When the class of 2015 descended on College Walk this past week, its members encountered the stream of gargantuan letters that decorate the façade of Butler Library. Carved permanently into the stone, the names of authors like Homer, Plato, and Vergil serve as enduring reminders of Columbia's rigid, uniform education through which incoming students study the same slate of authors and texts year after year. Quite simply, the Core Curriculum maintains a masterful balance of having a "standard" education that all students in the college can share while abstaining from the evils of standardized testing that often hamper the secondary school experience. However, this quality isn't concordant across campus. Columbia's Double Discovery Center (DDC), the office in charge of educational outreach in the local New York City school system, often finds itself at odds with the University's identity as the cradle of contemporary civilization. Instead of embracing the school's undergraduate emphasis on "the person behind the score," the DDC pushes students into the system without regard to their actual education. Beginning in 1965, the DDC set out on a mission to share the rich educational tradition of the University with first-generation and limited-income college-bound students in Harlem and other local communities. The Center recruits heavily each year from the Columbia student body, generally training around 200 members to work through its various outreach initiatives. Today, the DDC provides test preparation, counseling, and tutoring services annually to more than 1,000 students, grades seven through 12. Unfortunately, these efforts are often for naught. When volunteers go into middle and high schools, they intend to help students in problem areas and develop a college preparation plan. However, with pressure from teachers and administrators who require lofty test scores for their own evaluation, the emphasis is automatically shifted to test preparation. For seventh and eighth graders, practicing skills for the Specialized High School Admissions Tests is the driving focus of biweekly after-school tutoring. For students in secondary school, the program is predominantly based on preparation for the Regents exams, the PSAT, and the SAT. The DDC's less-accessible summer session presents a marked improvement over the after-school program, allowing high school students to take two academic classes, but SAT preparation is still a linchpin of the summer program. Yes, test scores are often an important part of the college admissions process. However, the overwhelming concentration on preparation is a failure of the current system, not something Columbia should be promoting. This approach ultimately does students a disservice when they are placed in a college setting since they only know how to "game" a test. Even Columbia's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, which this past year turned down more students than ever before, has devalued standardized test scores in its admissions decisions. Taking a more holistic approach to applications, Undergraduate Admissions is now evaluating students within their context and placing the strength of their ideas over the strength of raw numbers. While the DDC claims to have incredible empirical success in getting students to college and helping them stay there—the program touts a college enrollment rate of 98 percent and an undergraduate graduation rate of 66 percent—there are several fundamental flaws with the way these statistics are used to provide support for the center's progress. First, the Double Discovery Center is a self-selective program, requiring an application complete with an academic transcript and parent or guardian's financial information. The application itself notes that students must be "interested in applying to or re-entering college or a GED program." Since the students who ultimately become a part of the program already express a clear interest in higher education, it should come as no surprise that DDC's statistics exceed the national average of 66 percent undergraduate enrollment and 58 percent college graduation. The program attempts to funnel more students into college and claims success in doing so, yet it completely ignores a large cohort of students who haven't considered college as a viable option. Furthermore, these numbers unveil another flaw in the Double Discovery Center's endeavors: While the college enrollment rate among DDC alumni is 32 percent higher than the national average for all US high school students, the gap for the graduation rate is much smaller, standing at only 8 percent. This could stem from the center's focus on meeting benchmark criteria and getting kids into the system by any means necessary while leaving them unprepared for the rigor of a college curriculum. This is not to say that Columbia students shouldn't be actively engaged in New York City schools. Programs like America Reads, Artists Reaching Out, and Youth for Debate make a prodigious impact on the community by linking undergraduates with inner-city students. However, such initiatives fall short of the all-encompassing approach that the Double Discovery Center takes to intellectual exploration. Columbia needs a program like the DDC, but only if it represents Columbia's own educational values. If the DDC wants to remain a centerpiece in the push to ameliorate the problems of urban education, it will need to shift its focus. Let's be honest—"teach-to-the-test" tutoring isn't going to promote a love of learning. The DDC instead needs to prepare students to succeed in a true academic setting—one that asks insoluble questions, leaves room for open-ended answers, and actually fosters critical thinking. Jared Odessky is a first-year in Columbia College.Worm in the Big Apple runs alternate Tuesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff