Open admissions Amid Academic turmoil

California led the nation with open access to higher education for all students. They did so, though, with certain restrictions -- designated state colleges would take any high school graduate; other institutions would require certain high school scores, rank in class, and results on examinations.

But in New York State, even in the tuition-fee City University of New York until the late 1960's, admissions requirements were particularly demanding.

So much so that CCNY (City College of New York) located in Harlem was more than 95 percent ethnic white in its student body until the 1970s. Then, beginning rather abruptly in 1970, academic requirements were dropped and the student body became about 1/3 black, 1/4 Hispanic, almost 10 percent Oriental, and about 1/3 ethnic white.

But racial mix was not the most startling difference; it was the change in the type of student from the very best (some still came because tuition was minimal) to a mix of the best with the weak.

Theodore L. Gross, then chairman of the English department, tells how he had to add 21 new teaching assistants (to the full-time faculty of 125) to teach remedial reading and writing skills. These teaching assistants, as often happens at the college level, were not trained in the teaching of remedial students, but were doctoral students who wanted and needed income to continue their studies.

CCNY, rather quickly, underwent a tremendous change as faculty accustomed to dealing with bright, eager and capable students were forced to work with some students for whom literacy itself was the need.

Mr. Gross, writing about the problem in his latest book "Academic Turmoil" (Anchor Press, New York, $10.95) says that many of the older and more experienced faculty were "intellectually unprepared and emotionally unwilling" to cope with the new situation.

His book makes fascinating reading -- he tells his tale well -- and includes in Parts 1 and 2 his explanation why he was fired.Fascinating as this academic soap opera is, serious scholars will want to move quickly to Part 3 which he terms "A Future for the Humanities," but which is really his broad blueprint for making open admissions viable.

"The first lesson I learned from Open Admissions," he writes, "was that we need to retrain teachers, from first grade throughout college, in the instruction of writing and reading, of composition and literature."

He further states that: "Articulation among teachers from first grade through college is essential."

If he is correct, and if successful open admissions to college depends on this training and articulation, we are probably at a standstill somewhere between grade one ad the sophomore year of college.

Articulation, applied to levels of schooling, is not generally in use anywhere in the US. Even in the most stable of communities, teachers do not work from an agreed-upon sequentially ordered program. Seldom do teachers at one grade level talk to the teachers at the very next level, much less work out programs of 12 or 14 years' duration.

There is at times some articulation between graded teachers in the same building, but seldom from school to school, and rarely between secondary schools and colleges.

But few academicians would disagree with the controversial Mr. Gross. They would argue, as he does, for some rational plan for teaching reading, writing, listening, and speaking from grade one through at least the first two years of college.

Mr. Gross says that the second lesson he learned from CCNY opening its admissions, is the need for "a national curriculum in writing skills." Here he runs afoul of nearly everyone. As free public schooling stands today, each state has the right (as well as the responsibility) to educate its own children, and, as yet, no national curriculum has ever absorbed all the schools from coast to coast.

But he is really making the same point over again -- to succeed at college, a student must have been taught the basics of writing. And if it takes a "national" curriculum, then so be it.

There are other suggestions, though, which are more immediately usable. One calls for summer "camps" which provide instruction in reading and writing skills for students poised at key steps in schooling -- for example, the 6th, 9th, and 11th grades. Another suggestion calls for specially trained college tutors to help with literacy programs and to do much of the grading of college compositions.

He calls, too, for a core curriculum, particularly for the first year of college of students who come through "open" rather than "selective" admissions policies.

Here he is on solid ground as Harvard and Stanford have now said much the same, but applied their reasoning to even the "best and brightest." Every student, the core curriculum advocates argue, must learn to read what some of the greatest thinkers have written, must learn to express themselves in writing adn in speech, must learn to think analytically and to apply scientific reasoning to specific problems.

And Mr. Gross is on popular ground again when he says education for those in college should include the desire for a continued education after college.

While there are voices calling for raising, not lowering, requirements for entrance to college, the general trend is for more, not fewer, open admissions policies. Yet, opening the doors of an institution to poorly prepared students while attempting to maintain college-level academic standards is fraught with problems.

The debate continues, and is in no way confined to those involved with the City University of New York.

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