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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.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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Comments

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Posted by: abbiemark23 | April 23, 2010 6:40 AM | Report abuse

" I never had the courage to confront him on this issue. "

"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."

What do you mean by this last quote and why would this be?

Posted by: edlharris | April 23, 2010 6:48 AM | Report abuse

"Some people say we should discount those Spanish results for an Hispanic student body that learns the language at home"....

An additional thought, using this logic we should disregard the success of native English speakers on AP Lit & AP Lang.

To agree with you, just because you speak a language doesn't mean that you have a strong grasp of correct grammar, can analyze literature or write in that language.

Posted by: antwon1999 | April 23, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I don't know about the entire school, but the math department going from taking 129 advanced and passing 85 down to taking 55 and passing 13 shows that it is going downhill.

Posted by: williamhorkan | April 23, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

To be fair here Jay we need a couple of other stats.
If the growth of AP is largely b/c the school has added more AP Spanish tests that would certainly be relevant.
You posted percentages of the most successful programs at Garfield but what about raw numbers? If half the tests at Garfield are now Spanish AP language and literature and those passing percentages are in the high 70's, that would mean the corresponding figure of 30% overall pass rate would be really low without the Spanish exams. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your point about bilingual success still being noteworthy but it would be nice to put it into context.
Also I agree with williamhorkan. The fact that the math department with Escalante achieved a two thirds pass rate on Calc AB and BC and that those tests accounted for 40% of the AP tests at Garfield in 1987 and that last year the Calc AB only result is 13 out of 55 suggests that there has been a huge dropoff in the math program.
Just on the evidence you've presented, I think it's pretty clear Garfield "went downhill academically after its superstar math teacher, Jaime Escalante, left the school in 1991."

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 23, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Patrick.

"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."

Um, Jay? The anglo suburbs are learning a SECOND language and being tested in it.

The Hispanic kids are being tested in their FIRST language.

And this is exactly what I was talking about in the previous post on foreign languages. Native speakers taking tests in their own language (whether Spanish, Korean, or Chinese) is a joke, and it's corrupting the entire issue of learning a foreign language in America.

Moreover, allowing Hispanics to get credit and praise for taking tests in a language they've been fluent in since birth gives them a major leg up on the other under-represented minority, blacks. This is the primary reason why Hispanics show better test results overall in both AP and Subject tests, and it's simply a false comparison.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 23, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Jay needs to pick up a statistics book to better grasp the term "downhill."

Posted by: millionea81 | April 23, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

For the several good comments on the meaning of downhill, if you compare Garfield's results in 2009 to the AP calculus programs of other schools with similar demographics, you will find them way up near the top of the scale---and they are learning that subject in English! (Note that reading ability has been shown to often be a problem in learning math.) As for AP Spanish---you have to work in that class. It is not a walk in the park just because you grew up speaking it at home. Family Spanish is not the same as the academic style of the language taught in school, just as my family's English doesn't have much to do with what I got in English lit. I grant you that AP Spanish is not as tough for those with Spanish as a first language as AP English is for those with English as a first language, but the point remains. The end product is a bilingual person of which this country can use a lot more. I was unable to get the subject by subject breakdown for AP at Garfield in 1987, but my memory tells me the number of Spanish AP tests given then was also quite high.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 23, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

"The end product is a bilingual person of which this country can use a lot more. "

We really need a lot more people who speak Spanish well enough to pass a Spanish language AP test but can't speak or read English well enough to pass an English Lit AP test? Really?

The country as a whole disagrees with you, if you've checked the polls lately on illegal immigration.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 23, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
How many of the 885 AP exams taken by Garfield High students in 2009 were AP Spanish exams?

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 23, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I think some people are missing the point. The staff at Garfield is still doing heroic work in exposing kids to AP, even if statistically the high pass rate is due to native Spanish speakers passing AP Spanish courses. Don't you know that you lure a student with an AP class he might be able to pass and then hook him into the other AP classes?

Those of you who do not teach at a multi-level school like Garfield with the lowest socio-economic conditions cannot appreciate the difficulties for both the teacher and the students in focusing on high level AP classes.

I was stunned at Jay's statistic about the number of Latinos who passed calculus at that school even if it was some time ago. Good for Garfield for keeping alive Escalante's legacy.

Posted by: hotrod3 | April 24, 2010 1:14 AM | Report abuse

For Patrick, I will get that total AP Spanish number on Monday when I get back to my files. I had a further thought about discounting the worth of passing Spanish AP. If we do that, should we not also discount the worth good scores on AP Physics B for students whose parents are physicists, or on AP English Lit for the children of professors who had them reading Chaucer at age 5? We seem to accept with no debate the high scores of Anglo kids with well educated families and enriched home lives, but when low income Hispanic kids benefit from the one bit of family enrichment that has a positive effect on their AP scores, we seem to think somebody is cheating. Why do we think that way?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 24, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
I wouldn't go as far as Cal that native speakers testing in their first language is "corrupting the entire issue of learning a foreign language in America." I think that view looks at the whole process as way too much of a competition (i.e. the Spanish kids- or whomever are testing in their native tongue- get an unfair advantage). I also think your question puts this into a competitive framework, which may not be the best lens through which to examine the issue. I rather agree with hotrod3 that AP Spanish may be a good way to lure in kids who would not otherwise get an AP course and to give them a good chance at success.
That said, I do think that loads of Hispanic kids taking AP Spanish at Garfield (if that is what is happening) should be put in context with regard to the thesis you proposed: Garfield has not gone downhill academically since Jaime Escalante left.
Certain students are benefited because they have advantages at home (i.e. Physics, English Lit). But then I think the question is whether demonstrating one or more of those competencies will translate into a student more generally performing well at college, which I think it does. Again, I would not look at it as trying to measure one kid against another but asking how well the AP competency will translate into college performance. Can it be said for a native-speaking Spanish student who does well on the AP Spanish test, but otherwise has a lackluster academic record, that her lone AP Spanish succees will translate into college competency? I don't think so, unless I suppose, the student majors in Spanish literature.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 24, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

According to Jay Mathews, Garfield High is among the top 6% of our nation's high schools. Jay Mathews lauds Garfield's teaching staff because he claims "That critical mass of hard-working educators has kept Garfield among the elite of inner-city schools for the last two decades."

Of course unlike myself, Mr. Mathews is not a race realist who thinks that innately lower IQ is the major factor that prevents poor Blacks and poor Hispanics from showing high levels of academic achievement. No, Mathews professes to believe that good teaching and good school environment can bring about high test scores because Mathews does NOT believe that Blacks and Hispanics have innately lower IQs.

Why then, with a school and teachers that Mathews feels are so good, are the test scores at Garfield High School so EXTREMELY LOW????

California Test scores (2009 CSTs) data from this state website-

http://star.cde.ca.gov/star2009/SearchPanel.asp

CA-W CA-H LA-H GH
English 69% 35% 27% 21%
Algebra I 39% 20% 15% 4%
Geometry 39% 13% 9% 4%
Algebra II 33% 16% 9% 5%
World History 77% 41% 26% 14%
Science 62% 30% 25% 15%
Biology 59% 27% 18% 9%
Chemistry 48% 18% 9% 2%
Physics 60% 25% 13% 5%

Key: Scores are percentage passing (proficient and advanced)
CA-W = California statewide-White
CA-H = California statewide-Hispanic
LA-H = Los Angeles Unified School District-Hispanic
GH = Garfield High School (Student body is about 96% Hispanic)

If the teachers at Garfield are really so good, and if as Mathews believes the students at Garfield are not hampered by lower IQs, then why are the scores at Garfield so low??? They are even far lower than scores of Hispanics at other schools in the same Los Angeles Unified School District.

Simple answer is that it must be that Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray and Linda Gottfredson are correct after all, i.e. the facts are that some ethnic groups such as Blacks and Hispanics have substantially lower average IQ levels and thus they can never achieve at levels as high as Whites and Asians no matter how good the schools and teachers are.

This all just proves once again that with regard to ethnoracial differences in intelligence and scholastic ability, the hereditarian theory (from Francis Galton through to the modern era with Arthur Jensen) is factually TRUE, and that the environmental theory (from Franz Boas through to the modern era with Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Nisbett, and Jay Mathews) is total CRAP!!!

Posted by: rifraf | April 24, 2010 11:37 PM | Report abuse

"I had a further thought

about discounting the worth of passing Spanish AP. If we do that, should we not also discount the worth good scores on AP Physics B for students whose parents are physicists, or on AP English Lit for the children of professors who had them reading Chaucer at age 5?"

Not a very good thought, Jay.

In what language are they talking physics?
The instruction one receives in 4 years of spanish is comparable to the 17 years one spent hearing and speaking the language?

And nice try at the race card.

Posted by: edlharris | April 25, 2010 12:02 AM | Report abuse

Although I had to take a deep breath after reading rifraf's predictable rant, I feel it cannot pass without comment.

I suggest he send his own child to a foreign country where he doesn't speak the language, live in a low-income crime-ridden community without benefit of books or encouragement, and then attempt to excel in all his courses. He may be offered one course in his own language - AP English, which features one of the best teachers and literature lists in the school along with other native speakers. Wouldn't his son or daughter take that course?

As for his shots against Garfield's staff -change staffs with LA's finest public or private high school, and you will not improve test scores. It is not about the teachers, but the socio-economic conditions.

In my humble opinion, the finest moments in education are not when a teacher prepares students who would go to the university anyway for college, but when you prepare those who never even thought about going to college to move on. That is what they are attempting to do at Garfield.

Posted by: hotrod3 | April 25, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

1. Jay: Most of your dedicated readers don't confuse coincidence and causality. Why keep controversy alive with a lede with little other purpose? Why not address the greater part of the story as investigated and reported in Reason Magazine and elsewhere? This wasn't and isn't just about Escalante and inspired teachers. It is and was about leadership support for a preparation and selection program. The numbers did slip considerable after Escalante left. Most of that was due to abandonment of the development program that fed his dedicated teaching. By some telling, that's why Escalante left Garfield.

So, that's a lot of history, almost 20 years since Escalante left, and then the number of years during which the multi-year program was built by Escalante's Garfield principal, funded with resources he negotiated.

2. Readers in DC: Note the contrast between Spanish LITERATURE AP courses at Garfield HS.... and its near absense in DC. Mother tongue doesn't gift students of any language background with the literature of that language. The achievement in Spanish LITERATURE and in other subjects at Garfield reflect teaching, serious study, and learning.

Posted by: incredulous | April 25, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

1. Jay: Most of your dedicated readers don't confuse coincidence and causality. Why keep controversy alive with a lede with little other purpose? Why not address the greater part of the story as investigated and reported in Reason Magazine and elsewhere? This wasn't and isn't just about Escalante and inspired teachers. It is and was about leadership support for a preparation and selection program. The numbers did slip considerable after Escalante left. Most of that was due to abandonment of the development program that fed his dedicated teaching. By some telling, that's why Escalante left Garfield.

So, that's a lot of history, almost 20 years since Escalante left, and then the number of years during which the multi-year program was built by Escalante's Garfield principal, funded with resources he negotiated.

2. Readers in DC: Note the contrast between Spanish LITERATURE AP courses at Garfield HS.... and its near absense in DC. Mother tongue doesn't gift students of any language background with the literature of that language. The achievement in Spanish LITERATURE and in other subjects at Garfield reflect teaching, serious study, and learning.

Posted by: incredulous | April 25, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

". If we do that, should we not also discount the worth good scores on AP Physics B for students whose parents are physicists, or on AP English Lit for the children of professors who had them reading Chaucer at age 5? We seem to accept with no debate the high scores of Anglo kids with well educated families and enriched home lives, but when low income Hispanic kids benefit from the one bit of family enrichment that has a positive effect on their AP scores, we seem to think somebody is cheating. Why do we think that way?"

Oh, come now, Jay. This is nuts. A parent who has that competency is, at best, a free tutor for the student.

But we aren't talking about that. This isn't a student who is demonstrating or achieving an academic competency. This is a student who is being tested with 15-18 years of 24-hour exposure and routine language use, as opposed to student who are being tested with 2-3 years of exposure for a couple hours a week.

Your analogies flail. They're simply awful.

Patrick,

" I think that view looks at the whole process as way too much of a competition"

Until we all (societally, that is) accept and understand how all this information is used in competition, there's no point in discussing its educational value.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 25, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

For Cal---It is not 24/7 exposure. They are speaking English most of the time, at school and with their friends. There are rarely long deep conversations at home with family members in Spanish about Cervantes. They are watching a lot of English television. They are reading very little, in Spanish or otherwise, except the English stuff they have to read for school.
For Patrick--my apologies for my late reporting on the 2009 Garfield AP results. There were a total of 885 AP exams given, with the results as follows: 1s 427, 2s 191, 3s 124, 4s 90, 5s 53. There were 145 Spanish Language AP exams, 1s 12, 2s 21, 3s 33, 4s 43, 5s 36. There were 22 Spanish Lit AP exams, 1s 4, 2s 1, 3s 7, 4s 8, and 5s 4.

For incredulous, the Reason interview was interesting but was almost entirely based on an interview with Jaime after he had left Garfield. There was very little reporting of independent sources at the school that had a contrary view, and no reporting of the strong AP showing in subjects other than Calculus, or a comparison of Garfield's calculus results with schools of similar demographics. It was an essay more than a report, with a strong point of view. That's fine, but it shouldn't be relied on as a major source of trustworthy factual material. It was written for a magazine with a strong ideological bent, and that was the direction it went.

For rifraf, you have described my views very accurately. I share them with nearly every inner city school teacher I have ever met who has had success in raising student achievement significantly. The reasons why the scores at Garfield are low on average is because 89 percent of the students are low income, and many are transients, who move a lot and don't get as much time in class as they need. As hotrod3 said so well, the effects of poverty on academic achievement have been well established by research. Poor white kids in similar circumstances also have very low test scores. The most telling answer to your theory is in my latest book, Work Hard Be Nice, showing out much more these black and Hispanic kids can do if well taught. Give it a read and then tell me what you think.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 29, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

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