The irksome myth about Garfield after Escalante
There is a widespread myth that Garfield High School in East Los
Angeles went downhill academically after its superstar math teacher, Jaime Escalante, left the school in 1991.
It is important to understand why this is false. Galvanizing school cultures are maintained by many people, not just hero teachers. Great teachers like Escalante can create such cultures, but the test of their validity is what happens after that teacher leaves.
Over the years I assumed the myth would fade away. But after Escalante died of cancer on March 30, it popped up in several articles. When I went on a Los Angeles-based radio show to talk about Escalante and heard the school's current Title I coordinator repeat the notion that the school had lost its way, I figured it was time to speak up.
The fairy tale about Garfield going into a tailspin after Escalante is based on both sloppy reporting and, I am sorry to say, my friend Escalante’s fondness for getting back at his many critics in the Garfield faculty by suggesting to journalists that the place fell apart without him. I never had the courage to confront him on this issue. He may have believed it, because he didn’t spend much time checking on his old school’s progress. He may have been referring to a decline in Garfield’s Advanced Placement calculus program, which did occur, and didn't bother to say he was not talking about the entire school.
One of the many reasons I wish he were still alive is that we could talk about this. All I can do is state the facts. There is no question that Garfield High remains one of the most challenging inner city high schools in the country two decades after the end of the Escalante area.
As I explained on the radio show, in May 2009, the most recent Advanced Placement test administration, Garfield gave 885 AP exams. That year it had 724 seniors graduating.
Each year on Newsweek.com I rank the top schools in the country based on their participation rates in AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests, calculated as the ratio of tests to graduating seniors. Garfield's rating in what I call the Challenge Index is 1.222. When the new Newsweek.com list appears in June, Garfield will probably rank around 1,350 in the country, putting it in the top 6 percent measured this way. That is a remarkable standing for one of the most disadvantaged high school campuses anywhere. Eighty-nine percent of its students are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
About 25 percent of graduating Garfield seniors in 2009 had at least one passing grade of 3 or above on an AP test sometime in high school--what the College Board calls its Equity and Excellence rating. That is well above the 15.9 percent national average.
In size and demographics, Garfield is remarkably unchanged from 1987, a peak year for Escalante and his AP calculus program. There were about 3,500 students in the 1980s, somewhat less than in recent years. The high percentage of low-income students is about the same.
In 1987, the school gave 129 calculus AB or BC exams, more than all but four other schools, public or private, in the country. Sixty-six percent of those tests received passing scores from independent graders. Twenty-six percent of all the Mexican-American students in the country who passed an AP calculus exam that year attended Garfield.
Once Escalante and the calculus teacher he trained, Ben Jimenez, left the school, Garfield never could find anyone able to keep the math program at that level. An exceptional replacement recruited by Escalante, Angelo Villavicencio, did not stay. When I checked the program in 2002, I found 43 students had taken calculus AB exams and 7 had taken the higher level BC exams. Nineteen had passed AB and 5 had passed BC. In 2009, 55 students took the AB exam and 13 passed. No one took BC.
Those who say the calculus program declined are right. But those who say the school declined overlook the growth of the overall AP program. In 1987 the school gave 327 AP exams, less than half the number administered now. That growth has exposed many more students to AP than received that useful taste of college trauma in the past, but it also brought down the passing rate on all AP exams, from 74 percent in 1987 to 30 percent in 2009.
There were, however, more tests with passing scores, 266, in 2009 than in 1987, when 242 had 3s or above on AP exams. Some AP tests given at Garfield in 2009 had good passing rates---64 percent in macroeconomics, 70 percent in European history, 78 percent in Spanish language and 77 percent in Spanish literature. Some people say we should discount those Spanish results for an Hispanic student body that learns the language at home, but it seems to me wrong to praise students in all-Anglo suburban schools who are achieving bilingual proficiency while dismissing those doing the same thing in the barrio.
Some research indicates that not only passing students, but students who score 2s on AP exams, fare better in college than students who do not take AP exams. By that measure, 458 Garfield tests, 52 percent of the total, indicated a significant learning experience in 2009. That was 129 tests more than the total taken in 1987.
I wish Escalante had stayed longer at Garfield, and had more success establishing successors in the math department. Still, it irks me that people say the school declined after he left and ignore the work of several fine teachers who stayed, and some Escalante era students who eventually returned to the school as teachers to join them.
My favorite non-math AP teachers at Garfield during the Escalante era were John Bennett, who taught AP government, and Tom Woessner, who taught AP history. They were much younger than Escalante and so stayed much longer. Bennett is still there.
Like many Garfield teachers, they sometimes found Escalante to be annoying and arrogant, but they quickly appreciated what his AP standards had done for them and their students. If Escalante's students could do so well on those exams, why couldn't theirs? Often, the same students were in all of their classes. Their good teaching supported what Escalante was doing, and vice versa.
That critical mass of hard-working educators has kept Garfield among the elite of inner-city schools for the last two decades. You have to spend some time at Garfield to appreciate what a feat that is. The school is overcrowded. Its average test scores on state tests are at the bottom of the heap, as they were when Escalante was there. No one has found a way to turn every student in inner-city schools into Ivy League prospects. But the people at Garfield have done a better job than the vast majority of teachers elsewhere. With or without Escalante, that deserves some credit.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| April 23, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: John Bennett, Myth about Garfield after Escalante, Tom Woessner, math program declined, rest of the school stayed strong
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