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N  A  T  I  O  N  A  L

Battling miseducation

By William Buckley

Published June 2, 1998

 Miseducation, the polls instruct us, remains the primary cause of concern of the American public, beating out even crime. The undecided question is: Whose fault is it? Marginally, of course, the parents'. But the principal contestants for blame are: the teachers and the students themselves.

 What happened in New York City in 1969 happens in this or the other mode widely. In New York, the politicians felt pressure to ease into college a bulk of the high school population. "Open admissions," they called it: If you have a high school diploma, you are guaranteed admission into the CUNY college complex.

 But now the sad results are apprehended and will be acted on. Buying an encyclopedia does not guarantee you an education, and matriculating at college doesn't either.

 The great New York reform announced last week was prompted not only by the failure of "remediation" to pull up a sufficient number of students unqualified in reading, writing and arithmetic. What also happened was a progressive degradation of the prestige of the member colleges. And if a college can't give good learning to good students because of the distractions of open admissions, its reputation begins to flag. The result? The brighter students from high schools look elsewhere to go to school and the downward slide of the city colleges continues.

It is proposed in New York City, under the primary initiative of Trustee Vice Chairman Herman Badillo, to enact the new admissions program in September 1999. Remedial education faces major and minor problems. Almost 50 percent of students who matriculate at Berkeley have needed lessons in remedial reading and writing. But -- the record suggests -- these students advanced in natural intelligence, ambition and determination coped with their shortcomings, whatever their cause.

In New York, CUNY estimates that 13,000 students who would normally enroll in September 1999 will be barred, given their predicted performance in reading and writing. A mammoth effort will be made to instruct as many of these as possible, to overcome their handicap/sloth. The question inevitably arises: If l3,000 New York students are that deficient in the elementary skills, what makes anybody confident that the delinquencies can be corrected? By whom? The teachers? Well, why did they let their students sink so low? Was it the fault of the students? Well, what will cause them to cultivate skills they have refused to cultivate this long?

 Inevitably, critics of the reform look for legal devices to act on. In America, the default complaint of those who complain about such matters is:  race. And, yes, a disproportionate percentage of blacks and Hispanics will be turned away next year. That lifts the hearts of civil rights lawyers who are turning to Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act. No institution that receives federal money may discriminate by race or ethnicity.

 The inclination to go to the courts alleging discrimination is hampered by the existence of white students who will also be turned down. That would suggest that admissions standards are being applied to the uniform disadvantage of anyone who can't read or write, even albinos. That probably won't stop the litigators. But they have failed in California in attempting by law to set aside the provisions of Proposition 209 that barred preferences for racial or ethnic reasons, and they'd have a tough time against the trustees of CUNY.

 We see in New York a fine example of the chaos brought on by public action. We have 1) public colleges, 2) publicly decreed admissions requirements, 3) public funding (city, state and federal); and 3) publicly protected teachers' unions. But they have run into two forces, one flexible, one inflexible.

 The flexible student who can afford to do so is free to apply to go to college elsewhere. That's what they call voting with one's feet: the inertial movement, in this case, of the brighter, mobile students away from campuses whose standards are wilting.

 And the inflexible factor is, quite simply, genuine education. In the last analysis, you can read, or you can't; can write, or can't; can multiply, or cannot. There is no way in which the lettering of a diploma can invest the student with skills he hasn't developed.

  This brings on a free-market response, even as if the Coca-Cola you're served is half water, you'd stop buying it. The corrective pressures in New York are being brought by students acting through the market, and by academic truths that can't be vitiated. As ever, market corrections are lifesaving.