‘I realized they came from a system I used to run’: Rudy Crew’s quest to get Brooklyn students ready for college

It has been nearly two decades since Rudy Crew ran the New York City school system, yet he is as attuned to its challenges today as he’s ever been.

After serving as schools chancellor in the late 1990s, Crew headed Miami’s schools and, for a brief time, Oregon’s. In 2013, he became president of Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a four-year college in the City University of New York system. From that perch, Crew told Chalkbeat recently, he watches many Medgar Evers students – who are predominantly black and live in Brooklyn – flounder in college. Fewer than one in five graduates in six years.

Rather than wait for students to arrive on campus unprepared, Crew wondered if his institution could help catch them earlier.

In 2014, he launched the “Pipeline” program to do just that. Now partnered with 80 public schools in central Brooklyn, the college offers enrichment classes for elementary and middle school students, early-college courses for high school students, training for teachers, a lecture series for principals, and workshops for parents. Since the program started, the share of Medgar Evers freshmen who require remedial classes has fallen from 85 to 68 percent, the college says.

Since Crew remains so connected to the city’s public schools, Chalkbeat asked him to share his thoughts on the system’s perpetual struggle to prepare students for college. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Chalkbeat: With the Pipeline program, you’re reaching students long before they head to college. Why did you decide to look back to K-12 schools?

Crew: After decades of reading dropout data and work in Title I programs [for low-income students], you eventually start thinking, What is it about this issue of math and language illiteracy that we are unable to intersect and cure? Why is it that when the genie gets out of the bottle as a third grader, we don’t ever seem to catch kids up?

No matter how much a K-12 system applies itself to this, you’re only going to affect a certain degree of student potential. They will migrate out of your system, and now this next point of entry or door of opportunity is secondary education or the working world. So the question becomes, How do you affect that?

And the architecture of K-12 doesn’t enable you to even answer that question. There are borders. You are pre-K, and you are [grade] 12. The only time I talk to a college president is when they come to my campus or I go to theirs.

So we decided that the pipeline needed to do this. We had to look at the bandwidth of who’s coming. I realized they came from a system I used to run. And they were lacking. I feel responsible for it as former chancellor and as an educator.

When you see a student who isn’t ready for college, what does that look like?

Students come to institutions with a question in their mind. The question is, Do I deserve to be here? Am I prepared to be here? And if I’m not, Who will find me out and when? There is a certain sort of lost confidence that manifests itself in their questions about their own efficacy. They’re quiet about it.

They don’t think they’re smart enough, capable enough. And it’s only a matter of time until the university finds that out.

So that’s the mentality they come with, what does it look like on a practical, skills level?

They have spent their educational history in low-level classes. They have experienced learning not by mastery but conceptual understanding. They travel with that conceptual understanding without mastery when they come to college. They don’t read well. They don’t read very much. They are conflicted about math. They don’t think of themselves as good analytical minds.

More and more, the real question is not if they can learn it; the question is, can we teach it? They have not been exposed [to learning] at a higher-order level.

In 1996, Crew started an intervention program called the “Chancellor’s District” that infused struggling schools with extra supports: smaller class sizes, longer days and years, new curriculum materials, and extra training and pay for teachers. A later study found that the program had boosted students’ reading scores, but Crew’s successor discontinued it in 2003.

On a 2014 panel, you said the Chancellor’s District included a lot of prescription and was one-size-fits-all. People have called it micromanaging. Are there any lessons you can take away from it?

Here is the dilemma. At that time, in New York you had about 200 low-performing schools — and a subset of that below that level — and then 600 schools were at level, and then you have 300 schools that are roughly high performing.

This [emergency room] sort of work defined the fact that I didn’t think that I needed to give you random new money, but money targeted to a longer day and longer year. It was very prescribed. There was no question about that. Why? These schools, in my mind — and I don’t think I’ve changed from this at all — were in triage. They needed some measure of control.

You can argue over whether that is the right word or whether I was too controlling — I’m willing to reflect — but that’s far different from saying that didn’t work. These schools needed a modicum of control. They had the greatest numbers of expulsions, suspensions. I went through data point after data point, and they were the patient with the high blood pressure; they were about to go into renal failure.

The current chancellor and Mayor de Blasio’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools has been compared to the Chancellor’s District — identifying low performing schools and flooding them with resources and asserting some degree of control. Have you shared any advice with them?

No, no.

That’s surprising.

I deeply respect what the chancellor and mayor are trying to do, and hopefully there are some who respect the work I was trying to do with the mayor at the time. What I do now is make no judgments about anybody.

I decided rather than be judgmental, let me bury myself in the work I think is ahead. And this is what this Pipeline is. It’s my garden.

Now that I am in here, I can see what’s coming to this doorstep. They’re coming to me limping, without the skills in math, and they’re going to go into an economy that’s robust with those skills. My responsibility is to be both a reasonable thoughtful partner to those I can partner with and to lead an education institution for [determining] how a better education product can be distributed in a part of Brooklyn that needs these assets, that needs a functioning higher-ed institution. They need to be able to go from here into the world of work.

It seems like, in a different way, you’re still dealing with those same Chancellor’s District schools and students from similar backgrounds, but now from this perch.

Yes, yes, that’s exactly right.

There’s been a lot of conversation recently about integration and trying to have more diversity in schools, partly so that we don’t have such high concentrations of poverty in some schools. Do you think that should be a larger part of the discussion about how to improve schools?

The diversity conversation has a place in this and should be a major factor in how we think about the schooling experience and the distribution of good schools. But at the end of the day it all comes down to good instruction. If you can distribute that across the board, then every nook and cranny and borough would essentially have really good teachers.

You can’t have a good system without people consistently, routinely at a high level.

What about the fact that so few students of color end up at the city’s most elite high schools? Four percent of offers to those schools this year went to black students, 6 percent to Hispanic students.

This is a function of intentional programming and opportunities for people to learn the skills set to get in and take the exams and do well. If they were never taught it then they will never do well on the exam. Let’s put in place a runway that will lead up to those exams and schools. This included Saturday schools, a doubling down on math, and on language, there was a specialized ramp up.

You have to target this. You have to want it. It won’t happen by people wishing for it to happen. You have to go in the middle school and identify kids. In the same way, [gifted and talented] programs are poorly distributed. You have to redistribute resources.

Lately, as you know, because of the way the Common Core standards were rolled out and peoples’ concerns about standardized tests, a response now for some parents is to have their children not take the tests. What’s your response?

I think it’s somewhat legitimate. Education is a communications game, and if you don’t communicate with the market, the market is forcing itself to communicate with you in one way or the other. This is simply one manifestation of that.

As a parent, would you opt your kids out?

I would, because it’s on the table. But we have to be careful. There was a period of time when the conversation about high standards and poor children was that they weren’t capable.

The balance I am trying to find through [teacher training], working with parents — where is it for us to strike this balance? There shouldn’t have been an overnight rollout of this political shtick.

As the former head of several public school systems, do you have thoughts on things work best?

Another way of asking that is, What have you learned in your failures? One: The relationship between this work and timing. I don’t think you have 10 years to unfold this sail; I think you have five years. And what you do in the first 18 months determines if you will win or lose the game. If you don’t begin to differentiate, and you try to say one size fits all, you’re not likely to be understood by the people you are leading.

Next, I do think there are people getting it right. They’re outliers, so you don’t see them or hear them very often. They don’t get acknowledged.

Exam schools get to benefit from being virtuosos. There are schools around here that have just as much intellectual capability, but you would never know. They are producing students who will eat those exam schools alive.

You have to realize that sometimes public education has got to stop the banter and start rewarding and realizing when it’s really good.