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Spring 1998
 
City Journal Spring 1998.
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Defending CUNY

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald depicts City University as a "laughingstock," abounding in loony courses ("CUNY Could Be Great Again," Winter 1998). I teach in the graduate writing program of the English department at City College; one would never guess from her description that Anton Chekhov has been the writer most named as an inspiration by my students. Nor would one know that the majority of literature courses taught in the graduate English department concern medieval, Renaissance, and romantic poetry and the classics of world literature.

Ms. Mac Donald would rid CUNY of Marxists and professors of gender studies. But harsh cuts have little to do with the elimination of courses one might not like; in reality, such cuts create chaos.

Barbara Probst Solomon
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
For Heather Mac Donald, CUNY declined because of race politics, the 1960s, post-Marxian theorists, (mis-)managing remedial education—and, mirabile dictu, CUNY is also responsible for undermining a faltering school system. Her solution? Privatize remediation in community colleges, phase it out of senior colleges, abolish SEEK programs, and redo the curriculum so that it might win approval from the National Association of Scholars.

First, a reality check. Our colleges are staffed, currently, with approximately 5,300 full-time and about 8,000 adjunct faculty—serving 200,000 students. A generation ago, that number of students encountered double the number of full-timers. This hardly can be characterized as a bureaucratic boondoggle.

Second, following nearly a decade of budget cuts, about 70 percent of students now attend as part-timers at some point in their careers. Thousands of our students come from families with annual incomes of around $15,000. Sixty percent are women and the majority of them are parents; nearly as many are minorities from miserably equipped inner-city schools. Approximately 23,000 are on welfare.

CUNY graduates match every national profile for two-and four-year students, a fact Ms. Mac Donald ignores. She should look at where these graduates get hired, and at what kind of income they enjoy. CUNY still turns out more Ph.D.s than any Ivy League school in the country.

To attack students who take eight years for a baccalaureate degree is to attack people who are heroes of their own lives. And if a young, privileged, intelligent woman cannot understand that, she is patently uneducable. Her mean-spirited critique leads most CUNY readers to conclude that she is more interested in exclusion than serious discussion.

In the last decades that she so trivializes, a middle class made up of African-Americans and Hispanics has emerged for the first time in U.S. history. In these same years, a significant proportion of working-class "white ethnics" entered CUNY. The alumni of these decades help form New York's various professional cadres—including over half of the black and Hispanic caucuses of the State Legislature. Ms. Mac Donald is trouncing a social transformation and branding its beneficiaries as substandard. Most people would consider this to be racist.

Sandi E. Cooper Chair
CUNY Faculty Senate

Heather Mac Donald responds:
Professor Cooper's "reality check" fails to address the central issue: has open admissions harmed the quality of a CUNY education? While the percentage of females and welfare mothers in the CUNY student body may thrill a feminist welfare advocate, it says nothing about whether those students are ready for college. Professor Cooper seems to believe that the magic words "race" and "poverty" obliterate any question of standards. But CUNY's student body has never been wealthy and has always contained a substantial number of minorities. That did not prevent the university from requiring college-level qualifications from its students.

The closest she comes to asserting that all is academically sound at CUNY is to invoke the earnings of its graduates—another irrelevancy. At what cost was that boost achieved—measured in numbers of students who dropped out, in the expense of remediation, and in lost opportunity for greater excellence?

Undoubtedly, nothing will convince Professor Cooper that I am not a white supremacist, but I can assure her that the entry of "white ethnics" to CUNY changes my view of open admissions not a whit. But since we're throwing around the epithet "racist" so freely, I would use it for Professor Cooper's implication that blacks and Hispanics can enter CUNY only if it waives the requirement that they know how to read and write.

I am delighted to learn from Professor Solomon that students in City's graduate writing program are well-versed in the classics. City's undergraduate priorities, however, are not so clear. While the undergraduate English program this spring offered 20 literature courses (including courses in black English and contemporary Latino literature), the black studies department offered 32 courses on such topics as Malcolm X and black revolution. Add to that 11 offerings in women's studies, and you have over twice the offerings of the already multicultural English department. Would I like to eliminate such identity-based trivialities? You bet. Would doing so constitute "harsh cuts"? Only if identity scholarship has become the core mission of City.
 

School Wars

To the editor:
Sol Stern's "School Choice: The Last Civil Rights Battle" (Winter 1998) is shot through with factual distortions designed to union-bash, not improve education.

For example, public school choice and charter-type public schools are widespread in New York City—with support from the United Federation of Teachers—from East Harlem's District 4 to our high schools, which represent the largest choice program in the nation.

Mr. Stern is wrong about the union's padding payrolls. It was UFT monitoring that helped move education dollars from district and central offices into classrooms, where they belong. And it was our contract that finally stopped principals from using valuable teacher time for administrative tasks so they could spend more time on professional activities.

His cost analysis is deeply flawed: the most successful suburban school districts in New York State spend almost double the city's $8,500 per student. City teachers earn considerably less than their colleagues in neighboring suburbs—and far less than they deserve.

Vouchers are another matter. Numerous school systems around the world seem to do better than ours—and not one credits that success to vouchers for private schools, and every one has a strong teacher union. What accounts for the success of schools in Japan, Germany, and elsewhere? High academic standards, orderly classrooms, a clear curriculum, well-prepared teachers, student accountability, and parental backing at home. These are the proven ingredients of schools that work, whether they are public or parochial schools, urban or suburban, here or abroad. Unfortunately, for decades American public schools demanded too little of students. Now that many school systems are raising standards, students are starting to do better.

Moreover, the UFT's contract flexibility allows schools to waive work rules that block educational strategies they want to try; it supports extra pay for objectively determined merit, such as earning national board certification and additional academic achievements, not just seniority; and it invites schools to form personnel committees to hire staff based on qualifications. Seniority is not the only factor in hiring. Service requirements for teachers who want to transfer are virtually gone. No teacher has a "lifetime job guarantee." Tenure ensures only a fair hearing before dismissal. And the UFT helped turn dozens of low-performing schools around by backing changes in leadership and staff, strengthening instructional programs, and providing staff development.

Inner-city parents want what all parents want for their children—the best education possible. But even a generous voucher program would help just a handful of inner-city children. Only the public schools hold out hope for all our 1.1 million youngsters.

Randi Weingarten
PresidentUnited Federation of Teachers

Sol Stern responds:
In a reprise of her union's million-dollar ad campaign, Ms. Weingarten assures us that the UFT is in favor of reform. Were it true, I would indeed be guilty as charged of "union bashing."

Unfortunately for the city's kids, it's pure union propaganda. Let's count the ways. School autonomy and charter schools: more than a decade after the creation of the so-called new-vision schools in New York City, the UFT does not even recognize many of them as independent schools with their own union chapters. If the union wanted charter schools with real autonomy, New York State would have long since had such schools. Incompetent teachers: the "due process" procedures for removing incompetent teachers remain so convoluted that school boards throughout the state have mostly given up. Only a handful of the state's 100,000 public school teachers get dismissed for incompetence in a given year: out of the 154 disciplinary cases opened in 1994-95, for instance, only six ended with dismissal by 1997.

Merit pay: the contention that giving teachers more money for taking courses is a form of merit pay is laughable. Taking a useless ed-school course does not make a better classroom teacher (See "Why Johnny's Teacher Can't Teach," page 14). These extra courses just fatten the coffers of the ed schools and the UFT (which also offers them). Seniority: of course, seniority is "not the only factor in hiring." I never said it was. But the city's principals must often hire teachers they don't want—and whom the school's parents don't want—merely because they've got greater seniority; also, principals frequently have to "bump" excellent young teachers solely because they lack seniority.

Weingarten doesn't think that $8,500 per pupil is enough. But how do the Catholic schools manage to do a better job with less than half that amount? All the more successful countries she mentions spend far less on education than New York does. True, these countries have strong teacher unions. But they also allow families to send their children to religious schools at public expense. In other words, they have, in effect, a voucher system.
 

The Real Welfare Problem

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald's "The Real Welfare Problem Is Illegitimacy" (Winter 1998) offers no insight into the problem of welfare.

Ms. Mac Donald doesn't mention the relationship between a welfare system that makes single parenthood a requirement of eligibility and the breakdown of the two-parent family. It was the author's ideological forebears who spawned a system based on the notion of the "deserving poor"—a single mom and her children—so it is no wonder she seeks to expurgate it. Nor does she discuss the need for expanding education in family planning. Instead, she assumes teenage pregnancy results from the knowledge that welfare will cover the tab. But facts get in the way of her assumptions. Western European nations with more generous public assistance benefits than New York have lower rates of adolescent pregnancy.

The author dismisses the notion that there is any relationship between jobs and marriage, and implies that there are plenty of jobs for anyone who wants one. But last year New York had net employment growth of 54,000, enough jobs for just a fraction of those in the city's workfare program.

One of Ms. Mac Donald's remedies for deterring out-of-wedlock births is to give preference to two-parent families seeking public assistance. But this is simplistic. Her desire to stigmatize single parents is apparently more important to her than the quality of the family's life together. She wants two-parent families, without complications, so let's just keep distress in the family, behind closed doors.

Ms. Mac Donald's central premise is that the poor must take responsibility for their own lives. Certainly, taking responsibility is part of the process for many in the effort to break long-term poverty. So, too, is ensuring that people have access to education, child care, and job training.

Emily Menlo Marks
Executive DirectorUnited Neighborhood Houses

Heather Mac Donald responds:
Since Ms. Marks surprisingly acknowledges that welfare contributed to the two-parent family's breakdown, I hope that she advocates welfare's abolition, too. It wasn't the nineteenth-century concept of the "deserving poor" that promoted illegitimacy, though. The architects of Aid to Dependent Children initially opposed including never-married mothers with widows and abandoned wives—the archetypal "deserving poor." Only under pressure did the bill's authors remove any distinction between unwed and wed mothers, thus paving the way for today's illegitimacy epidemic.

The claim that more sex education will reduce teen pregnancy is absurd (See "Sex Ed's Dead End," page 46). Teens already know all they need to know about sex and contraception; what they don't know is how to redirect themselves to more positive activities. Schools should relentlessly focus students' attention on academic pursuits rather than wasting time on condom courses.

Europe does have far more extensive welfare programs than the United States, largely targeted at the middle class. These programs subsidize idleness generally, not illegitimacy in particular, and so have produced the expected economic stagnation. That the European family has only recently started to disintegrate is testimony to Europe's more traditional family values. But the disintegration, now that it has begun, is proceeding rapidly.

I didn't dismiss possible connections between the marriage rate and the job rate, but rather the notion that the fertility rate should be independent of both. Ms. Marks refuses to explain why women should feel free to have children at the state's expense with no breadwinner in sight.

Domestic abuse has become an excuse for illegitimacy. While there are obviously cases where a wife must leave her husband, they don't begin to explain the massive out-of-wedlock birthrate. If a man is so unsuited to domestic responsibilities, why is the woman having his child? Ms. Marks's letter confirms what I said about her originally: she regards unwed single parenting as a given, with marriage a mere option when conditions permit. To end illegitimacy, social service providers, along with the rest of society, need to state unequivocally that having a child out of wedlock is irresponsible and immoral. Ms. Marks does not seem ready to do so.
 

Check!

To the editor:
Nowhere does Matt Robinson's "A Winning Gambit" (Soundings, Winter 1998) say that the Mott Hall chess program was created by the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), a private philanthropic enterprise; that the program is funded in its entirety by HEAF; that chess instructor Maurice Ashley is on the HEAF payroll; and that tournament expenses of the Mott Hall chess team have always been borne by HEAF.

It is important to correct the mistaken impression that this chess program in a public school was paid for in any way by public money, since that school has been traditionally starved for funds. For example, this public intermediate school with the highest reading scores in the city has no auditorium, no regular gymnasium, and—until HEAF marshaled the necessary private funds—not even any outdoor playground.

Mott Hall today has a fine record of high school admissions, but virtually no one from Mott Hall had ever gained admission to Stuyvesant High School until HEAF began its test-preparation program; today nearly a dozen students a year routinely enter there, and many dozens more move into Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and other top schools. HEAF's Support Net then follows them into such colleges as Yale and Columbia.

Mott Hall's remarkable principal, Miriam Acosta-Sing, and her wonderful staff are producing miracles.

Daniel Rose
PresidentHEAF, Inc.
 

Traffic Woes

To the editor:
There are ways to improve traffic flow you neglected to mention in your "An Agenda for Giuliani II": no other large city, for example, permits semitrailer trucks in the middle of the city during rush hours; double parking of delivery trucks is rampant; and so forth. But the long-term solution is to build parking garages. Had the city started building them 50 years ago, its economy would be much improved.

Neal Gilliatt
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
In "Toward a More Civil City" (Winter 1998), Jonathan Foreman says that the mayor should focus on dangerous driving. The Traffic Department should also assign agents to ride in buses. They could get off a bus if it is blocked and ticket the offending driver, and then ride on in the next bus to continue their work.

Edward R. Potter
Flushing, N.Y.

Jonathan Foreman responds:
I agree with both writers' suggestions. Mr. Potter's idea that traffic enforcement agents ride buses could be extended: if the mayor, deputy mayors, and transportation commissioner rode New York's buses and subways every few months, it might have a salutary effect on mass transit throughout the city.

 

 


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