbers even as many public school systems, including New York City’s, have seen their budgets slashed by millions. “Do better with (much) less” is all but guaranteed to lead to creative accounting by educators and administrators alike. And the result is clear: The numbers are “better”—there are more graduates—and yet, in an endless loop of absurdity, these students get to college only to be told they haven’t finished high school.

Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, traces a line from what is happening at the Department of Education to what is now happening at CUNY. A widening gap is opening between aspiration and reality, as both high schools and colleges pursue better-looking statistics. “Many of the agendas that we have seen driving the so-called reform movement in K-12 education are now showing up in higher ed,” says Bowen. At the same time, she continues, “we see a nationwide refusal to invest in education. It’s very dramatic at CUNY: a 40 percent drop in state funding per student over the last 20 years. In this context of low investment, the drive for completion is going to lead to cutting corners and offering less as one way to speed students to graduation.”

CUNY’s mission is to educate every New Yorker who enrolls to the highest standard possible. With the cost of college relentlessly rising, CUNY and other public systems are the last backstop of access to higher education for the working and middle classes. They’re not just a more attractive option for such students—in many cases they’re the only option left.

The irony is that even as CUNY is expected to offer a path for the city’s youth to the ever more important college degree, a disproportionate share of resources now goes to compensating for the failure of city high schools. Enrollment at the community colleges is up 33 percent in the past five years, compared with 13 percent at the four-year colleges, which don’t admit remedial students.

When considering why a majority of the city’s students fail or flounder in the transition from high school to college, math, the biggest stumbling block, is the most illuminating example. The problems start with defining who requires “remedial” instruction in the first place. SAT, ACT, or Regents board scores can exempt applicants from remediation; if not, they must take the COMPASS exam, created by ACT, Inc. According to research published by CUNY, however, the test is not well aligned with the way math is taught in either high schools or GED programs. For example, it was designed for use with a calculator, but CUNY does not permit one. The problems are presented abstractly, without charts, illustrations, or much other context. And while any good test-taker will tell you to scan all the problems and do the ones you are most comfortable with first, COMPASS is administered by computer, meaning an answer to problem No. 6 must be submitted before you go on to problem No. 7.

This cobbled-together assessment tool does not necessarily elicit students’ best efforts. Ashley Baret, 18, is one of Jahleah Santiago’s classmates. Based on her low Regents score, she knew she’d be in remedial classes, so when it came to COMPASS, “I just speeded through every question, like, next, next, next.”

Tom Bailey of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, who has been studying community colleges for 15 years, says none of these tests was designed specifically to diagnose remedial needs. “I don’t think your score on any test is going to tell you whether you’re ready for college,” he says. These tests don’t address non-cognitive skills, like discipline or motivation, that are some of the most important factors in success in college, he says. “What you’re doing is arbitrarily dividing students into two categories,” a step with dire consequences, since one category of student has the chance to earn college credit and a far higher chance of graduating.

Once a student is branded remedial, he or she lands in a class of 25 or more, with professors not always trained in classroom instruction. “We do have instructors who have Ph.D.’s in math who might not be the best people to teach math,” concedes CUNY’s Senior University Dean for Academic Affairs John Mogulescu.

Manfred Philipp, former chair of the faculty senate, says that the rise of adjunct teachers seriously contributes to the problem as well. “We have an enormous amount of part-time instructors who are not paid to take time out of class even when that’s very important to do. If they teach two or more courses, they get one office hour a week. That’s a drop in the bucket.”

Still another part of the problem is economic. Under federal law, students are entitled to only 12 semesters of aid. If it takes them three years to finish remedial math, they then have just three more years of funding to earn a B.A., an unlikely scenario. Not only does it cost colleges money to provide this stopgap education, students also have to pay to learn material they should have already been taught for free.

“If you start in remediation,” says Tom Sugar of Complete College America, the think tank that published the “bridge to nowhere” report, “there’s virtually no chance you’re going to end up with a college degree.”

While these dismal results are still the norm, CUNY began experimenting in 2007 with a different approach to remediation. Jahleah Santiago and Ashley Baret are in the START program, an intensive 12-week immersion designed for students with remedial needs in one, two, or all three areas.

Nathan Stevens, Baret and Santiago’s START teacher, has a luxury few of his CUNY colleagues enjoy: time, a total of 15 hours a week with these students. On a recent afternoon, he stands at the whiteboard, going over eight homework problems, encouraging all 14 students (average class size is 20) to verbalize their thought processes. A scruffy figure with a beard and tattoos, Stevens is relentlessly Socratic—”How do you know that you’re finished with the factors now?”—and patiently draws out each student, who range in age from teens to fifties, as the class simplifies polynomials and multiplied exponents: “Put it into words, Manny. Tell me how you got that answer.”

Seventeen hundred students are in the START program this spring. They are technically deferring admission to CUNY, paying the $75 fee out of pocket so they don’t start the Pell Grant clock. Their curriculum was written especially for the program, and all instructors spent a full semester training with another teacher in the classroom. “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.”

That process sounds an awful lot like what we used to think of as “teaching.” And 60 to 70 percent of START students, most of whom set out with multiple remedial needs, gain proficiency in a given subject after just one semester, compared with 20 percent who take regular remedial courses. The program began in 2009, building on the model of ASAP, a full-year intensive program. CUNY also opened an entire school called New Community College near Bryant Park last fall; all three programs feature intensive, accelerated study, small classes, and individual attention. START and ASAP will both double in size this fall to a total of 8,000 students. “It’s amazing, the progress I see in such a short time,” says Stevens, putting his hand over his heart with unabashed sincerity. “The students leave me, they pass the test, I see them later in the hallways, and they tell me how well they’re doing. They hold on to their notes from my class. It just gives you that wonderful teacher feeling.”

Doing things this way isn’t just warm and fuzzy—it also seems surprisingly cost-effective. While it’s initially more expensive to have small classes with extra advisors and tutors, 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.

At its heart, this story is about a complex set of math problems. CUNY is beginning to make headway with this reinvented approach to remediation, but the underlying paradox persists: It is still spending considerable money and time, its own and its students’, to teach people what they should have already learned.

The contradiction is stark. If the city’s Department of Education were to adopt the practices of START and ASAP—small class sizes, mastery-based course design, one additional counselor or adviser for every 25 students—it seems likely that more students would progress on grade level, and the system as a whole would actually save money. The trend, however, is in the opposite direction: 13 percent cumulative budget cuts since 2007, and larger classes at 60 percent of middle and high schools as of last fall. It’s no wonder the remediation numbers keep rising.

While they praise ASAP and START, the concern of Bowen, Philip, and other faculty is that the overwhelming and growing obligation to remediate may tempt CUNY to lower its standards—for example, it’s been suggested that community colleges do away with algebra requirements altogether. CUNY is currently piloting two alternative math sequences for non-science majors: the Orwellian-sounding Statway, focusing on statistics, and Mathway, which focuses on “general quantitative reasoning skills.” “Many students come in with very serious deficits,” says Bowen. “What do you do? I think the answer should not be that you offer them less in order to speed graduation.”

The pursuit of the “right” numbers with no meaning or context leads to very little real improvement. But the use of data to drive understanding can suggest fundamental changes. It’s only since 2008 that the Department of Education has been able to track individual students like Santiago through the pipeline from ninth grade all the way to CUNY. And it’s only since fall 2012 that city high schools like Truman are being publicly judged on the percentage of their graduates who are actually ready for college-level work.

Now we have to confront the reality that the data make undeniable: “High schools and colleges aren’t aligned,” says Columbia’s Tom Bailey. “We need to have a fuller discussion of what that means. What if having to be prepared for college means 70 percent of people don’t graduate high school? I don’t think that would be publicly acceptable.”