In Pat O’Mara’s basic algebra class at Borough of Manhattan Community College in Tribeca, students are trying to learn how to calculate the slope between two points.
O’Mara: So this is the X and Y coordinance of the first so it’s the x’s of 1 and y’s of 1, and the coordinance for the second one would be x’s of 2 and y’s of 2.
It’s a concept that the students should have learned in middle school. But they are learning it again because they failed the school’s entrance placement test.
Tasha Colorado from Fresh Meadow, Queens, is one of the students in O’Mara’s class. She is taking three remedial classes this semester, including math, reading and writing. That means she will not get any college credit even if she passes all her classes. She said she thought she was good at math.
“I thought I was… But I used a calculator. In college, you can’t use a calculator. So it kind of screwed me over,” said Colorado.
Colorado is part of the majority at BMCC. About 60 percent of all math classes offered there are remedial, and three-quarters of the all freshman at CUNY community colleges need at least one remedial class in math, reading or writing.
Last year CUNY spent 33 million dollars on remedial instruction in its 6 community colleges. That amount nearly doubled over the past 10 years.
Faulty say there are a few reasons for the increase. First more students are going back to college, after years in the workforce-which means they have not been in school for a while. O’Mara says she sees that in her class.
“They’ve probably been away for a couple of years. If you don’t keep up with any subject, you are kind of full. Then you are asked on one test to put all the right answers down, you’ve forgotten a few things only because you haven’t done it for a while,” said O’Mara.
Others students and faculty blame the increase on public high schools. Another student in O’Mara’s class, Frank Sanchez, was not surprised that he failed the placement test. He said he had bad math teachers in high school.
“I’ve always had trouble with math. And when I came into the school, I have a more of an understanding since I’ve had math ever, Sanchez said.
Sanchez graduated from New York City public high schools, like two-thirds of his classmates. Kathleen Offenholley coordinates adjunct math instructors at BMCC. She says the faculty spends a lot of time making up for the high schools’ shortcomings.
“New York has an enormous disparity of income. A lot of people live in very poor neighborhoods with not much resources for their schools. And I think a lot of my students come from that kind of backgrounds,” said Offenholley.
Another reason for the increase in remedial classes is the changing culture. Gay Brookes is the chairperson of the developmental skills department at BMCC.
“Many students don’t read very much. So they don’t have the fluency in their reading ability. So they look at a textbook and it’s got 250 pages of rather dense print, and they just don’t know how to approach it,” said Brookes.
Students don’t get college credits for remedial classes, or developmental courses as they are formally known. But the classes cost the same as credit-bearing courses. Low-income students’ tuition can be covered entirely by Pell grants. However, Republicans in the US House of Representatives are proposing to cut the grant funding by up to 15 percent. Dolores Perin from Columbia University’s Teachers College studies remediation at community colleges. She says that supporting remedial students benefits everyone.
“We as taxpayers have to think about tomorrow and not just today,” said Perin. “Think about the implications of supporting students with low skills because those are the workforce tomorrow. The workforce is aging out. We need to replace them.”
The long-term solution to reduce remediation is for high schools to prepare their students better. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia, says high schools and colleges need to get on the same page when it comes to standards.
“Up until recently, our high schools and our community colleges and four-year institutions haven’t been communicating well enough about what it is that students need to be able to succeed in college or career,” said Wise.
The National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practice last year developed an initiative to help improve K to 12 education. So far more than 40 states have adopted it. In New York, CUNY is working with New York City Department of Education to align academic standards. In the meantime, the city’s high schools will be graded for their graduates’ college readiness.