Multiplication fables

Many California students heading to state-run universities can’t read or do math, and we’re paying the remedial bills. It just doesn’t add up.

Photo Illustration by Arthur Tress

As a way to save millions of dollars, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested that students who are accepted into California’s public universities be given the choice to attend community college for two years instead, free of charge.

Any student who opts for community college instead would be guaranteed a spot at his or her university for junior year. California would save huge sums by shrinking the size of its very costly university freshman and sophomore classes.

This idea hints at the immense cost of the seldom-discussed subsidy charged to all taxpayers for students who attend a California State University (CSU) or the elite University of California (UC)—a subsidy enjoyed even by children of the wealthy.

Taxpayers spend roughly $8,000 annually on each CSU student, $9,600 on each UC student and $4,500 on community-college students. California would save a total of about $10,000 for every student who delayed attending a UC and nearly $8,000 for each student who delayed attending a CSU.

Let’s think about the cost of our taxpayer subsidy to these mostly middle-class university students. Throughout the course of a student’s education—which now often balloons to a very costly fifth year because of incredibly lax university policies that encourage undergraduates to linger on and on—Californians cough up roughly $40,000 to educate UC students, and $30,000 for CSU students.

These huge subsidies built California’s university system. But amid a state fiscal crisis, it’s time to ask exactly what taxpayers are paying for.

I was not pleased when the UC board of regents caved during recent negotiations with student teaching assistants (TAs), agreeing to pay costly health-coverage perks even for TAs who work very minimal hours. That’s public money. But the regents have spent lavishly before.

CSU officials seem more fiscally responsible but are mired in an academic crisis.

They just announced that 58 percent of the 38,086 freshmen who entered the CSU system last fall lacked basic English and math skills. A staggering 23,000 students were deemed “not proficient” on tests that barely would challenge seventh-graders. Yet, mysteriously, these mostly 18-year-olds earned B averages from the top third of California high schools.

So, let me get this straight. We fund our universities in order to tutor freshmen students in seventh-grade English and math while these students are heavily subsidized to struggle in college courses whose textbooks they can barely grasp.

Makes sense to me.

Clearly, the B grades these students got in high school were inflated by high-school teachers who had either no time or no ability to teach kids already shortchanged by the anti-skills malaise in California’s middle schools.

On a bright note, CSU says 82 percent of the freshmen who required remedial classes last year learned enough math and reading in just one year. Unfortunately, nobody knows if CSU’s claim is true, because CSU does not test students when they finish remedial training.

Instead, the faculty themselves decide if they have succeeded in bringing the students to proficiency. It’s the same horrifically subjective formula that has fueled almost comical grade inflation in California schools for 20 years and that launched the current era of strict public-school testing.

Murray L. Galinson, vice chairman of the CSU Board of Trustees, noted at the board’s meeting in January that CSU’s amazing claim of 82-percent success “wouldn’t pass the smell test.”

Why can’t we trust even CSU to be truthful about grades? Politics. At California State University, Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley, math professor David Klein, an advocate for math reform, says officials watered down the remedial courses after influential professors from the minority-studies departments complained the classes were too hard for minorities.

“These professors demanded that we have a higher passage rate for students out of remedial classes, and they won,” said Klein. “I’m a liberal, a member of the Green Party, but I get called racist when I say there’s no evidence the students are learning now.”

CSU and UC have utterly failed in another key aspect of public education.

CSU trains most of California’s future teachers; UC also has large teacher colleges. None gives anything but lip service to education reform. Instead, professors cling to learning theories rejected a decade ago, and campuses obstinately train teachers in clearly failed methods.

And you’re paying for it.

California Education Secretary Richard Riordan tells me teacher colleges “are probably the worst thing about California public education. The teacher colleges produce certified teachers who can’t teach. Kids taught by these people then go to college and can’t read or do math.”

Before reading reforms began to take hold in grade schools five years ago, education policy was used to enrich private companies, protect adult butts or make classroom time more diverting for the teachers.

The students? They were expected to make it “at their own pace.”

Many reformers call these children “the lost generation.” They were whipsawed by teacher-college fads, including whole language, bilingual education and the self-esteem movement.

Marion Joseph, a former member of the California State Board of Education who helped stop the fad madness in the grade schools—which reformers have targeted intensely before turning their attention to middle and high schools—says the fact that 23,000 college students need remedial teaching “is a matter that the institutions have to deal with together. The K-12 schools, CSU and UC all have a part to play, and it needs to be addressed with urgency.”

Despite public-school reforms, kids are still being dumbed down by “fuzzy” math and science, in which hands-on experiments are the rage. Core skills such as arithmetic are too bothersome and are dismissed by many teachers as mere “drills.”

Klein says it’s not the fault of teachers but of the “fuzzy math” adherents who control teacher colleges. At CSU Northridge, he’s required to allow future teachers to use calculators for final math exams, which he hotly opposes. As a result, “my students who are going to become middle-school teachers leave CSU unable to do long division or to multiply. They’re only capable of doing it using a calculator. Then they go off to teach math to teenagers—but can’t do it,” he said.

Students in industrialized Asian and European nations have charged far past California and U.S. students in math and science.

Said Klein: “Even China’s and India’s students are going to surpass California’s because of the skills they emphasize—while our teenagers play with colored bars and make recipes. The ‘fuzzy’ people call this ‘higher-order’ math and science. It’s not.”

Almost everybody thinks they know how to fix things—and that’s a problem, too.

Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction in the K-12 schools, has announced a new academic push in the high schools. Riordan says he wants to empower principals. Schwarzenegger’s budgeters want to clean up the crazy way money is assigned to schools.

Despite my wish to see teaching and curriculum reform spread from the grade schools to middle schools and high schools, I’d rather see Schwarzenegger do nothing, and learn far more about the education wars, before he acts.

The fact that 23,000 of the state’s top high-schoolers can’t perform seventh-grade reading and math should at least give him pause.

Yet Schwarzenegger’s budget-cutters, in their understandable zeal to save money, already seek to end the earmarking of special reform funds for instruction and textbooks. I doubt he realizes that this earmarked money is a bludgeon used by reformers to force the powerful teacher unions to accept reform-oriented textbooks and reform-based instruction in grade schools.

If the money isn’t earmarked, the unions probably will manage to divert it toward adult salaries—and far away from reform.

The Legislature, God help us, is cooking up its own plans. As Riordan noted, “Some legislators want to stop statewide tests of second-graders. That’s foolish since second grade is the crucial year to figure out which children have fallen between the cracks. By third grade, it’s usually too late to prevent serious reading problems.”

That’s not all the Legislature is up to. In January, legislators wrote a letter to the California Curriculum Commission, signed by Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, Republican Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and nearly three dozen legislators that display the Legislature’s foggy grasp of education.

The letter darkly refers to “restrictions” the commission might place on classroom science materials and asks the commission to delay its decision. In truth, the commission is merely considering asking publishers who sell hands-on but book-less “science kits” to start offering options like books and meaningful text for the children.

My, what a nasty restriction! (Hint: Watch for campaign contributions to the legislators from the book-less science-kit manufacturers.)

Given the cynical games afoot, it’s nice to see an idea such as saving millions of dollars by suggesting university-bound students attend community college for free.

But while Schwarzenegger is on the topic, he should apply some screws to UC and CSU. Why should California pour $2.87 billion per year into UC and $2.62 billion into CSU, no questions asked, while those institutions sneer at California school reform and protect their throwback teacher colleges that do kids true harm?

With public money comes the responsibility of public trust. As long as middle schools and high schools churn out students with phony Bs who can’t handle seventh-grade math and reading, people won’t trust the schools.

By the same token, as long as UC and CSU fail to retool their tragic teacher factories, people shouldn’t trust them, either.