Some see a threat to Open Admissions
The CUNY administration is moving forward with a sweeping change to remedial education at the university’s community colleges – but PSC members are flagging what they see as a threat to the quality of education.
The CUNY plan was launched in 2016 after recommendations from the University Task Force on Developmental Education, and it redesigns placement algorithms to end high-stakes testing and places students who need remedial instruction into co-requisite classes or paired credit classes with support, rather than in stand-alone remedial courses.
“Data showed that conventional remediation delivered in sequences of non-credit courses has not served CUNY students well. Failure rates in these courses have been far too high, and too many students have become discouraged and dropped out of higher education altogether before completing remedial instruction,” CUNY spokesperson Frank Sobrino said.
But Marianne Pita, an English professor at Bronx Community College, called these policies a “really radical shift” in how CUNY would handle developmental courses.
“There will be no more need for developmental education. Everybody is going to be rushed in composition and math classes. Reading will go the way of math and writing. That’s the overall picture,” she said.
She remarked that CUNY would value high school GPAs over tests when accepting students to community colleges. The change may affect someone applying from a low-performing school compared to a school with more resources. As PSC Treasurer Sharon Persinger, who is an associate professor in BCC’s math and computer science department, explained, “A student can place out of math remediation in several ways – Regents exam scores for math courses, math SAT or ACT scores, or scores on the math placement exam administered at initial enrollment. There are certainly problems with these exams, but serious effort has gone into making them standardized so that scores have a uniform meaning. High school grades do not have a uniform meaning; an A from a low-performing school probably doesn’t mean the same as an A from a higher-performing school.”
Students sometimes drop out due to frustration with these classes because of work commitments, family responsibilities or lack of college credit, Pita said, and added that there is a likelihood that students would still fail and drop out since they would be underprepared for composition courses.
“It seems to me the current initiative all together adds up to push these students out of colleges,” she said.
Katherine Figueroa, a lecturer in academic and critical reading at Borough of Manhattan Community College, told Clarion that the reforms, while genuine, have caused confusion and frustration among faculty. Those hired for developmental classes are shifted to courses not in their areas of expertise.
She agreed that developmental outcomes should be improved and noted this required more resources to help both students and professors.
“A lot of us teach developmental courses because we enjoy working with students who haven’t had the privilege of having a great education that prepares them for college. We’re working hard to get them there. That’s sort of our mission,” Figueroa said.
Charles Post, a sociology professor and PSC grievance officer at BMCC, also viewed the policy as the wrong message to both students and instructors.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is to end the last bastion of Open Admissions at the City University of New York,” he said.
First established in 1970, Open Admission guarantees almost all high school students a spot at a CUNY college. Since then, officials have balanced high graduation rates and providing opportunities for students. This has led to major changes such as banning remedial courses at all four-year colleges in 1999.
Post feared these solutions would convert community colleagues into vocational or technical colleges, where students would not transfer to four-year colleges.
He compared the idea to Pathways, the 2011 plan that established a uniform curriculum system that elicited fierce controversy among the faculty. Pathways’ goal was to “increase students’ efficiency…by reducing time to [get a] degree and credits acquired,” according to a resolution passed on June 27, 2011, by the CUNY Board of Trustees.
“Ninety-two percent of the full-time faculty in a referendum voted against Pathways,” Post said. “They still didn’t listen to us.”
Kenneth Levinson, a Borough of Manhattan Community College professor in the academic literacy and linguistics department, told Clarion there were some positive changes.
For instance, student complaints about these noncredit courses led to a simpler path toward a degree. Furthermore, faculty are given autonomy in evaluating students and engaging more with them in the classroom, he said.
Figueroa suggested that, in addition to existing services, the university offer more resources to help students that come from backgrounds that haven’t adequately prepared them for college. She cited homelessness and full-time work as examples that could affect students in developmental courses.
Sobrino clarified to Clarion that grant funds, such as the recent $2.1 million from the Strong Start to Finish initiative, will replace stand-alone remedial courses with co-requisite courses and workshops. In addition, the grants would work toward doubling the number of new students who complete both math and English gateway courses.
He added that these changes have led to more students succeeding in the credit courses.
“Last fall, approximately 4,000 more students were able to take credit-bearing math courses than in fall 2016 with little impact on pass rates in those courses,” he said.
The overall pass rate in credit- bearing math courses decreased 7 percent from 2016 to 2017, but more students passed because more could enroll in these classes, CUNY said.
“This program seems to be mainly aimed at getting students in non-STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] majors through just enough math to graduate. I have concerns about the definition of ‘just enough’ and what seems to be an attack on the integrity of learning math,” Persinger said. “Math is a subject where the sequence of ideas is important; it is very hard to teach someone about the slope of a line when the person doesn’t know about adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers.”
She continued, “BCC has another remedial-level course – intermediate algebra and trigonometry – that STEM students take after they have shown proficiency in elementary algebra, the requirement for exiting remediation. What is happening to this course? Will they try to create just-in-time modules for it that go along with the pre-calculus course? I fear passing rates will drop significantly.”
“They want to teach students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to get a college education,” Pita said.
She added, “They want to teach the immigrants, they want to teach those who have been poorly served by public education. They want the possibility of getting them a chance at a college education.”