Sunday, June 09, 2002

Stand and Deliver

In Stand and Deliver Revisited, reason contributor Jerry Jesness looks at the fate of Jaime Escalante, the great high school calculus teacher made famous by the movie “Stand and Deliver.”

Thanks to the popular 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, many Americans know of the success that Jaime Escalante and his students enjoyed at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. During the 1980s, that exceptional teacher at a poor public school built a calculus program rivaled by only a handful of exclusive academies.

It is less well-known that Escalante left Garfield after problems with colleagues and administrators, and that his calculus program withered in his absence. That untold story highlights much that is wrong with public schooling in the United States and offers some valuable insights into the workings -- and failings -- of our education system.

Escalante’s students surprised the nation in 1982, when 18 of them passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found the scores suspect and asked 14 of the passing students to take the test again. Twelve agreed to do so (the other two decided they didn’t need the credit for college), and all 12 did well enough to have their scores reinstated.

In the ensuing years, Escalante’s calculus program grew phenomenally. In 1983 both enrollment in his class and the number of students passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled, with 33 taking the exam and 30 passing it. In 1987, 73 passed the test, and another 12 passed a more advanced version ("BC") usually given after the second year of calculus.

By 1990, Escalante’s math enrichment program involved over 400 students in classes ranging from beginning algebra to advanced calculus. Escalante and his fellow teachers referred to their program as "the dynasty," boasting that it would someday involve more than 1,000 students.

That goal was never met. In 1991 Escalante decided to leave Garfield. All his fellow math enrichment teachers soon left as well. By 1996, the dynasty was not even a minor fiefdom. Only seven students passed the regular ("AB") test that year, with four passing the BC exam -- 11 students total, down from a high of 85.

In any field but education, the combination of such a dramatic rise and such a precipitous fall would have invited analysis. If a team begins losing after a coach is replaced, sports fans are outraged. The decline of Garfield’s math program, however, went largely unnoticed.

As Reason's Editor-n-Chief Nick Gillespie has said: "This is as damning an indictment of public school bureaucracy as you've seen." Read the whole story.

It made my stomach hurt. And it reminded me of how in 6th grade at a new school, Raymond Elementary, my teacher, Mrs. McGraw, misplaced my math test placement scores. So instead of retesting me, she started me with the fourth graders. My school used a new math program called "Directed Lessons." At the end of my 6th-grade year, I was “officially” performing below grade level because of where I was in the complex "Directed Lesson Program." I was ahead of the fourth graders but behind the sixth graders, so I spent most of that year in the library doing math dittos--waiting for my lesson. In Junior High, it took me until 8th grade to get back into an honors math class. (I was doing pre-algebra in fifth grade.)

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