Escalante delivered, but system didn't

Jaime Escalante, who died this week, showed it’s possible to teach advanced math to poor inner-city kids. It should be possible to help great teachers “reach a mass audience,” writes Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute.

At the peak of its success, Garfield produced more students who passed Advanced Placement calculus than Beverly Hills High.

In any other field, his methods would have been widely copied. Instead, Escalante’s success was resented. And while the teachers union contract limited class sizes to 35, Escalante could not bring himself to turn students away, packing 50 or more into a room and still helping them to excel. This weakened the union’s bargaining position, so it complained.

After years building up Garfield High’s math department, Escalante was stripped of the chairmanship. He left the next year, followed by the math teachers he’d recruited and trained.

The best tribute America can offer Jaime Escalante is to understand why our education system destroyed rather than amplified his success — and then fix it.

By contrast, Asian tutoring companies let star teachers reach thousands of students through web broadcasting, Coulson writes. Teachers share the profits.

Jay Mathews’ obit is here. He wrote Escalante: The Best Teacher in America in 1989.

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Comments

  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Why was what he did (including his willingness to teach as many students as possible in a given class) such a threat to other teachers or teacher unions or possibly administrations? Wouldn’t the administration have held him up as an example of excellence?

    What would happen if he were teaching today? The same thing? This is the kind of teacher I would have loved not only for me but for my kids…50 in a class room? So what if the kids are all learning and excelling…bring it on…

  2. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Where are his teaching methods described?

  3. Tim-10-ber, teaching skill doesn’t garner professional merit. A good teacher doesn’t make a nickel more then a lousy teacher because they’re a good teacher.

    That indifference to teaching skill’s a feature of the public education skill. When someone’s good at teaching but not too good their skills can be ignored but when they’re good enough to put the lie to widely-quoted defenses of the status quo, they’re a problem.

  4. Pinetree says:

    It sounds as if Escalante was treated poorly by his school — but his experience highlights an issue that pervades every field. How do you let outliers perform their wonders and at the same time realize that not every effective teacher is THAT effective? Some (but very few) surgeons are DeBakeys and Barnards; they can teach some of their methods to others, but not all will be able to master the techniques. FEW are good administrators, and when I read that Escalante was head of the math department at his HS, I wondered whether that was a diversion of his talents.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    Allen said “teaching skill doesn’t garner professional merit. A good teacher doesn’t make a nickel more then a lousy teacher because they’re a good teacher”.

    Allen — I realize that very sad but true comment. My question is — shouldn’t it?

    Shouldn’t the exceptional teacher be paid more? Shouldn’t there be a way for the exceptional teacher who really wants to do nothing but teach be able to stay in their classroom and earn the same salary they could as an administrator where they probably won’t be as effective as they were in the classroom?

    When will education adopt these practices? Are they are threat to other teachers? To the union? If yes, why?

  6. tim-10-ber says:

    Maybe the article at the attached link helps…so odd it appeared today…just when I needed it…Yes this is from a libertarian website but the article…it says better than I ever could what I believe many of the challenges are today in government schools (probably government in general)…

    I hope you read it – it only takes 5 – 10 minutes, tops.

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north831.html

    Thanks!

  7. For all you knee-jerk union bashers, consider this: unions/tenure often protect top teachers from administrators’ persecution. Think about it: most administrators are anti-intellectual, academically-disinclined wannabe politicians. Most can scarcely recognize high-level teaching, much less cherish it. Were tenure removed at my school, the best teachers would probably be canned and replaced with naive young things would would readily comply with every half-baked pedagogical fad that the administrators sent down the pike. It seems to me that dim administrators, not unions, are education’s greatest threat.

  8. Ben F, I could believe that administrators are, or could be, the greater threat at the micro level. But is there an aggregation of school administrators with political power comparable to the NEA and AFT?

  9. Bart,

    Administrators set the “reform” agenda. They constantly propose “innovations”. They pick the textbooks and choose the curricula. They have a huge impact on what happens in schools –much more so, I think, than the unions.

    By the way, “reform” and “innovation” have become bad words in my mind. They’re usually masks for stupid ideas. But most lay people are bamboozled. If you want to be disabused, read Diane Ravitch’s history of American education, “Left Back”. Our fetish for “innovation” has gotten us into this mess.

    The “innovation” we need is to stop innovating and start copying the old-fashioned practices that Asian and Euro systems still use: teach content rigorously.

  10. administrators on the same merit system are more closely aligned with effective teachers. Especially when the board is not afraid to fire an ineffective administrator.

  11. (Ben F): “For all you knee-jerk union bashers, consider this: unions/tenure often protect top teachers from administrators’ persecution.”

    Whether or not unions protect any particular teacher will depend on the incentives which face the union administrator who decides how seriously to take a teacher’s grievance. Since large classes reduce dues revenue and since acceleration can potentially reduce dues revenue, and since noticably successful teachers will often innspire envy and resentment in their less successful colleagues, quite often the incentives will incline union actors to screw successful teachers.

    (Ben F): “Think about it: most administrators are anti-intellectual, academically-disinclined wannabe politicians. Most can scarcely recognize high-level teaching, much less cherish it.”

    In Hawaii, administrators are members of our local AFSCME subsidiary the HGEA. They are almost always ex-teachers. Since Colleges of Education draw their enrollment from the less academically inclined student population, “anti-intellectual, academically-disinclined” applies to teachers as well.

    (Ben F): “Were tenure removed at my school, the best teachers would probably be canned and replaced with naive young things would would readily comply with every half-baked pedagogical fad that the administrators sent down the pike.”

    Milton Friedman said that the best protection a good worker has is a competitive market for his services. Unions succeed by convincing 50.1% of the workers that they are below average.

    I recommend Steven Mosher’s __Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese__ for a discussion of the role of campaigns in bureaucracy. The periodic fads which wash over the US school system are a consequence of the monopolistic structure of the system.

    Unions have a place; they short-circuit the chain of command. There is no good argument for industry-wide collective bargaining. FDR did a great deal of damage when he federalized labor law. Separation of powers, federalism, and markets institutionalize humility. “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment (a federal system of government, a competitive market in goods and services) can answer.

    There is no good argument for State (government, generally) operation of schools. The arguments for subsidy are weak.

    Socialism sucks.

  12. Fred the Fourth says:

    Pinetree wrote: “his experience highlights an issue that pervades every field. How do you let outliers perform their wonders and at the same time realize that not every effective teacher is THAT effective? Some (but very few) surgeons are DeBakeys and Barnards”

    In my field (software engineering) it is a cliche that the best programmers are 10-100 times as productive as the ordinary, middle-of-the-road programmer. Yet somehow companies like Adobe and Oracle manage to succeed in an intensely competitive environment. How is that possible ?

    1. Distribute projects according to correspondence with ability. This covers both the outliers and the average performers.
    2. Serious efforts at objective performance measurements
    3. Able and willing to fire or sideline weak performers and screw-ups (An extremely well-known SW company used to have an official policy that managers had to can the bottom 10% of their staff every year)

    How do you map these onto public schools? I don’t know, but notice what’s not on the list above: seniority.

    Sure, experience can be worth a lot. But mere longevity, like the raw number of hours you spend in the office, is an *input*. Companies that prosper measure *output*.

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