How Do We Bring Our Students Up to Speed?

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Anne A. Paolucci
Title: How Do We Bring Our Students Up To Speed?
Recorded: 9/15/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is an academic very much involved in the midst of an educational and political struggle in New York City that has its counterparts in many other regions of our country.

Its particulars as they relate to New York are compelling, to be sure, but they are not the exclusive focus of our concerns today. What is, is the larger social question of how in our times, at the turn of this new century, we deal generally as a nation with admission standards for public institutions of higher learning in a manner that fosters and encourages a striving for excellence both within those institutions and among those many, many students who seek to enter them with basic skills that for various reasons — many of them beyond their own control — are not yet honed as fine as they must be for academic achievement.

Is remediation within these institutions the wiser, more reasoned and perhaps more humane response to this lack of learning skills? Or does that policy — for many traditionalists the academic equivalent of “anything goes” — ultimately demean and debase higher education itself … and cheat all of its students? Indeed, must remediation be achieved elsewhere … if at all?

Well these are the questions that urbanized America must put to itself. And I would put them to my guest today, Dr. Anne A. Paolucci, Chair of the City University of New York, Board of Trustees. Dr. Paolucci that’s a mouthful on my part…

Paolucci: Yeah.

Heffner: … and I want to throw those questions to you.

Paolucci: I think I remember most of it. And the most important thing that you said there I think has to do with remediation and the possibility of it’s demeaning the student population or the idea of excellence in higher education. First let me say that all around us we hear again and again … remediation is everywhere. Everyone else has it in the country. Why do you want to do away with it? Well, because everyone else has it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. It isn’t good, but it doesn’t mean everybody shouldn’t have it. We are trying to regulate or to improve on a situation that has been neglected for a long, long time.

Heffner: How do you describe that situation?

Paolucci: Well, since so-called “open admissions” … as you know, it was the result of the GI Bill of Rights, initially. And at the time that it happened in … at the City University … it applied really only to the community colleges. Because in 1976 the senior colleges already had their own requirement for admission. And people forget that. When they say, “we’re shutting down open admissions”, we’re not shutting down “open admissions” at the senior colleges. It hasn’t been in effect since 1976. So, whatever they do, they have their own standards for admission. What we have had is remediation on every level since way back. I mean it was just a way of life. What has happened … let me … this is a many-pronged kind of problem and the approach has to take a number of directions also, I think. Remediation has many aspects … it’s English as a Second Language, remediation for those who are culturally deprived and lack the basic skills, or those who lack basic skills because they come from another culture, or just don’t have the language … the linguistic skills. Sometimes they may be very good in math, but not in language and reading and writing. That’s the easy approach, I mean we can deal with that fairly quickly. Remediation for many of the students who come into City, for example, and I’m sure this is true elsewhere is just coming up to par in terms of basic skills. And what most schools, most universities have done and are still doing is allowing remediation while, in many, many cases, I don’t say all … and certainly it has been true in our case … while they’re taking regular course work … which to me sounds … well, it’s just appalling. I mean you’re conflicting and competing with yourself. If you’re taking remediation, if you can’t follow the lecture, if you can’t take notes in a lecture, if you can’t take active part in a good way in the discussion in class because your skills are not up to par, you shouldn’t be there.

Heffner: Well, how did we get to that…

Paolucci: Well, we got…

Heffner: … in a sense, anti-intellectual position.

Paolucci: We wanted to help, we wanted to help the students to get by. And it wasn’t thought out at the time of open admissions … it wasn’t thought out well what the repercussions of open admissions would be, and I actually wrote on that at the time. And it’s still proving to be the case. In other words, even now, especially now, with the tremendous, dramatic changes in the demographics of the city, for example. All the remediation programs have to be re-holed and improved because there are so many more nationalities involved than there were, let’s say, thirty years ago, twenty year ago, ten years ago. So we have to look at … and we are looking at it again, whether or not we go through with our plan. But it’s not that … people keep saying it’s a change in policy, it’s a change in admissions requirements. It really is not, we’re simply saying students should be able to deal with regular course work in a way that … in which they can really take the fullest advantage of what they’re getting in that course.

Heffner: Would it be fair…

Paolucci: They can’t do that with remediation impacting.

Heffner: Would it be fair to say that you’re saying with your policies now, and as you say they have been in place that you have to be prepared for university level work?

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: Before you’re admitted to the university.

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: As simple as that?

Paolucci: But, we’re willing to help still, and I think those colleges throughout the country where they have remediation might consider and some do this by the way, as we’re trying to do … to limit remediation to entry level, and to make it a kind of conditional admission, whereby the student must pass or overcome the deficiencies before he or she can go into regular course work. And that makes perfectly good sense.

Heffner: Let me…

Paolucci: May I say something?

Heffner: Please.

Paolucci: I think maybe we’re the only … or one of the few recent examples of this … when we announced this policy, we had a run on immersion programs this summer. We never had so many students enrolling for immersion in the summer. They knew they had to take it, you see. They wanted to be admitted, and they knew they had to take. And the result of … the impact of that on the assessment skills program tests … not the programs, but the tests … was incredibly dramatic. I mean the student population doubled and most of them made it into the course work.

Heffner: Well, the press has certainly indicated, and I’m sure this is true around the country in similar, parallel situations, that what we’re dealing with here is a school administration or a university administration that is saying, “No remediation. You are not up to snuff, that’s you’re problem”. Now we may privatize remediation, etc. Why is this misunderstanding so prevalent?

Paolucci: Well, I think the positive message … I’m trying to get it out today. But very often the positive message isn’t heard. Usually the administration of the universities are not opposed to remediation. In fact, our people … on the whole they’re very supportive of what we’re doing, but given … left to their own devices, perhaps they would have gone on the way they were. I think we had to prod them into this position and I’m glad we because things had to be changed. But they were looking for slower pace, they were looking for more gradual change. And I just felt, and others felt with me that we had to do something … you have to aim higher to hit the mark. And it seemed to me that slow pace and all of that just wasn’t going to work anymore.

Heffner: Well, if you’re talking about standards, and you are. Precisely what do you envision for a student in this great city, and again I’m sure this is parallel to students in other urban areas…

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: … who is ready to graduate from a high school, but is not, in the estimation of the university…

Paolucci: Well, let me ask about…

Heffner: … prepared to do the work that’s required of him.

Paolucci: Let me take it in two parts. You mentioned the schools, and to me the schools are very important. They’re essential in this whole program that we have in mind. I’ve turned the phrase “seamless transition” from high school into the college, and we have already met with Rudy Crew and some of his people…

Heffner: The Chancellor of the public school system.

Paolucci: … The Chancellor of the public school system of New York, to try to find ways to achieve that seamless transition. And one of the ways we already have on the map, and in practice, and in place is “College Now”, which is a model program throughout the nation and we have one at Kingsborough … that’s the one that I’m referring to … the model program in Kingsborough, where right now, this past year they had 5,000 students representing 25 high schools and they take them in the junior year … those who need help … the ones who will make it … just enter the normal way, but those who need special help go into this program. And they take them in hand, and by the time they reach entry level in the community college, their rate of success … first of all, they can take, as I understand it … have 40% more results … they can take 40% more credits in the first year than most students coming in without the “College Now”. And they really improve dramatically. It’s a marvelous program and we hope to have it in place, and that’s one of my plans, in the rest of the community colleges by next year. If all the community colleges have a program like “College Now” … it’s a certain price tag, but if they have a program like that, it eases the transition and remediation then drops off dramatically once they enter college. That’s one approach that’s very important. We mustn’t’ forget the high schools. The other thing I think we have to, if you’re looking for higher standards and better performance on every level, then I think we have to also look again at the mission of the community colleges and the senior colleges to see what … and I’ve said this to the presidents … what each one has that is a particular specialty. We know that Baruch specializes in preparation for finance and things of that kind and they excel in that. We know that New York City Tech has certain kinds of technical programs that people come from all over the world to sit in on and see how they run and all of that. These are very important things. We should review what we’re doing and not compete on the same level. We shouldn’t have the same programs going on. We have some, but we should perhaps distinguish more dramatically what it is that every college can present in a very special way, and focus on that.

Heffner: But doesn’t…

Paolucci: And then economic development and trying to impact with the corporations out there and get the students … for example engineering programs. I understand that there’s a dearth of engineering students in the city. They go elsewhere. We should re-active and, and improve … not only the programs themselves, but go out there and work out arrangements with the corporations and the firms to get our students back into the CUNY programs.

Heffner: You seem to me, Dr. Paolucci, to be quite restrained when you talk about the public school … public high school system. Isn’t this all where we have to turn?

Paolucci: Oh, yes.

Heffner: It’s unheard of, isn’t it…

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: To put the burden on the institutions of higher education. Shouldn’t the burden be…

Paolucci: It starts there…

Heffner: … on the public schools?

Paolucci: It starts there. I … we can’t … I can’t say it’s all there, but a good portion of it is there because if you have social promotion … and we’re trying to get away from that … if you’re still in that mind set and you don’t want to get out of it and the programs … the high school programs are geared in that way … you don’t have a chance.

Heffner: Well, I…

Paolucci: …so we’ve said that many times. And this is why we are constantly trying to … we’re in touch with Rudy Crew and we’re trying to work out programs in a very positive way with him. He listens and I think perhaps we can hope for a few changes, but it’s up to him …I mean we can’t dictate to him, it’s something that … it’s for our mutual benefit and I think he understands that and will do it.

Heffner: Would that ???

Paolucci: But we also have a responsibility.

Heffner: Yes, but you talk before about a seamless transition…

Paolucci: Transition, right.

Heffner: … from high school…

Paolucci: Right.

Heffner: … to the university, to the college level. That was always assumed as I remember. The burden was upon the high school.

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: … to prepare students to enter…

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: … and it was a shame upon a high school when its students were not able to perform well enough, if that’s the right phrase, when they did get to college.

Paolucci: Yes, that was true.

Heffner: Now, why are you so restrained in … in this.

Paolucci: I didn’t think I was being restrained. I’m just … well, I don’t want to … I can knock down as easily as the next guy. But, I think the schools can be worked with. I think the schools have understood by now, we’ve given a very strong message over these last few months that they must work with us to try to make the situation a better one for both of us, for both the high schools and the colleges. So, and we’ve been very firm about that. I don’t think we have to yell and shout, but, you know, we’ve been firm about that and we have offered our services, and I know the Chancellor has worked … is working with the (Chancellor and his people) on a program to help train the juniors so that they work their way more easily into that transition. And college now is doing that in a very special way. And in the absence of final solution or a permanent solution, or one that is acceptable to both of us and to everyone out there, we have to rely on something like “College Now”. So we have to do our bit also. I would prefer that we didn’t need “College Now”. Perhaps in the years ahead we won’t.

Heffner: That you didn’t need …

Paolucci: “College Now” … programs like that one.

Heffner: I see.

Paolucci: Or “College Discovery” or things of that kind.

Heffner: Social promotion. That’s the key phrase, isn’t it?

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: You use it…you used it before.

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: What’s the origin of it and to what extent is there some validity as it’s been practiced in high schools.

Paolucci: Well, the validity is to help students coming from other countries who perhaps don’t have the skills, don’t have the language, and rather than keep them back, they push them forward, hoping that … I don’t know … that in due course … by osmosis perhaps something will work itself into them.

Heffner: Well, this question of osmosis … let’s work on that for a moment because there are those who say that for the young person who doesn’t have those skills honed fine enough as yet, being situated … and this is the talk about the senior colleges, not just the community colleges … being situated in institutions where the standards are high helps raise that individual’s standards. Do you think there’s enough validity to that idea to warrant…?

Paolucci: I don’t … I’m not for social promotion. The only validity, if you want to call it that is the effort to help the students … there is an argument somewhere out there that the student will be humiliated, will be demeaned by being left back … something of that kind. Why else would it be? I don’t understand any other reason for that, and some people just don’t want to move because of political reasons, also. There are too many minorities who would yell and shout. On the other hand, the tide is turning. You read more and more that minority parents are saying, “I want my children well prepared, whatever it takes.” And that came out especially with our effort to get more immersion preparation this last summer. And the response of students and parents is very positive. And they made tremendous sacrifices to be able to take those programs in order to qualify for admission into the senior colleges which would have been denied them according to our resolution. That’s an “if” right now, but I don’t want to get into that. But I think the social promotion has been around so long people just take it for granted. And I think the heat is on now because we have made it a point. We have said this many times, and … there’s a whole section on the high schools. And we really feel the high schools have to take an active part in this because we shouldn’t be blamed for what we’re getting from the high schools when it comes to us in that form. And we should not be blamed for the lack of preparation and then people … the students coming into the colleges and our having to pick up with massive remediation techniques and strategies. This shouldn’t be. On the other hand we have taken that responsibility, but right now I think it needs overhauling and I think this first step of the senior colleges … who by the way two or three were already prepared to do it. One by this fall … in fact Baruch had already passed its own resolution before the resolution of the board to do away with remediation all together at Baruch. So it’s no new matter and if we do that and relegate it where it belongs at the entry level and say, “look until you overcome these deficiencies” … and let’s do it fast … let’s put more strategies in position. And we have lots of plans for that.

Heffner: You know …

Paolucci: And do that and then enter quickly into your normal programs and you’ll find that you’re much better at it. I mean this has been proved.

Heffner: Does it all raise the question of the capacity and the ability of the institutions of higher learning to perform a function that the other levels of education have failed at. What makes you proficient? What makes your staffs, your faculties proficient at making up for what the high school teachers, indeed the junior high school teachers and maybe even the elementary school teachers have failed at.

Paolucci: Well, I hope there proficient in what they’re doing, they should be.

Heffner: Doesn’t it take different skills than … I teach, I teach at the university level. I don’t think I could possibly be equipped to teach in a remedial situation. How do you draw upon, how do you develop the resources?

Paolucci: Well, there are people who are prepared for that and there … we do have strategies in place and we’re trying to improve them and expand them, but we do have … unfortunately very often it falls on the adjuncts to teach those courses. And we try to get out of that mold also.

Heffner: That’s very strange … the adjuncts.

Paolucci: Well, sometimes they’re very well prepared. Only because you see the full time teacher has other responsibilities and remediation is so sweeping that, I mean, we need a lot of people to do it. So the big idea here is to try to bring it down to less need, to try to find better people to work out strategies that interlap, even I would love to see writing across the curriculum for example. But it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. You need a team of professors all willing to cooperate and give … let’s say journals, or to pass around the papers that they grade to other teachers in the team. That’s very hard to do and to keep track of and also to give credit for teaching. So, it’s something that … it’s a wild dream and some people have it, but it doesn’t really work out too well. No, I was head of an English Department for many years and I worked out some strategies (in a small way, because it wasn’t CUNY) but, for those who needed extra help — remediation – or whatever –developmental skills, whatever you want to call it. And sure you need small classes. You need a … not a one to one, I wouldn’t really call it tutoring, but certainly a small group that could interrelate and the teachers maybe a team of two or three handling the situation in a variety of ways within the hour and looking at this problem of writing from the point of view of subject matter, primarily, so that the student quickly understands that writing is a function of logic. And you can’t write about things you don’t know. So no use teaching them how to parse a sentence … I mean you can teach them that, but they’ll have to know what goes behind the action, which is the verb and the subject and so on and so forth. I mean that takes … you can do it. I happen to love grammar, so I don’t mind it. But I have not taught remediation, but I know that it must be hard on some people. But there are professors and faculty ready to do that. And perhaps they need more training now because, again, given the various nationalities and the various needs that have grown in the last twenty years, I would say.

Heffner: Well, it is just that that would concern me … the training that is needed. Let me turn then to the question of whether the City University…

Paolucci: Well…

Heffner: … is prepared to invest the dollars needed to do the training, to take on this task.

Paolucci: Well, not if we’re ready to invest it. I don’t think we have that much to invest. But we’re trying very hard; at least with “College Now” we can do something with that in the next year or so. But … you’re right, we shouldn’t have to do it. That’s the bottom line.

Heffner: Well, the other question that I’m asking is not just … “you shouldn’t have to do it…”

Paolucci: Yes.

Heffner: … we all shouldn’t be doing things we shouldn’t have to do.

Paolucci: Well.

Heffner: But you do have to do it. Are you prepared to do it? And I don’t mean…

Paolucci: Oh, yes.

Heffner: … are you ready, willing, but I do mean are you able to do it?

Paolucci: Oh, yes, yes. We have a number of new strategies. I even have begun to suggest various things to our people. To look into the present programs, not just to expand them, but to find new ways of approaching certain problems and to take into consideration the population of the school and what precisely we need to do. I think an overhaul of the whole remediation programs, all of them, is overdue. We have to really bring them up to date and see what’s going to work, you know, best for us.

Heffner: Dr. Paolucci, in the two minutes we have left, I don’t know whether you’re a betting woman, but I’d ask you, what do you see for the future? What are you betting on?

Paolucci: I think we’re going to see more of … distinctive characteristics among the various units of CUNY. I’m opting for that, I’m going to push for that. I think people will be drawn to CUNY. I’m going from the top down … will be drawn to CUNY by way of our specialized programs and what they have to offer. And we have to do a lot of publicity on that. Working down, because it is a pyramid structure, we do have Nobel Prize winners at the top of the pyramid, but I don’t want the bricks to fall out in the middle. I want the pyramid to be substantial and adhere. So the bottom level, which is the broad base of the pyramid, the incoming students, really have to have a good chance at getting their full potential developed. And on that score I think the more course work they do the better they’ll be. Whereas right now a lot of time and energy is being wasted on remediation. And that we have to find ways of limiting, we have to find ways of making it better quicker and addressing it in ways of perhaps … address the needs, the special needs of certain students in a new way because we have to overhaul in that way.

Heffner: Key question. You talk about entry level. Are you taking about preparation before entrance into the City University?

Paolucci: I would like to see it before they come even into City … even admitted into City. But once, if they are admitted, then what applies now with that famous or infamous resolution of May 26th is that for the baccalaureate degree they cannot move on until they have passed the deficiencies. And that means that they really can’t take course work or be admitted into regular course work until the deficiencies are overcome.

Heffner: It seems so strange…

Paolucci: It’s a beginning…

Heffner: It seems so strange to me that there would be admission before there would be qualification.

Paolucci: Well, right now that’s the way it is. And it’s been like that all along. Right now, however, there’s a little bit of a change because we’re saying you have to quickly overcome the deficiencies and pass these tests before going into the baccalaureate program.

Heffner: Dr. Paolucci, thank you so much for joining me today in the discussion of a subject that is as important at the farthest Western point of our country…

Paolucci: Oh, yes.

Heffner: … as it is here in New York. Thank you.

Paolucci: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time here on The Open Mind. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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