Friday, April 2, 2010

The Escalante Conundrum: Possible versus Probable

The death of wonder teacher Jaime Escalante Tuesday at the age of 79 has provoked some thoughtful remembrances of his remarkable life and the even more remarkable math achievement he provoked among the many students he taught at Los Angeles' Garfield High.

It got me thinking, though, about the difference between the possible and the probable. What I mean is that Escalante showed that it's possible for students who are far behind in school to achieve at high levels if they work hard enough and have the right support. Plenty of other teachers, who don't get movies made about them, have had their own incredible success stories. Nevertheless, we know, with disheartening regularity that few children like the ones at Garfield rise to those heights. In fact, student poverty and academic performance continue to have a strong, strong depressing correlation.

Elizabeth Green's wonderful NY Times Magazine story from a few weeks back gets at this issue a bit: She notes that it's unlikely that public schools can find enough top-notch teachers, much less those of Escalantecaliber, to satisfy the huge demand for teachers, a demand that, despite our current budget cutting frenzy, will return before long. Even well regarded programs such as Teach for America provide only a pittance of the teachers schools need and will need. Some reporter somewhere may done this already, but I'd love to see someone look at the possible future supply of potential top-notch teachers versus the need. If you wanted to, you could limit your examination to just the high-needs schools and leave out the suburban publics. I would suspect that even a best-case scenario would reveal a huge supply problem.

As much as I love the Escalante-type stories, they obscure the greater difficulty of relying on such folks to close the achievement gap or whatever our ambitious goal of the day is. That such teacher-led transformation is possible, Escalante proved was the case and it still is. Making such transformations probable, though, will probably require the kind of teacher training that Green highlights, but also a range of other changes, inside schools, and, just as importantly, outside schools. I'd love to be proved wrong. I'd like all of us to become Lake Woebegone.


  1. Sorry for highlights. Remnant from a spell check and some technical problems. New to blogging, sorry.

  2. Great post. This is the reality that we're so often allowed to ignore every time we get a ninety-second feel-good Escalante story on the nightly news. It's the success story that heads of big districts like Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas get to point at to try and prove that you don't need to tackle poverty to improve achievement, just hire better teachers.

    We like these stories because they make us feel good and shift the blame on others. I appreciate the coverage.

  3. We do need great teachers, and more of them.

    We also need to tackle the problems of generation poverty and the lesser background knowledge and literacy skills kids in poverty bring to schools.

    We also need to bring to schools a sense of urgency that these kids are behind and we're going to have to make heroic efforts year after year to close that gap.

    If we're trying to assign blame, as RE states above, there is certainly plenty to go around. The true leaders will be the ones who emerge and say "I own my part of this" and have a "whatever it takes" kind of plan to turn the thing around.

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO

  4. What happened to Jaime Escalante, and the school he taught at, after his success in the classroom is as interesting as how he succeeded. To get the full story, visit

  5. (Disclaimer that I'm posting as a chronic "It's a miracle!" skeptic.) Just to be clear on what Ms. Reisenwitz and others see as "the full story," the extent to which Escalante's classes self-selected for extremely -- if not fanatically -- motivated students is revealed in this excerpt from the Reason article:

    "...the real Garfield students required years of solid preparation before they could take calculus. This created a problem for Escalante. Garfield was a three-year high school, and the junior high schools that fed it offered only basic math. Even if the entering sophomores took advanced math every year, there was not enough time in their schedules to take geometry, algebra II, math analysis, trigonometry, and calculus.

    "So Escalante established a program at East Los Angeles College where students could take these classes in intensive seven-week summer sessions."

    So, what Reason is telling us is that the students in Escalante's classes took FOUR intensive seven-week summer sessions beforehand (simultaneously? Sequentially? Either way...) As anyone who has set a toe inside a middle or high school classroom knows, it's the rare teen (putting it mildly) who is motivated to that degree. Is there anyone reading this who was that driven as a teen, or would be now, for that matter?

    This is not to minimize Escalante's achievements at Garfield with an extremely highly motivated subset of students, but anyone scrutinizing his success needs to recognize the rigorous self-selection process at work.

    The facts that Escalante clearly had severe difficulties playing well with others and that he couldn't replicate his achievement at his subsequent place of employment are essential parts of the story too. Reason casts blame on the many, many people he couldn't get along with, though when so much friction goes on in one person's interpersonal relations with pretty much everyone around him -- well, if there's blame to be cast, think about it.

    A key point in the Reason article is that the Hollywood version of Escalante's story makes it appear that he took a bunch of average students and breezily, thanks to his fabulous teaching talent and high expectations, inspired them to lofty new heights -- while the reality, Reason points out, is that it took Escalante years of hard work and experience to develop the tools to reach that success. Reason goes on to blame teachers for seeing the Hollywood version and thinking it'll be E-Z. But anyone not blinded by a teacher-bashing frenzy can see that actually, teachers are the last group to be snookered into believing it's a breeze to work miracles with a group of disadvantaged teens. The audience segments who in reality took that lesson from the Hollywood version are policymakers, press and other commentators, as the various "it was a miracle!" commentaries in the L.A. Times demonstrated last week.

  6. If we had a more flexible public education system and allowed entrepreneurs greater latitude in creating education solutions, it would not all rest on the backs of teachers. It wold truly be a community effort, because business and social causes can work hand in hand in so many ways.