The Challenge of Urban Higher Education: Wide Access/High Standards

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Herman Badillo
Title: “The Challenge of Urban Higher Education: Wide Access/High Standards”
VTR: 9/21/1999

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and my guest today, born in Puerto Rico, is nevertheless, a New Yorker through and through. A graduate of the city’s public schools, of City College, and Brooklyn Law School, Herman Badillo has been Borough President of the Bronx, an often re-elected member of the United States House of Representatives, representing portions of the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan; and the Big Apple’s Deputy Mayor. Well, now, Mr. Badillo faces a perhaps even a greater civic and political challenge as the new Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York.

And it is with that huge burden in mind that I want first to ask my guest what he considers the city’s, and perhaps most of urban America’s major higher educational responsibility.

What’s facing you that’s most important now?

BADILLO: The biggest problem is that we are not graduating students who can perform even at the high school level, to say nothing of the college level. And over the years we’ve had a standard that I find unacceptable, beginning in the elementary and secondary schools of social promotion. And now, of course, people are talking about eliminating social promotion. But when you and I were going to school, the idea that you should be promoted merely because you were a year older would have been totally unacceptable. Somewhere along the line in the sixties and seventies the concept came up that you should promote students whether they are learning or not. And I think that that is the biggest damage that has been done to the United States and the people of the urban centers, especially to the African-Americans and the Latinos, because they have suffered the most as a result of that standard.

HEFFNER: Mr. Badillo, it’s interesting. You say “somewhere along the line”. Precisely who and what and where do you hold responsible?

BADILLO: I don’t know exactly when it happened. I know that when I was going to school and I assume when you were as well, you did your work and you passed, and if you didn’t you failed. That was true in Puerto Rico, and I went there until I was eleven years old. But I believe it probably happened when the majority of the student body in New York City in the public schools became Black and Hispanic. Because I don’t think that that would have been acceptable when the students in the city of New York were predominantly Jewish, Irish, and Italian. I think that as the composition of the schools change, all of a sudden, and quietly, without notice to anyone, the standards were eliminated. And we are suffering from that now.

HEFFNER: But don’t we have to assume that the motivation was good?

BADILLO: Oh, no, we don’t. There’s bad motivation, too. I assume the motivation was bad, because it has hurt the African-American and Latino populations. That is an absence of standards, and I think it came about because people were afraid of being held accountable, and therefore it was easier to pass everybody than to insist that standards be met. I don’t believe it was good motivation at all.

HEFFNER: And the argument that it was important for children to be with their peer groups?

BADILLO: Oh, no, no, no, not in learning. I’m sorry, that’s unacceptable. If you’re going to do that, than forget about having school at all, then just pass everybody. That is an unacceptable argument. The argument that was made to me at one point was that it was said that it was sociologically bad for a child to be left behind. So then I said “Well, maybe there’s something to that theory. Let me see the sociologist who wrote that book”. You know what? No sociologist ever wrote such a book. Then I said, “Okay, I have my own sociologist and I’ll produce his book when you produce yours.” My sociologist says it is worse for a child to be seventeen years old and not be able to read or write or do arithmetic; because I think that the standard of social promotion really is racist because it damages the students who live in that kind of world because they are thrust out at the age of seventeen and they can’t perform in this society. And what has been happening at this universe is that those same students who graduate with a worthless high school diploma have been promoted into the community colleges and the senior colleges and the whole disaster of failure of standards, which exist from elementary school to the twelfth grade has continued up to the sixteenth grade, and that, to me, is unacceptable.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re an activist. You’re a strong person and you believe what you believe and you’re going to act on those beliefs. I was looking through a transcript of a program we did twenty-two years ago. You were just a boy. Of course, I was just barely over being a boy. But quite seriously, aren’t you starting in the wrong place? Aren’t we starting at the wrong place when we begin at the university or the college level?

BADILLO: Oh, no, no, no, we’re starting at the right place. I started, if you remember, helping to get rid of Chancellor Cortinez in 1994 because he was so incompetent that he did not even know where the money was going. And then, before then, I was in opposition to social promotion. I’m not starting now at all. It’s just now that I was appointed Chairman of the Board of Trustees. My opposition to the lack of standards goes back even beyond twenty-two years. In 1969, the first time I was running for mayor, and I think you were too young even to…

HEFFNER: (Laughter)…we could keep going like that…

BADILLO: …1969…I opposed open admissions as President of the Bronx because I said open admissions without standards is going to devalue and reduce the importance of a city university diploma, so it isn’t something happening just now.

HEFFNER: Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t mean that you were a Johnny-come-lately on this. I know better than that. What I really mean, however, is that you’ve started now, not in observing the problem, but we’ve started to deal with this as a city on the college level. Isn’t the place to begin at the lower levels?

BADILLO: No, you said that, you said that. You know, through my efforts over the last six years, because I have been special counsel to the Mayor on education, we have gotten now…Chancellor Crew has agreed to eliminate social promotion. The only problem is that he is going to eliminate it in full in September of next year. I’d rather it be done this year. But we have moved to eliminate social promotion at the elementary and secondary school level, and the Board of Regents now says that every high school graduate will be required to have a Regents diploma in order to get a high school diploma. So we’re moving at the elementary and secondary levels as well as at the college levels.

HEFFNER: Where does remediation fit in?

BADILLO: Well, remediation, unfortunately, is going to be necessary for a period of many years, because it will take quite a long time to undo the failure of our standards to students who are now going into the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth grade. What we’re proposing at the City University is that we begin to implement a program which we call “College Now” at the high school level; that we, at the City University begin to work with the students in all of the high schools at the ninth grade – we test them at the ninth grade to find out how much at the level they are, and work with them at the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade to ensure that when they graduate from high school they are ready for college work.

HEFFNER: When you say “we”, who are the “we”?

BADILLO: “We” is the City University.

HEFFNER: Uh huh.

BADILLO: We have already tested out this program at about seventy schools, high schools, primarily at Kingsborough Community College, and we have tested it out on the eleventh and twelfth grades. What we, meaning me and the other trustees and Chancellor Matthew Goldstein who was just brought in as the new Chancellor of City University…we were going to be meeting with Chancellor Crew and William Thompson, the President of the Board of Education, to expand this successful program to the ninth grade and to every high school in the city in order to ensure that less remediation is required.

HEFFNER: The argument, I gather, was that you and others did not want remediation at the university level, at the full 4-year college level. You wanted it to take place before then.

BADILLO: Yes, we want to ensure that before a student is matriculated for a senior college that they have completed the high school work and that any remedial education that is required before, in order to get them ready for college, will be secured in advance. In other words, if we understand that many students, because of the failures of the elementary and secondary school system, unfortunately require remedial work, it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the system. It’s the fault of the social promotion system. They should be getting that remedial education first, and get it out of the way and be prepared for college, for senior college, before they matriculate into a senior college.

HEFFNER: You say it’s the fault of the earlier years of education, of social promotion. Are we doing enough as a society to support our schools so that the concept of social promotion can be moved aside, and that we have the adequate teaching staff, the right sized schools?

BADILLO: Oh, we’re not doing enough. The concept of social promotion was outrageous, and to me it’s racist. We can never justify, even if it was only one dollar in the public school system, using the concept of social promotion. The concept of social promotion is totally unacceptable as an excuse for the failure of the schools to perform. Yes, there’s much more that the schools need to do. But first and above all, there has to be a standard for educating. There is such a thing as reading and writing at grade level to allow the students to move on and on and on without being accountable. There is a tremendous disservice, not just to the students, but to the entire society, and it’s a concept that to me is absolutely unacceptable.

HEFFNER: And what would be the drain on the public school system if we eliminate, as we now say we’re doing, social promotion altogether? Do we have enough teachers to teach those who were held back while new students pour into the system?

BADILLO: Of course we do. We do because what we’re doing is, see…In the Black and Latino communities the drop-out rate in the tenth grade is well over fifty percent. Now that is really unforgivable, because today, if you don’t have a high school diploma you’ve got nothing. Life has been ruined. So therefore, whatever the problem is, however the amount of students that have to be left back and given remedial assistance, we must do it. Now in the city of Chicago, for example, where they have eliminated social promotion three years ago, they’re leaving back about 25% of the students. In New York City it may be higher, but it has to be done, because we need to know what is happening to those who are not performing, and we also need to let those who are performing move ahead.

HEFFNER: You’re suggesting, I believe, that I’m wrong in assuming that we’re going to need more teachers and more resources if we eliminate social promotion, which in a sense is getting the kids out of twelfth grade earlier rather than holding them back.

BADILLO: I don’t know. I can tell you that we have a crisis now. My wife is a seventh grade teacher, and she has to deal with 150 kids every day. There are 38 kids in the class for a seventh grade teacher in Manhattan, and that is…makes it very difficult for anyone to perform. On the other hand we also have a huge percentage of students in special education. I prepared an analysis of that subject in 1994 that showed that we are wasting 2 billion dollars in special education because students are put in there and they don’t really get any education at all and nobody’s ever accountable. So there are many, many things that need to be done by the public school system.

HEFFNER: Now, let me turn to Mrs. Badillo and what she thinks about the need for heightened resources.

BADILLO: Well, she is against social promotion, too. She’s one of the few teachers who gives the same curriculum to all the students – the so-called special progress students, and the students who are behind. But it’s very rare that teachers will do this. And she also understands, as you and I do, that teaching 38 kids in a class means that they are not going to get the attention that they require. Obviously all of us would be very happy to have smaller classes. All of us would be happy to have additional resources, and I certainly am in favor of that. But in addition to that, we also need to have real standards.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the pressure from on high, from the top, from the college level is going to bring about reform and the development of more resources at the earlier level?

BADILLO: That’s what’s it’s about. It’s the pressure from on high for us, and also the pressure from the Board of Regents, and the pressure from the Mayor, and the pressure from the Governor, because if we had not been pushing for this it wouldn’t have happened at all. This would have continued as it had before, with no change at all and with disastrous consequences that I have described.

HEFFNER: Now, you talk about Chicago. What’s been the result in Chicago?

BADILLO: The result in Chicago is that the system has been established that if you do your work you pass. If you don’t do your work you are left behind and you are given remedial assistance. As a result of that twenty-five percent of the students have been left behind and are getting remedial assistance, and the system has moved ahead because, I am told, reading levels and performance are better than it was several years ago.

HEFFNER: And in other great urban centers?

BADILLO: Well, apparently it’s been tried and tested in Texas. I understand that it has been Governor George Bush who’s established it in the areas in Texas. But now we have even the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, has come out against social promotion. So I believe that now we should be able to eliminate it perhaps once and for all, from every school system.

HEFFNER: Why haven’t these kids performed up to snuff, those who have been socially promoted?

BADILLO: Well, one of the reasons is if that you’re never required to perform, you’re never evaluated, you don’t find out until very late. I met, some time ago, students from the Borough of Manhattan Community College who were very upset, because for the first time they found out that they didn’t have a real high school diploma. They thought they did, because they had been promoted and they got a high school diploma. But in fact, they could not pass a simple test in reading, writing, and arithmetic and they had to take remedial courses, which upset them a great deal. In fact, today, in the entire city, approximately eighty percent of all of the community college students require a remedial education in order to get them ready for college work. That is a far higher percentage than at SUNY and at other universities throughout the country.

HEFFNER: Why…but why is that the case? SUNY is dealing largely with the same type of population.



BADILLO: No, SUNY gets students primarily from the suburban areas.

HEFFNER: And you’re saying there they don’t believe in social…

BADILLO: No, the problem is primarily in urban centers, as I indicated early in the program, a problem, mainly of the areas that become predominantly African-American and Hispanic.

HEFFNER: Now, you used the word “racist” before. Tell me how you use the phrase. Why do you say racist?

BADILLO: Because I don’t think that when the system was White they would have had such a system because they would have been held accountable somehow. When the public school became Black and Hispanic, quietly the issue of social promotion came about, and it’s racist because it damages the students. It allows them to go on and on without learning, and in many cases they drop out of high school, as I’ve indicated. When they graduate from high school they really haven’t finished high school at all, as I’ve indicated, because they’re totally unprepared. That is a system that is absolutely racist from my point of view.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen now?

BADILLO: Well I hope that the system…the social promotion system will be permanently eliminated.

HEFFNER: Okay. What’s going to happen to the educational level?

BADILLO: The educational level will improve because it means that Blacks and Hispanics can learn like anybody else. We in Puerto Rico have been running a society since well before the Pilgrims got here. And there’s no reason why Blacks and Hispanics cannot learn like anybody else. There’s no need to be afraid of the ethnic composition of people. Everybody can learn. But you have to have the same standards. You cannot lower the bar when the ethnic composition changes because that is hurting people by lowering the bar, and not helping society.

HEFFNER: But don’t you think, to a certain extent, social promotion was a response to poorer and poorer teaching and poorer and poorer educational facilities?

BADILLO: If so, it was a response that was absolutely unjustified. I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but I do know…let me take the Hispanic community that I know very well: Most of the Puerto Rican parents that I know didn’t know that their kids were being promoted automatically. Because they got the report that said that the student passed. Now obviously, if you come from Puerto Rico or Latin America, where teachers are highly respected, you would think that the students were learning. The parents were not told that everybody passed. So it was misleading a whole group of people about what was going on. One of the reasons I like to talk about this directly on television and wherever I can, is to let people know what has been happening; to let people know, let parents know that in fact it has not been a meaningful educational system in the city, and that that has to change.

HEFFNER: But you see, when you say that there hasn’t been a meaningful educational system in the city, it does take two to tango. And perhaps in your estimation the most important element of the deterioration of the educational structure, the social promotion…wasn’t that in itself a result of diminished resources going in our schools? Not just an ideological…

BADILLO: I’m sorry, as I mentioned before, no matter how much or how little money there is, there have to be standards. I do not accept that because you feel you don’t have enough money you throw out all standards. That’s an unacceptable theory in any aspect of society.

HEFFNER: But you see, you’re responding to my questions as if I were saying, “Well, isn’t it appropriate, then, that we had social promotion”. I’m not saying that at all.

BADILLO: It happened, and therefore everybody looks for excuses to justify what happened. To me there is no excuse. It is unjustifiable. Let me tell you, I’m the one fellow in this city who understands the budget, because I analyze the budget for the Board of Education. I got rid of…Giuliani and I got rid of 2,500 administrators from the Board of Education, and nobody noticed, in 1994. We identified that special education cost the city, in 1994, $23,598 per student, which is more than it costs to send a student to a private school in Manhattan. And the students didn’t make any progress at all. So you say they’re talking about a lack of money? There’s also a lot of money being wasted, too, which anybody who knew how to analyze a budget as I did, could have identified. I did that because I’m also a Certified Public Accountant.

HEFFNER: I was just going to say that there’s an advantage to being an accountant.

BADILLO: The Board of Education could have hired accountants. Cortinez refused to allow the mayor to put in a Deputy Chancellor who understood finances. And that’s why I was appointed to analyze the budget. So there was an unwillingness on the part of the Board of Education and Chancellor Cortinez to review where the money was going to.

HEFFNER: There are those who say that with the elimination of social promotion, not necessarily people who are opposed to it…they say that along with that policy, or along with the elimination of social promotion, we are now going to find more and more kids out of school, leaving school. Surely they won’t be promoted. They won’t be going to school.

BADILLO: Listen, we found, as I told you, the drop-out rate for Black and Hispanic from tenth grade in high school is fifty percent and more. I think that is scandalous. I don’t know how many more can drop out, but even worse than that, of those who graduate, as I told you who come to CUNY, 87% don’t really have a high school diploma. I don’t know how better you could spell out a disastrous educational system.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the drop-out rate will be greater?

BADILLO: I don’t see…No, I think that if you take…and as we do in other countries in this world, Europe, Latin America, Asia, where you have standards, you begin to work with the young people in pre-K. You don’t even wait for the first grade. Pre-K, and you begin to uphold the idea of performance. Then you will have a higher percentage of students graduating. In fact, I look forward to a huge increase in the number of students coming to the City University in the next ten years, as we begin to ensure that we have standards in the elementary and secondary schools so that more young people graduate from high school and come to the City University for college work.

HEFFNER: Mr. Badillo, we have just a minute and a half left or so. Where do you find the resources to do the remediation work that you must do now in university in the city?

BADILLO: We have resources to do it. It is not that difficult to do. We tested it out, as I told you, in college now, in Kingsborough Community College, and we find that it works if we start working in the eleventh and twelfth grade. We have the resources now to go back into the ninth and tenth grades.

HEFFNER: But you’re talking about a massive effort, right?

BADILLO: Yes, but it’s not anything that is impossible to do. It is possible for people to learn, and it is possible to set standards for each grade. That can be enforced. And if additional resources are required, they will be provided. But the point is, we intend to have a real educational system.

HEFFNER: You want City College, for instance, to be the City College that you and I knew.

BADILLO: Well, there’s nothing special about what you and I knew. You and I learned how to read and write and perform and achieve, and this is what this generation and future generations need to do also.

HEFFNER: Good luck, Herman Badillo, and thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

BADILLO: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you will join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150.

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

Continuing production of THE OPEN MIND has been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The Open Society Institute; The Center for Educational Outreach & Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University; The William T. Grant Foundation; and from the corporate community, Ruder-Finn.

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