Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jaime Escalante -- America's Master Math Teacher

News came today that Jaime Escalante, the math teacher whose story was the basis for the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, passed away at the age of  79

In a July 2002 story for Reason Magazine, Jerry Jesness takes the reader through the "the famous rise -- and shameful fall -- of Jaime Escalante, America's master math teacher." 

In the article, Mr. Jesness takes us through Mr. Escalante's background.  We learn that unlike in the movie, Jaime's successes were slow coming.  It was three years into the program before more than 10 students passed the A.P. calculus test, rather than the single year that the movie portrayed.  And I have no problem with the Hollywood version of the story's time line being accelerated, as they only had an hour and a half to get the story told.  But, as Mr. Jesness points out:
The Stand and Deliver message, that the touch of a master could bring unmotivated students from arithmetic to calculus in a single year, was preached in schools throughout the nation. While the film did a great service to education by showing what students from disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve in demanding classes, the Hollywood fiction had at least one negative side effect. By showing students moving from fractions to calculus in a single year, it gave the false impression that students can neglect their studies for several years and then be redeemed by a few months of hard work.
This Hollywood message had a pernicious effect on teacher training. The lessons of Escalante's patience and hard work in building his program, especially his attention to the classes that fed into calculus, were largely ignored in the faculty workshops and college education classes that routinely showed Stand and Deliver to their students. To the pedagogues, how Escalante succeeded mattered less than the mere fact that he succeeded. They were happy to cheer Escalante the icon; they were less interested in learning from Escalante the teacher. They were like physicians getting excited about a colleague who can cure cancer without wanting to know how to replicate the cure.

I can remember this movie being referenced a couple of times during my years in the teacher education program at my college.  While we never viewed it in class, I do remember it being recommended to me by someone in the program.  I remember being inspired by the movie.  The movie fed into my desire to change lives.  Yet, with all of the emotion and inspirational feelings this movie brought to me, it did nothing to inspire me to find out why and how Mr. Escalante was able to bring such success to students who society had basically written off as never being able to accomplish such a feat.  A movie of this magnitude should have caused me to seek out Mr. Escalante's blueprint for success.  But it didn't, and I didn't. 

A movie as moving as Stand and Deliver did nothing to make me a better future teacher (which I'm sure was not the motivation of the filmmakers in making the movie).  Yet, after watching The Legend of Bagger Vance I remember I was inspired to go out and pound golf balls on the driving range.  After countless viewings of Friday Night Lights in high school, I was inspired to work harder in football practice so that I might be able to make the big catch in the big game.  After Space Jam I was out on the basketball court working on my jump shot in the event that I was ever pulled into a cartoon universe to help Bugs and Daffy defeat some evil villains.  And sure, I never did make the big catch in the big game nor did I ever join up with Bugs Bunny & Co. to shoot hoops.  (I'm still holding out hope that Will Smith will help me fight off the demons that are keeping me from winning a match against Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen).  But, at least these movies challenged me to improve myself.  Unfortunately, Stand and Deliver did not have that effect on my life, which is a shame.

Another failure of the movie (again, not completely the filmmaker's fault) was that it left the viewer with the impression that everyone in the story lived happily ever after.  Unfortunately for Mr. Escalante and the students he never got to help, his tenure as the maverick math teacher for that East L.A. school was cut short 10 years after the group of students featured in the movie passed their A.P. tests.
Escalante's open admission policy, a major reason for his success, also paved the way for his departure. Calculus grew so popular at Garfield that classes grew beyond the 35-student limit set by the union contract. Some had more than 50 students. Escalante would have preferred to keep the classes below the limit had he been able to do so without either denying calculus to willing students or using teachers who were not up to his high standards. Neither was possible, and the teachers union complained about Garfield's class sizes. Rather than compromise, Escalante moved on.
Other problems had been brewing as well. After Stand and Deliver was released, Escalante became an overnight celebrity. Teachers and other interested observers asked to sit in on his classes, and he received visits from political leaders and celebrities, including President George H.W. Bush and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This attention aroused feelings of jealousy. In his last few years at Garfield, Escalante even received threats and hate mail. In 1990 he lost the math department chairmanship, the position that had enabled him to direct the pipeline.
  [Emphasis mine]

The culture that is the modern public education system is one that discourages innovation and extra effort.  Rather than embrace Mr. Escalante's successes, his peers (and the union) grew jealous and saw his work as an assault against the status quo.  There were no incentives in place for others to follow in his footsteps.  And incentives matter. 

One of the driving forces behind my decision to leave the teaching profession was the lack of incentives for me to try hard.  While I never encountered explicit challenges to the way I ran my classroom, there were plenty of implicit demands that I maintain within the confines of the teaching bureaucracy bubble.  Mr. Lesness touched on some of these forces in his closing paragraphs about Jaime Escalante's legacy. 
Lyndon Johnson said it takes a master carpenter to build a barn, but any jackass can kick one down. In retrospect, it's fortunate that Escalante's program survived as long as it did. Had Garfield's counselors refused to let a handful of basic math students take algebra back in 1974, or had the janitor who objected to Escalante's early-bird ways been more influential, America's greatest math teacher might just now be retiring from Unisys.
Gradillas has an explanation for the decline of A.P. calculus at Garfield: Escalante and Villavicencio were not allowed to run the program they had created on their own terms. In his phrase, the teachers no longer "owned" their program. He's speaking metaphorically, but there's something to be said for taking him literally.
In the real world, those who provide a service can usually find a way to get it to those who want it, even if their current employer disapproves. If someone feels that he can build a better mousetrap than his employer wants to make, he can find a way to make it, market it, and perhaps put his former boss out of business. Public school teachers lack that option.
There are very few ways to compete for education dollars without being part of the government school system. If that system is inflexible, sooner or later even excellent programs will run into obstacles. (...)
One-size-fits-all standardized tests are driving curricula, and top-down reforms are mandating lockstep procedures for classroom instructors. These steps might help make dismal teachers into mediocre ones, but what will they do to brilliant mavericks like Escalante?

Now, I would never suggest that I was 1/10 of the innovator in the classroom that Jaime Escalante was, but because the current system lacks (lacked) the incentives for me to try, I will may never know what could have been.

SONG:  "Hands of God" by the Dave Matthews Band

LOOKING FORWARD TO:  the eventful summer that is to come.  I'll be playing volleyball on the "Chuck Bo-Buck and the Banana Fanna Five" team with my coworkers (and, yes, I suggested the name, and, yes, I am proud about that fact).  I'll also be playing as much golf and will be attending as many Omaha and Kansas City Royals baseball games as my wife will allow. 

AMERICAN IDOL 2010 BET:  Since I don't know if my cousin JB dvr'd tonight's show, I cannot yet harass him on Facebook or by text message about the fact that his pick, Didi, was kicked off the show tonight.  So, I shall gloat here.  One down, four to go!!!

1 comment:

  1. 1. I am impressed with how the your skill in writing in this format has improved since you began the bloggging journey.

    2. At some point you should find the book HURT by Chap Clark. It is about the ministry, but talks about adolescent culture in general, including the school. For some reason, I think you might like it.