Thursday, April 1, 2010

Education Reform: A Memorial to a Math Teacher For All Seasons

MeanMesa offers a quick explanation for this intermediate posting in the Education Reform series promised to all the great MeanMesa visitors.

Today, the 31st of March, 2010, marks the passage of a monument of an educator, Jaime Escalante.  Although Mr. Escalante was born and began his teaching career in Bolivia, his impact on a troubled high school in Los Angeles provides the absolutely amazing impact of his teaching career and the precise part which is so important here.

Mr. Escalante's prominence ushers in two distinct points which must be considered as we think over the possibilities of educational reform in our country.

Two Distinct Points Concerning the Teaching of Jaimer Escalante

The first has everything to do with exactly what he did.

For an account of what Mr. Escalante accomplished in Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, MeanMesa happily hands the "heavy lifting" to good old Wikipedia.  The rather abbreviated biography presented there "tells the story" pretty well.  It includes both the actual educational accomplishment for which he is -- and should be -- famous, along with all the mischief he encountered with the bureaucrats who were running his High School.

From Wiki:

Jaime Escalante
a Math Teacher for All Seasons

Jaime Escalante was born in La Paz, Bolivia. While living in Bolivia he taught physics and mathematics for nine years. In 1964 he decided to move to the United States. To prepare, he began studying science and mathematics at University of Puerto Rico. Upon moving from Puerto Rico to California, Escalante could not speak English and had no valid American teaching credentials. He studied at night at Pasadena City College to earn a degree in biology. He took a day job at a computer corporation (Burroughs Corporation), while continuing his schooling at night to earn a mathematics degree at California State University, Los Angeles where he studied calculus.

In 1974 he began teaching at Garfield High School, East Los Angeles. Escalante was initially so disheartened by the lack of preparation of his students that he called his former employer and asked for his old job back. Escalante eventually changed his mind about returning to work when he found 12 students willing to take an algebra class.

Shortly after Escalante came to Garfield High, its reputation had sunk so low that its accreditation was threatened. Instead of gearing classes to poorly performing students, Escalante offered AP (advanced placement) calculus. He had already earned the criticism of an administrator who disapproved of his requiring the students to answer a homework question before being allowed into the classroom. "He told me to just get them inside," Escalante reported, "but I said, there is no teaching, no learning going on".

Determined to change the status quo, Escalante had to persuade the first few students who would listen to him that they could control their futures with the right education. He promised them that the jobs would be in engineering, electronics and computers but they would have to learn math to succeed. He said to his students "I'll teach you math and that's your language. With that you're going to make it. You're going to college and sit in the first row, not the back, because you're going to know more than anybody".

The school administration opposed Escalante frequently during his first few years. He was threatened with dismissal by an assistant principal because he was coming in too early, leaving too late, and failing to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay for his students' Advanced Placement tests. This opposition changed with arrival of a new principal, Henry Gradillas. Aside from allowing Escalante to stay as a math teacher, Gradillas overhauled the academic curriculum at Garfield, reducing the number of basic math classes and requiring those taking basic math to concurrently take algebra. He denied extracurricular activities to students who failed to maintain a C average and new students who failed basic skill tests.

Escalante continued to teach at Garfield, but it was not until 1979 that Escalante would instruct his first calculus class. He hoped that it could provide the leverage to improve lower-level math courses. To this end, Escalante recruited fellow teacher Ben Jimenez and taught calculus to five students, two of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. The following year, the class size increased to nine students, seven of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. By 1981, the class had increased to 15 students, 14 of whom passed.

Escalante placed a high priority on pressuring his students to pass their math classes, particularly advanced calculus. He rejected the common practice of ranking students from first to last and instead frequently told his students to press themselves as hard as possible in their assignments.

In 1982, Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspicious, because all of the students made the exact same math error on problem #6, and also used the same unusual variable names. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the 14 agreed to retake the test and did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed. That year Escalante also started teaching calculus at East Los Angeles College.

By 1987, 73 students passed the A.P. calculus AB exam and another 12 passed the BC version of the test. This was the peak for the calculus program. The same year Gradillas went on sabbatical to finish his doctorate with hopes that he could be reinstated as principal at Garfield or a similar school with similar programs upon his return.

1988 saw the release of a book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews (ISBN 0-8050-1195-1) and a movie Stand and Deliver detailing the events of 1982. During this time teachers and other interested observers asked to sit in on his classes. Escalante received visits from political leaders and celebrities, including then-President Ronald Reagan and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The second has everything to do with why he was able to do it.

As to why Mr. Escalante was able to pull off such a feat, the further details will be provided based on another one of those famous MeanMesa opinions.  This is important to mention here.  Yes, of course, the results of Mr. Escalante's efforts represent an example of what is existentially possible as we consider reforms to our education system nationwide.  However, perhaps even more important is an inquiry into his ability to do such an unexpected thing.

After all, the President's ambitions seem to have everything to do with reproducing such great results all across the country.  To ever realize that goal, we had better have a thorough understanding of what all was involved in this remarkable example which seems to elude all the excuses and other constraints which are now stacked "sky high" as the explanation for our current national educational calamity.

Why was he able to do such a thing -- the very thing which is presented as a theoretical impossibility by our educational experts?

"Theoretically" there was every possible reason for Mr. Escalante to produce a "just barely" acceptable outcome with his Garfield High School class of misfits, minorities and under achievers.  Worse, this "theoretical" problem went further.  "Theoretically," if his class had done as well as most such classes, there would be no serious problem for everyone involved -- the school principal, the parents, the students and the tax paying community -- to be quite satisfied with such a "just barely" educational outcome.

See, there was an inertia of expectation flooding all across Mr. Escalante's efforts.  Garfield High School already had a well established -- and, apparently, well deserved -- reputation for being, even generously, wretchedly mediocre.  Mr. Escalante's teaching credentials certainly suggested nothing out of the ordinary for teachers hired at Garfield.  The "theoretical" learning capacity of his students was already well established as so distressingly marginal that no one particularly expected them to graduate, let alone learn calculus.

Those of us who frequent MeanMesa are sickeningly familiar with such low expectations.  High schools in Albuquerque, MeanMesa's Galactic Headquarters, graduate only fifty percent of the students who should graduate.  In addition to that dismal reality, New Mexico pours half of its state budget into education every year.

Naturally, the education establishment here, it turns out, is completely prepared to either completely disregard the 50% disaster or explain it away with volumes of sophisticated reasons why such an outcome is Acceptable.  Unavoidable.  Explainable.  Irreversible.  You know, big complicated reasons that every day, "out of the system" taxpayers could never understand.

Hey.  These people are experts.  That means that they know -- as their own absolute certainty -- everything that is impossible.  That's why they get the "big bucks."  Right?

The citizens in the PTA meeting would be met with frightening, hysterical, raucous laughter if they were to so much as mention anything about calculus.

What's the message?

Somewhere in the Escalante story, among the processes, the bureaucracy, the students and the outcome, there is a sinister disconnection between what the statistics -- the "theoreticals" -- predicted and what actually happened.  In fact, given all the parameters of the process which occurred in Garfield High School, the statistical and the theoretical outcome was so unlikely as to be essentially impossible.

This story "hits home" here in New Mexico as unavoidably as the proverbial "fart in a spacesuit."  For the experts, all the "theoreticals and statistics" for the Albuquerque educational catastrophe are presented as completely sufficient to explain away every criticism a parent or tax payer might issue as he watches his child/student descend into a glacial ennui of disgust and disinterest.  Such an educational disaster is not a spectacular exception.

It now consumes fully one half of all public education students in Albuquerque High Schools.

Mr. Escalante was not teaching a in a theoretically effective way to a class which, according to statistics was theoretically able to learn calculus.  He clearly never slipped behind such cover.  He obviously did not throw his "best effort" at some risk averse theoretical teaching teaching system designed to minimize failures and optimize whatever was left in hopes of achieving "acceptable" and "anticipated" results.


For Mr. Escalante, it was far more personal than that.

Mr. Escalante abandoned the theory and replaced it with the fire that was in him to teach.  It didn't matter to him that he had a crappy job in a crappy school.  He took the chance.  He could either teach these unlikely students calculus or he would fail utterly -- with  "all flags flying."  He wasn't searching out any expert excuses for getting rotten results.  He didn't care about excuses -- he cared about teaching.

A Final, Disturbing Overview

Just how remarkable was Mr. Escalante's success?  What can it tell us about the educational nightmare that challenges the President?

Well, to get a firm grip on the matter, we will have to "step back" far enough to gather a little perspective.  Because MeanMesa is never shy about bold, big picture models of things which have too many "fish hooks" when examined in smaller pictures,  let's just take this tack.

Let's consider the students who comprise that 50% drop out group.  A couple of decades before they were drifting away from the prospect of learning, they were infants, crawling around, exploring everything they could reach or see!  Those babies were -- just as Mr. Escalante was "on fire" to teach -- on fire with curiosity.  They wanted to learn and absorb every tiny detail of the reality around them, and they were pursuing that aim without so much as a single thought of the risks involved.

Every parent has watched this process in utter amazement during their child's infancy.

What happened?  How have these immensely curious young humans managed to become so discouragingly uninterested that they are willing to simply walk away from their totally free public educations?

We're way past lurching around looking for scape goats or trying some painless tweaking to repair this monstrosity.

Please stay tuned to MeanMesa as we try to unfold the rest of the education reform stories in this series of postings.

MeanMesa's compliments to President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.


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  2. I attended the memorial service this morning at Garfield High School. Photos from the event can be found at

    It was a very nice but brief event that attracted major media attention. Perhaps the loss of this tremendous teaching legend will inspire the next generation of Jaime Escalantes to arrive in East Los Angeles.

    Jesse Torres
    President and CEO
    Pan American Bank
    East Los Angeles, CA 90063
    "California's Oldest Latino-Owned Bank"