Last spring's decision of the trustees of the City University of New York to phase out remedial education at CUNY's ten four-year colleges—and thus deny admission to most of the students who need it—has become something of a seminal event, not only in higher education, but in our larger culture wars. CUNY took an issue that had been festering for years in hundreds of institutions, and hit it with a sledgehammer.
Under the trustees' decision, which followed intense political pressure from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and, indirectly, from Governor George Pataki, remediation would be shifted to CUNY's two-year colleges, to private tutoring companies, or to precollege summer programs. In any case, beginning in the fall of 1999, remediation for most students was to be phased out at CUNY four-year colleges, and any student who could not pass CUNY's placement tests in math, reading, or composition would have to start her postsecondary education somewhere else. In effect, the placement tests would become an admission exam. Only those students who are not native English speakers and those who received their secondary education abroad would be excepted.
Neither the decision nor the response should have been surprising. In a recent Public Agenda survey of business, government, and education leaders, the need for remedial work registered as the most serious problem facing higher education. It was thus almost inevitable that remedial programs would take their place alongside phonics, the new math, testing, and social promotion in the theological disputes that now characterize much of our education politics. No other issue brings together so many of the doctrinal issues separating the true believers of the right and the left—about merit, standards, and accountability; about race, equity, and access; about meddling politicians and self-serving professors. No program more forcefully echoes the national ambivalence about choosing between high-stakes criteria and egalitarian opportunity; none is more encrusted with squishy labels and uncertain definitions; and none is more prone to oversimplification in public debates.
Last spring, after the CUNY trustees made their decision, the university immediately released numbers indicating that the new standards would reduce freshman enrollment in those colleges by 46 percent. Among Hispanics and blacks, the decline was predicted to be 55 percent and 46 percent respectively, but in CUNY's estimates, even 38 percent of whites would be shut out. So far, nothing's happened because implementation of the CUNY policy was delayed by a New York State judge on a procedural open-meetings issue. But the number said to be affected, however inflated, is an indication of the magnitude of the issue. For conservatives, it's evidence of how bad things are, how devalued the meaning of higher education is, and how loose the admission standards have become at places like CUNY, which, since 1971, has admitted any high school graduate with an 80 average or better. For the left and the ethnic activists in this dispute, it shows how damaging these changes would be to access and equality of opportunity. There was almost a riot at the CUNY meeting at which the new policy was adopted, with the opponents in the crowd trying to shout down the board members who were supporting the reform. Because CUNY board chairwoman Anne A. Paolucci ordered the room cleared—thus making it less than an "open" meeting—the judge invalidated the trustees' action. But in January the board held another vote, this time in a larger hall, and passed its resolution again—by a larger margin than before. Barring further court action, the new policy is thus scheduled to be implemented on four CUNY campuses beginning with the class that enters in January 2000, and then at the other campuses in the years following.
There are similar remedial statistics in California, where roughly half of the entering freshmen at CSU, the mid-range California State University system that admits those presumed to be in the top third of their high school classes, have to take remedial courses either in English or in math, and often in both. At some CSU campuses with large minority enrollments, such as Dominguez Hills and Los Angeles, over 80 percent need remedial work. (Perhaps more disturbing, those requiring remediation in English had a mean high school grade point average of 3.15, slightly higher than a B.) Four years ago, the CSU trustees voted to gradually phase out remediation in that system, though after heated protests from minority groups they gave themselves almost a decade to do it. The assumption among the CSU trustees, as among the conservative majority at CUNY, is that remediation ought to take place in the two-year colleges or in other remedial programs. Or if the high schools were doing their job, the argument goes, it should hardly be needed at all. But so far the number of students required to take remedial courses at CSU has been going up, not down.
Meanwhile, in a number of states, among them Vir ginia, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, and Calif ornia, politicians have been urging high schools to provide some sort of warranty for their graduates, an idea that a handful of schools have already implemented. If the students go on to require remediation in college, their school districts would reimburse the college for the cost of the remediation (a practice vaguely reminiscent of the remark attributed to Harold W. Dodds, once the president of Princeton: "Yes madam, we guarantee results, or else we return the boy"). A growing number of states are also moving toward high-stakes exit exams that students would have to pass in order to get a high school diploma (Texas has already done so). The problem with the exams is that if they are too tough, a politically intolerable number of students will fail. If there are consequences for the school, the temptation to rig scores becomes irresistible, as it has in some Texas districts. And if they are too easy, the results are meaningless. Thus the standard is always a political one. And the schools can justifiably argue that much of the problem begins with the poorly trained and undereducated teachers they have to hire—teachers who are graduates of the very institutions that now provide so much of the remediation.
High School 101
But finding real solutions in the remediation debate is not simply a matter of establishing a few guarantees and deciding where remediation will take place. The problems run far deeper, touching on virtually every divisive issue in American education. Offended educational conservatives like Giuliani and Pataki complain that CUNY suffers from low graduation rates, bloated bureaucracies, and a miasma of political correctness. "What CUNY has done for years," said Giuliani, "is feel good rather than educate." Widespread remediation is, in Giuliani's view, both costly and damaging to academic standards—and worse, it suffers from a fatal lack of logic. Four-year institutions are not supposed to be in the business of teaching students to read or master high school math. They also assume that remedial courses in college are a new and rapidly growing phenomenon, which could be eliminated by forcing high schools to provide better preparation and make their students work harder. If high schools were to find "that fewer of their graduates can go on to college," to quote economist Robert M. Costrell of the University of Massachusetts, an institution which has had an ugly history of racial tension, "they would certainly be under pressure to raise their standards." In the subtext of those criticisms, there is often a strong demand to end open admission and race-based affirmative action.
But many of those assumptions need to be qualified. Clifford Adelman, a senior analyst at the U.S. Department of Education who has conducted the most sophisticated and extensive studies on remediation, says that there has in fact been no increase in the percentage of college students taking at least one "precollegiate" course between the period 1973–1982 (48 percent) and the period 1983–1992 (46 percent). Nor did Adelman find an increase in the roughly 40 percent of students in four-year institutions who have taken remedial courses. That in itself is surprising since the percentage of students going to college went up considerably in those years, meaning that admissions offices were dipping deeper into the ranks of average and even below-average high school graduates. Moreover, a much larger percentage of those attending college are now adults, people whose average age is closer to 30 than to 18. These students don't come straight from high school, but from the ranks of full-time workers seeking to upgrade skills or get a degree. A growing number of others are immigrants who need intensive work in English. There are some indications that in California, at least half of all remedial courses are taken by students who are 25 or older. In Florida, according to one report, 80 percent of the students in remedial classes were not recent high school graduates. In most of these cases, the connection between the student's deficiency and the quality of the local school is tenuous at best.
At the same time, however, Adelman leaves no doubt that there is a problem, and not only because the number who require remediation is high—considerably higher than the 29 percent shown by official statistics (a number based on reports from the colleges, which tend to try to minimize the numbers, not on the huge sample of actual student transcripts, which is the basis of Adelman's study). He points out that, as might be expected, the more remedial courses a student takes, the less likely she is to graduate. Of those who take no remedial courses, 54 percent earn a bachelor's degree. Of those who take three or more such courses, only 24 percent earn a bachelor's degree. In combination with his observation that many high school counselors, conscious of the aggressive recruiting of minority students by colleges and universities, tend to encourage black and Hispanic students to apply to institutions for which they may not be prepared, those numbers directly contradict arguments, like those of William G. Bowen and Derek Bok (in their recent book, The Shape of the River) that students admitted because of affirmative action suffer no academic disadvantage in college. Yet Adelman is also quick to point out that the number of remedial students coming from suburban schools is nearly as high, and in some regions higher, than those from urban schools. In marginal four-year institutions, affirmative action comes in many colors.
Equally significant is Adelman's finding that the kind of remediation students require is as crucial as how much. "If a student has had a bad Algebra 2 course in high school," he writes, "both four-year and two-year colleges can fix the problem in one semester, maybe two. Even if the student evidences a writing problem, one semester of high-intensity instruction can do the job—two semesters for students whose native language is not English, since writing is the last of the four language skills people learn when they study a new language."
With reading, the problems become much more severe. Among students who had to take remedial reading, to quote Adelman again, "66 percent were in three or more other remedial courses." Of that group, only 12 percent earned bachelor's degrees, a conclusion that "makes unfortunate sense. If you can't read, you can't read the math problem either (let alone the chemistry textbook, the historical documents or the business law cases)."
But this is hardly a new phenomenon. In the seventeenth century, according to a recent report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), Harvard provided tutors in Greek and Latin for incoming students; the University of Wisconsin offered entering students remedial courses in reading, writing, and arithmetic as early as 1849; and by 1894, "more than 40 percent of college freshmen enrolled in precollegiate programs when only 238,000 students enrolled in all of higher education"—almost the same percentage as today. By that time, all but 65 of the nation's 400 colleges had "preparatory" departments. In the 1940s and 1950s, with the influx of veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill, the percentage of underprepared students went up, as it would go up again with the increased funding provided by the Higher Education Act of 1965 and the spread of open admission in the 1970s. As the IHEP points out, there never was a golden age when all courses offered in higher education were "college level." But there was a time when nearly all remedial students were white.
Did You Say "Bonehead"?
The broader problem, then and now, is defining just what remedial education is, deciding where it should take place, even agreeing on what it should be called. In much of the country, the preferred term these days is "developmental education," a euphemism created at least in part to get around the reluctance of some states to fund anything called remedial education (the adjective "bonehead," needless to say, is definitely out). There is a National Center for Developmental Education and a National Association for Develop mental Education, and, of course, there are universities that offer graduate degrees in the field. Defenders of developmental education like Emily Miller Payne and Barbara G. Lyman of Southwest Texas State University call it "both the promise that it is never too late to engage in this opportunity for equality and the reminder that all things are not equal in education, just as they are not in society." Sometimes, they go to flights of fancy about how developmental students "bring to the classroom a certain, often indefinable, savvy about the world and how it works that escapes detection on standard diagnostic and placement tests." Nonetheless, they insist that the costs are relatively small.
But since most four-year colleges and universities, trying to protect both their prestige and their budgets, do contortions to conceal what they actually spend on remediation and how much they provide, the reported numbers are probably useless. The 23-campus California State University, where more than 25,000 entering freshmen take at least one course in either remedial English or math, told researchers David Breneman and William Haarlow that it spends just $9.3 million a year on remedial education. That number is, on its face, absurd. Hedging still further into absurdity, Arizona officials told Breneman and Haarlow that in their state, remedial education "is not allowed."
Still it's certainly true, as the IHEP report points out, that remediation means very different things in different institutions. In colleges that don't have open-door admission policies, says education professor Alexander Astin of UCLA, "most remedial students turn out to be simply those who have the lowest scores on some sort of normative measure ment—standardized tests, school grades, and the like. But where we draw the line is completely arbitrary: lowest quarter, lowest fifth. . . . Nobody knows." In some systems, that line may be determined more by the supply of low-paid instructors available to teach the remedial courses than by any objective standard.
To compound the problem, the nation's high school students are confronted by so many conflicting signals about what they should master and what tests they should prepare for that they can't possibly prepare for them all. In an article published by the California Higher Education Policy Center, Stanford education professor Michael Kirst describes the California situation:
the placement tests at CSU are given after students graduate from high school and have been accepted by a Cal State campus, so students have no way to specifically prepare for them. Students with low scores must take remedial or "bonehead" courses that do not count toward university graduation.
The Cal State math multiple-choice placement test covers algebra, geometry, and algebra II. The test, which is devised by a committee of Cal State professors, is a mismatch with the State Board of Education framework [recently revised] that stresses math problems rather than multiple choice.
Neither students nor, in most cases, their teachers are informed about the various placement tests they may have to take—one at the University of California, another at CSU, still others at the community colleges, all of which in turn are inconsistent with the demands of the SAT, the Advanced Placement exams, and most other tests they encounter as they apply for college.
Beneath the sometimes emotional arguments of the defenders of open admissions and open remediation at places like CUNY, there is the powerful fear, backed by some research, that if remediation ends and students are shunted from four-year colleges to two-year community colleges, their chances of ever getting a bachelor's degree will be seriously reduced. The supporting arguments come from people like Steven Zwerling, now at the Ford Foundation, and Jerome Karabel, a Berkeley sociologist, who contend that from the start, the community colleges served as—and perhaps were designed to be—a way of diverting poor and minority students from four-year institutions and professional careers and into vocational tracks with limited possibilities. Zwerling has argued that students who begin in four-year colleges have a 25 percent better chance of getting their bachelor's degrees, and thus moving into the middle class, than similar students who begin their careers as transfer students from two-year colleges. And in that tracking process, the losers are inevitably poor and minority students. But since there is no certain way to control for the self-selection resulting from different student aspirations, or indeed for a host of other variables, it becomes a tough argument to sustain. What looks on one side like "diversion" from a more promising course—a plain denial of access—looks, on the other, like the golden door of democratic opportunity.
And yet it's also true that, despite the undeniable need to trim academic flab, the current get-tough reform wave that seeks to push remediation out of four-year institutions is part of a much broader set of politically driven proposals which will particularly affect poor and minority students: the drive to end social promotion and to require all students to pass graduation examinations in the schools; the campaign, already successful in California and now moving to Arizona, to outlaw bilingual education; the push toward more conservative curricular standards in the teaching of reading, math, science, and other subjects; the drive to make teachers and administrators more accountable as measured by student test scores; and the ongoing campaign, already successful in California, Texas, and Washington State, and now beginning in Michigan, to end all race-based affirmative action in university admissions. There is an ideological consistency among all these efforts that, for all the arguments, many of them correct, about how the current feel-good system shortchanges poor and minority students, are likely to reduce access and opportunity, at least in the short run.
Many of these proposals on testing and social promotion are being pushed not merely by the right, but by New Democrats like Bill Clinton and Governor Gray Davis of California, who have embraced much of what used to be the conservative agenda on education. To cite just one example, both Clinton (in his 1999 State of the Union address) and Davis want to emulate the new policies in Chicago under which failing students are required to take summer remedial classes and, if they fail there, are held back a year. Since social promotion ended there, test scores in Chicago, though still low, are up. But no one is quite sure how much of the increase is due to the extra instruction, how much results from the fact that the weakest students, having been held back, are now tested at a lower grade level, and how much is due to the fact that others are dropping out and are thus no longer tested at all. Nor is there any certainty that the higher scores don't come largely from the wholesale shake-up of the system that followed the vote of the Illinois legislature authorizing Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to run the schools. In education, politics and ideology often masquerade as experience.
The arguments about remediation, pro and con, are almost identical to those about social promotion. In many ways they are two versions of the same issue. What's the trade-off—in quality and standards, in self-esteem, in equal opportunity, in access—between meritocratic ideals and perpetual second chances? As a nation we have always been ambivalent about that. Indeed, much of what we now seek to undo was established by the reforms, also based on professedly sound logic, of another age. We have always alternated, it seems, between open-ended, student-centered curricula and what is sometimes called drill-and-kill—between objective, multiple-choice tests and what the left calls "authentic assessment," the evaluation of student portfolios that include everything from ruminations about ecology to literary essays to art projects. In this case, quite obviously, the push to end remediation at CUNY's four-year colleges is likewise an attack on the open admission reforms of the 1970s. If the university no longer admits those who can't pass its placement screens in English and math, then those tests become a form of entrance exam. Open admission has itself been the most sweeping form of affirmative action.
A Classic Compromise
Yet like remediation in higher education, open admission, even in four-year institutions, is hardly something invented by liberals and academic civil-rights activists. There was a time when Ohio State University, in a blazing politically driven commitment to egalitarian opportunity, admitted any Ohio high school graduate, and not just those who would play on Woody Hayes' football teams. Not surprisingly, by the beginning of the second year, about half of those students would be gone. Even now, there are countless "nonselective" four-year institutions that will admit almost any student who has passed a prescribed set of high school courses in basic fields—what one admissions officer used to call "warm body–good check" admissions practices. Yet as Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, points out, those institutions (to their credit) nonetheless try to maintain a certain set of standards for graduation—and thus must provide the remediation to give their students a chance to meet them. Remediation in college, in other words, can be seen as a reflection both of our optimistic, permissive admission standards and of our insistence that somewhere down the line, academic standards are maintained.
Ultimately, this classic compromise may also make a good deal of pedagogical sense. As Norton Grubb, a Berkeley education professor, points out, perhaps the strongest argument against segregating remediation from the rest of a student's college program is that it can be presented much more sharply and attractively when it's linked to the things the student really wants to learn. The most successful courses have titles like "Reading, Writing and Wrenches" and are not devoted simply to an unfocused course of rote learning and drill—like the courses that have already turned the student off—but instead connect the basics a student needs with the higher order skills he wants to learn. That's best done in the department or college where the student intends to do his major work.
To be sure, the policies of many of the nation's nonselective four-year institutions are driven as much by economics as by educational philosophy. They have to keep the students coming in order to keep the place running at all. But, like the two-year colleges, which admit almost anyone who walks in, they also reflect a deeper set of American values and aspirations. We applaud high standards, but we also want everyone to have a chance to go to college—indeed, under Bill Clinton, we have made it almost a matter of right and entitlement, at least in theory. And while people like Giuliani and the CUNY board argue that students requiring remediation can still go to the two-year colleges, those colleges do not offer quite the same education, particularly if the four-year institutions get whiter and the two-year colleges become not merely the default position, but the last stop for the growing number of first-generation minority students scrabbling their way toward the middle class. The fear of further social stratification is very real.
Almost nothing in American education lasts forever. In the past we have often strained to raise the bar of test-based merit, only to succumb to our democratic, egalitarian impulses, and quietly ease it down again. The current political pressures will no doubt push more remediation into the two-year colleges. In addition, there may well be a shift of students, 18-year-olds as well as mid-career adults, toward more narrowly tailored trade and vocational courses offered in an increasingly wide range of settings, and away from traditional degree programs. But it would be surprising if our historic merit-and-opportunity cycle now came to an end. That would be downright un-American.