CUNY — The City University of New York — is a unique institution dedicated to teaching “regular people” really great things at a highly affordable, yet sophisticated, intellectual level.  If you have a high school diploma, or an equivalent degree, a CUNY college is required to accept you as a student.

CUNY, because of its special mandate as “the people’s university,” is starting to founder in the midst of a budget-cutting fiscal crisis and an overwhelming need to serve remedial students.

About three-quarters of the 17,500 freshmen at the community colleges this year have needed remedial instruction in reading, writing or math, and nearly a quarter of the freshmen have required such instruction in all three subjects. In the past five years, a subset of students deemed “triple low remedial” — with the most severe deficits in all three subjects — has doubled, to 1,000.

The reasons are familiar but were reinforced last month by startling statistics from state education officials: fewer than half of all New York State students who graduated from high school in 2009 were prepared for college or careers, as measured by state Regents tests in English and math. In New York City, the proportion was 23 percent.

Why are those students so far behind their peers?

The popular answer, of course, is they were subjected to terrible tenured teaching — and the reason those college students can’t read or write or do math is because they just didn’t have a good enough teacher.  Why some people in politics think the answer to terrible teachers is union busting and laying off good teachers only makes the problem worse, not better.

Sure, there might be some really awful teachers — just as their are corrupt police, and unsavory car mechanics and lying politicos and accountants who cannot do math — but blaming teachers for poor student performance is attacking the wrong end of the problem.

The greatest teacher in the world cannot teach someone who is uninterested in learning.  You can put a body in a classroom, but unless the mind is open to expansion, nothing will be learned.  Is that the teacher’s fault?  It is the student’s problem; and the parents’ fault.  The teachers are left to clean up the familial mess and take the misconstrued, public, blame.

How do you open the mind of a student?  It begins at home in the crib long before the body touches a classroom.  Parents must encourage curiosity and morality and problem solving from day one.  When a child is embedded in a home that values thought, and the promise of higher education, you create a student who is eager to learn — even from a “bad” teacher! — and that trained student can then independently use any stimulus to find a way to grow logical capacity and to widen the realm of unattenuated knowledge.

We can’t blame teachers for a lack of student investment in studying and remembering — just as we cannot blame the child for a lack of guidance and stimulus in the home.  We need to seek out the parents and find ways to reward and punish them for the performance of their children in the classroom. Parents actively choose to bring new bodies into this world, and they are ultimately responsible for the minds of their children until they reach the age of majority. We need to teach parents that advanced addition need not always result in remedial subtraction.


  1. In the book Ethics of Our Fathers, it is written that a wise person is one who learns from every person — presumably, this is whether they are a good teacher or a bad teacher. We can’t put it all on the teachers when it is incumbent on the parents to instill good learning values from an early age. My mother told me so many times about the importance of education — it’s something that can’t be taken away from you.

    1. I like that, Gordon — “education cannot be taken from you” — and that is the greater lesson in this educational fiscal mess. We’re building minds and sustaining lives in schools, and to underfund that germinal process, and to undercut the teachers staffing the classrooms, creates one of the greatest crimes of our generation.

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