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Unlike many, Escalante believed in teaching, not sorting

[This is my piece for the Post's Outlook section of April 4, 2010.]

From 1982 to 1987 I stalked Jaime Escalante, his students and his colleagues at Garfield High School, a block from the hamburger-burrito stands, body shops and bars of Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles. I was the Los Angeles bureau chief for The Washington Post, allegedly covering the big political, social and business stories of the Western states, but I found it hard to stay away from that troubled high school.

I would show up unannounced, watch Jaime teach calculus, chat with Principal Henry Gradillas, check in with other Advanced Placement classes and in the early afternoon call my editor in Washington to say I was chasing down the latest medfly outbreak story, or whatever seemed believable at the time.

Escalante, who died Tuesday from cancer at age 79, did not become nationally famous until 1988, when the feature film about him, "Stand and Deliver," was released, and my much-less-noticed book, "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America," also came out. I had been drawn to him, as filmmakers Ramón Menéndez and Tom Musca were, by the story of a 1982 cheating scandal. Eighteen Escalante students had passed the Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam. Fourteen were accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service, based on similarities in their answers. Twelve took the test again, this time heavily proctored, and passed again.

Whether they cheated was an intriguing mystery, but not the one that kept me hanging around Garfield. I wanted to know how there could be even one student at that school taking and passing AP Calculus, perhaps the hardest course in American secondary education. Garfield offered the worst possible conditions for learning: 85 percent of the students were low income, most of the parents were grade-school dropouts, faculty morale was bad, expectations were low.

Yet the school had produced phenomenal results that would challenge widespread rules barring average and below-average students from taking AP classes. The stunning success at Garfield led U.S. presidents to endorse Escalante's view that impoverished children can achieve as much as affluent kids if they are given enough extra study time and encouragement to learn.

In 1987, 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the country who passed the AP Calculus exams attended a single high school: Garfield. That meant that hundreds of thousands of overlooked students could probably do as well if they got what Escalante was giving out. But what was that?

Whenever I suggested that the great teaching I was seeing at Garfield might be the reason so many students were succeeding in AP, people at parties dismissed me as romantic and naive. I was living in Pasadena, where my children, like my neighbors' children, attended private schools. People there didn't believe in teaching; they believed in sorting. The idea that the sons and daughters of immigrant day laborers and seamstresses could be made to comprehend calculus, the intellectual triumph of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, made no sense to them.

"I bet if you checked out their backgrounds, you will find those teachers are skimming off the few kids whose parents went to college," one professor told me. More common was the assertion that Escalante, and the school's splendid history and government teachers, drilled enough facts and formulas into their kids to fool the AP tests but had no chance of giving them the conceptual understanding that well-prepared suburban students developed.

These theories quickly fell apart. I surveyed 109 Garfield calculus students in 1987 and found that only nine had even one parent with a college degree, and that only 35 had a parent with a high school diploma. The engineering and science professors at USC, Harvey Mudd and the other California colleges recruiting Garfield grads laughed at the "no conceptual understanding" myth, as did the Escalante students I started running into who had become doctors, lawyers and teachers.

It took me several years to understand how Garfield's AP teachers, and the many educators who have had similar results in other high-poverty schools, pulled all this off. They weren't skimming. It wasn't a magic trick of test results. They simply had high expectations for every student. They arranged extra time for study -- such as Escalante's rule that if you were struggling, you had to return to his classroom after the final bell and spend three hours doing homework, plus take some Saturday and summer classes, too. They created a team spirit, teachers and students working together to beat the big exam.

Escalante celebrated "ganas," a Spanish word that he said meant the urge to succeed. He was so convinced of the power of teaching that he lied to keep students with him. He said school rules forbade dropping his class. He told the parents of absent students that if he did not see their children in his classroom the next day, he would call the immigration authorities to check on their status.

I left Pasadena and moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1992. At Scarsdale High School, I had a shock. My younger son wanted to take AP U.S. history. I assumed that, like Garfield, the school would welcome anyone with the gumption to take such a hard course. Instead, he was told he could get in if he passed an entrance test. Once again I was in a land ruled by sorting, not teaching.

There are fewer schools like that now, largely because of a change in teacher attitudes. My annual surveys of AP participation for Newsweek magazine show schools like Garfield emerging all over the country, particularly in the Washington area. Low-income students are being offered a chance to challenge themselves. Those schools are full of educators who tell me they have read everything about Escalante.

When I discovered that his vocabulary was spreading even to grade schools, I knew that he had triumphed over those who wouldn't even open the AP door to some students. In 2001, a fifth-grade teacher in Southeast Washington told me that she had instituted "ganas points" for students who took an extra step to help themselves and others prepare for college. That school became the KIPP DC: KEY Academy, the city's top-performing public middle school.

Escalante liked that story when I called him in Bolivia. It was amazing, he said, what teachers could do if they believed in their kids. He said he was still teaching. He was never going to stop.

When I got a call a couple of days after his death about another school planning to open AP to all, I decided he was exactly right.

By Jay Mathews  | April 4, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Garfield High School, Jaime Escalante, opening AP to all, restricting access to AP, teaching not sorting  
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Jaime Escalante's success as a teacher was qualitative, not quantitative. All of this NCLB and Race to the Top data collection disguised as teacher accountability will kill the creativity and the passion of future Jaime Escalante's.

Furthermore, Jaime Escalante pushed for a very high level of STUDENT ACCOUNTABILITY, which is the key to a student's success and has become political poison in public education.

It's no longer the student's fault or responsibility whether that student achieves or not, it has become the sole burden of the teacher.

Yet parents complain about teachers giving their kids homework. Every year I receive emails from parents that demand what I'M going to do when THEIR child doesn't do his or her work.

Posted by: tazmodious | April 4, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I agree completely with tazmodious. Escalante was a great teacher who emphasized the innate abilities of his students as well as the importance of student participation, administrative and parental support. Imbued with a generous supply of common sense, this gifted teacher knew the secret to a great education: a team effort. In Jay's article today, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, he illustrates this with his story of Leticia Rodriguez. Yes, Escalante's extraordinary teaching changed this girl's life, but so did her own perseverance as well as the help of her father. In the end, it was Dad to forked up the money to send her back to college to get an engineering degree. We make a huge mistake when we minimize the influence of the family and the determination of the student.

There is one more factor related to Escalante that is rarely mentioned. In his native country of Bolivia, high school teaching is considered a high-status job, higher than the technical and better-paid job that Escalante had before he started teaching at Garfield. In our country teaching is a low prestige job, resulting in many talented math and science teachers seeking employment at colleges or corporations. When this recession is over will cities like D.C. still be able to hire enough teachers to teach AP math and physics? If we want these talented people to see teaching as a career, we must begin by treating the teachers we have now with the utmost gratitude and respect.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 4, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"The engineering and science professors at USC, Harvey Mudd and the other California colleges recruiting Garfield grads laughed at the "no conceptual understanding" myth, as did the Escalante students I started running into who had become doctors, lawyers and teachers."

What does this mean? You say it as if it is a rebuttal to the "teaching by rote" suspicions, but it's no such thing. Mexican American students with low abilities become doctors, lawyers, and teachers every single day. The standards are lower. Some of Escalantes students become doctors, lawyers, and teachers. So what? So did lots of Mexican American students who didn't take his class. And, on average, Mexican Americans who become doctors, lawyers, and teachers are less academically prepared than whites and Asians (although more academically prepared than blacks)

So you haven't answered a thing. First, it appears that Escalante's methods *were* what would normally be described as "rote"--that was certainly the impression left by the film, using Escalante's own words.

Second, regardless of his methods used, you have not rebutted the specific charge, one that arose because the kids cheated. Maybe he did teach them strong concepts. But your assurances don't establish a thing.

Again, I'm not someone who thinks "teaching by rote" is a bad thing--nor do I think it's something that only happens with low income URMs. I've spent a fair amount of time teaching algebra basics to Menlo Atherton High School suburban white girls who got a 5 on both AP calculus tests but think that (x + 2) squared is x^2 + 4.

But if he did teach them "by rote", then that's important information to have, and you shouldn't hide it or minimize it simply because you'd rather he have used discovery and project-based instruction methods.

"There are fewer schools like that now, largely because of a change in teacher attitudes."

Oh, stop. Teacher attitudes haven't changed a bit. What's changed is that you've got a major publisher behind you willing to say that schools who let anyone into AP and then take the tests--whether they do well or not--are "best high schools". It's the administrators that have changed, not the teachers.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 4, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Cal, Cal, Cal---This is the second time you have raised this point. I answered you last time. Unlike you, I was in his classroom for many years. I watched him teach. He didn't teach by rote. And the college professors who received those kids and would be in the best possible to judge if they lack conceptual understanding said they did not lack it, and goodness me, we both know that the standards for getting a teaching job in Calif could use some strengthening, but are you arguing that it is now easy to pass the Calif bar exam or the med boards or whatever doctors have to pass , and they need no conceptual understanding to pass them? Maybe not, but you are going to have to show me how before I let you defend this old canard about poor kids unable to understand what they have learned. How about the ones you teach? You are unable to give them conceptual understanding? I doubt that.

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

When I began teaching in a public high school Jaime Escalante was my role model. I believe that I brought nearly the same enthusiasm to the task that he did. But I lacked many of his other qualities. I had a family and my time with my kids was most important to me. I simply did not have the energy to spend weekends, late nights, etc. pushing students and developing new strategies like Escalante did. In the final analysis, I was an average, typical teacher.
That changed when I was put in a great teaching environment, in a parochial hs with kids who worked hard, an administration that made it clear that along with spirituality, teaching was the school's priority. We had students who had been learning all their lives to work hard in school and not to be disruptive. I did work harder in that environment and felt much closer to my students but I was still certainly no Escalante. I never had that kind of dedication.
It's always inspiring to read your paeans to great teaching and I have no doubt that you have found many teachers who can work nearly the same kind of magic that Escalante did.
But you are still describing exceptional cases, which is why programs like KIPP are so exciting. We need to be able to put average teachers like me into exceptional circumstances. If kids can be furnished earlier with the tools and expectations to succeed then we can start to see some progress. But while having kids in situations like the ones that produced Escalante will produce a handful of Escalantes, those situations will not produce widespread changes in student achievement.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | April 4, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

If the kids want to do well and are willing to study they can and will pass AP courses if they have good teachers. Escalante believed in the kids, was able to communicate with their parents, knew his subject matter and how to motivate the kids. He was exceptional and put in many extra hours to help the kids. I suspect he also wanted to "prove" what everybody in Latin America already knows, that Spanish-speaking doesn't equal dumb.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 4, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

I taught mainly Hispanic children for most of my career and can attest to the fact that these children, like children everywhere, are capable of very high achievement. Also, about 5 to 10% of these students are gifted and talented, about the same percentage as you would find in any population.

A teacher who believes that any group of people is incapable of high academic achievement is in the wrong profession.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 5, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse

For Patrickmattimore1---That is just a wonderful comment, every word true. You put your finger on exactly the right point for the future of schooling. I tried in the Escalante book to point out that the other calculus teacher, Ben Jimenez, was an average teacher in most respects, but became exceptional for the exact reasons you cite. He found himself in an environment---the high standards cocoon of the Escalante-led math department---that created very different expectations for his work, and he rose to them. Of course not everyone has his capability, or yours, to make that adjustment, but as you say many more teachers would be much more effective if we could create those environments for them.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 5, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Nice piece Mr. Mathews - though I wish you had dealt with what the teachers union did to punish Mr. Escalante for his achievements. The NEA ran Escalante out of the school for his success. They opposed his small classes, then they opposed his large classes. They complained when he showed up early and even more when he worked late. He eventually complained to the head of the union about the abuses of placing the union needs above the students.

After Escalante was forced out of the school a new teacher tried to continue his course, they had only 11 graduates in AP Calc in 1996, the next year the teacher was out as was the class. So while Mr. Escalante's legacy is to be admired we should also focus on the those that sought and succeeded in destroying his achievements. The teachers union.

Posted by: ArmandoG1 | April 5, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Jay -- the sorting of students is alive and well. Unfortunately for many students the alternative to sorting isn't always so great either.

Schools that give up sorting in favor of equity for all find it can lead to dumbing down the entire curriculum so that everyone can pass without putting in the effort to reach excellence.

Posted by: EduCrazy | April 5, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Yes, ArmandoG1, the "cleansing out" of Escalante has been downplayed, if not swept under the rug.

In memory and honor of Jaime Escalante, I submit this:

Posted by: concerned36 | April 5, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

What does that even mean, understanding calculus at the "conceptual level" like students in the suburbs?

I grew up in a high-SES district. I took many AP courses, including BC Calc, on which I earned a 5. I went on to take Calc III and linear algebra in college. Despite all that, I'm still pretty sure I never understood calculus on a conceptual level.

Sure, I knew how to work the problems. That's the easy part. But I don't think I ever really internalized it, like I did with algebra. I certainly have never been in a real-life situation and said, "Oh gee, I could model this as a calculus problem and solve it!"

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 6, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

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