Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Death of a Teacher

Few weeks ago, there was the passing news about the death of Jaime Escalante at age 79, a Bolivian-born American high school Mathematics teacher and educator.  Most people would not know who Jaime Escalante is but might have seen or heard of the popular 1988 Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie Stand and Delivery.  It was based on the true story of Jaime Escalante’s effort in late 70’s and early 80’s to implement an AP (Advanced Placement) Calculus program at Garfield High School, East Los Angeles, California.  I have a special interest in the story as my wife has been a community college Math teacher and had taught AP Calculus classes at a local private school in early 90’s.   Further, we both care a lot about education and are suckers for movies on teacher-student relations.

Garfield High is a public school with predominantly Hispanic American students.  Situated in East Los Angles, it has had many of the typical problems faced by inner-city schools across the country.  The worst part of the negative spirals traversed by many in such schools is despondence;  students, teachers, parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, school administrators and city/town representatives have simply giving up and no longer believe they can change the outcome and escape from the hopeless fate.  Escalante did not give up.  He immigrated to U.S. in 1964 and worked his way through the system to become a certified teacher.  He went to Garfield High in 1974 and almost quit the job when he went through the initial shocks.  He fought for what he believed in instead.  He persuaded initially a small number of students to take Algebra.  He did not yield to the threat of dismissal and complaints by some administrators and colleagues (for not following the process and coming to school too early and go home too late).   Few years later, his luck changed when the new principal Henry Gradillas - the reformer and unsung hero of the story – arrived at the Garfield High.  With the emphasis of academic achievements and support by the new principal, Escalante was able to begin to offer AP Calculus in 1979.  Of course, much of these time-consuming, boring but nevertheless critical details were not included in the dramatized version of the story in the movie. 

The Escalante story made to the national news in 1982 when ETS (Education Testing Service) suspected cheating in AP Calculus (AB) exam by the students from Garfield High and asked 14 of the 18 students who passed the test to retake it.  Twelve of the 14 agreed with close proctoring.  They proved their ability, cleared their names, and had their scores restored.  Chance is that ETS was alerted first by the “anomaly” of an extremely high passing rate from a historically disadvantaged and “non-performing” school.   The rest is history.  For more insight, see for instance the column written by Jay Mathews who is an education columnist for The Washington Post and was one of the original reporters who reported about Jaime Escalante in 80’s. 

One might think stories like Escalante’s should have convinced everyone that it is possible to change the status quo in education and it is possible to learn and to advance regardless race, gender, and social-economic status.   But 30 years later, there is no evidence that situation in American education system has improved much.   Perhaps people had short memory.  Perhaps the effort and perseverance required was too great for too many.  But more than likely it is simply because people have not thought about it hard enough.

The recent call for increased priority and attention on education by the Obama government is a welcome change.  However, federal government and department of education have a limited influence on the needed reform given the unique decentralized-control of education policy and budget by state and local governments (paid for largely by property tax).  As an indicator of the level of anxiety and cumulated frustrations, in last Tuesday’s annual local school budget voting with a “historical high” turnout of about 25%, 60% of 459 school districts in New Jersey deemed the proposed cost cuttings (including layoffs of teachers and staff) and small increase of tax is not acceptable and rejected the proposed budgets, compared to a typical 30% reject rate in past years.   

The results are not surprising given the recession and economic uncertainty.  As the educational funding is directly linked to local property tax, education is not immune from being overly politicized.  Politicians and ideologues often capitalize on the anxiety of the voters to promote their agenda and priority.  In New Jersey, newly elected governor Chris Christie did not hesitate to cut state allocation of education funds to locals to make voters feel more pain and thus the need to push the burden to others including the teachers and staffs.  With an education system like America’s, it is not too hard to divide parents, residents, teachers/staffs and administrators and pit them against each other.  How then could the system possibly work well when everyone ends up busy paying lip services and defending their own interests rather than working for the real goal – help the next generation to be more competent and competitive.

There is no secret that teachers’ total compensation is not high at all compared to many other professions even after you include the retirement and healthcare benefits and discount the summer months.  As there will never be a consensus of a “right” pay or “fair” pay in a market economy, I would leave that debate to a separate discussion at another day.   Instead, I think it is far more productive to talk about what differences can teachers and students make and how, as many of us (including myself and some teachers) are often oblivious about the unique challenges and opportunities of teaching and learning but thought we knew.  That is what the news of the death of Mr. Escalante really reminded me of.

Over the years, as I hear stories from my wife and read articles and writings from other sources, I began to realize that while the principles are few and simple, the implementation and sustaining is really hard.   Mr. Escalante was probably being humble and guilty of oversimplifying when he said "The key to my success with youngsters is a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike".   The reality is he would not have been as successful and the program would not have been created and sustained if he did not have strong support of the new principal and few of his colleagues.   He would probably have not been able to get as far if parents keep throwing roadblocks and fought him.  If one digs deeper and watches the story more closely, one would realize the real secret of Mr. Escalante’s success was rooted in the fact that he expected and demanded more of his students and he placed his confidence on his students.  That is the most powerful motivator for students.  Indeed time after time we are wowed by how much more one can achieve once she/he goes into a positive spiral of responding to the higher expectation by delivering more and acquiring the self-confidence.  In fact, this basic principle works in school and in common work places as well but often forgotten by teachers, parents and management.

If one digs even further, one would realize that what commonly and conveniently referred to or labeled as “success” can be a misleading measure.  While quantification or test scores is a critical confirmation of the effort, it comes AFTER the successful efforts.  It merely confirms one’s success and does not replace the process and experience of excelling oneself.  Everyone knows the most rewarding and satisfying experience in life is “be who you can be” or “fulfill your potential”.   That is the true measure of success; it is your own feeling and confirmation that you can excel to the extent possible regardless the final scores.  Following that path will take a student to places that she/he is good at, whatever that may be.  That is what a good teacher can do for his or her students in addition to expecting more of them.  That is more the reason that one needs to work hard.  Only then, you would know how far you can go.  And one ought not to be confused by “work smart, don’t work hard”.  What it really means is to work effectively (with better study skills, discussions, right helps,..).  Cutting corners and delivering low or minimum quality results should never be rewarded. Incidentally, as reported by Amanda Ripley on Time Magazine on April 8th, there has been some very interesting and pioneering work with randomized experiments on financial incentives on student achievement by Roland Fryer Jr., a Harvard economist.   One of the results of his rigorous and extensive studies was the finding of the efficacy of rewarding students for their effort (as opposed to for the illusive results) which confirms once more that good result is highly correlated with efforts.

There is no question that other than parents, teachers are the most important resources in our life.  I would suggest President Obama take one step further to ask everyone to go back to and reflect on the basics.   As there is a simple truth in teaching and learning: students do respond to higher expectation and confidence.  The best thing and first thing a teacher can and must do is (especially when parents and the society failed to do) to believe in the students, to expect and demand more of them.  The rest is just hard work; pure and simple!

Meanwhile, it would not a bad idea for you and I to watch a few more serious teacher-student movies.  In private lesson settings, the 1964 fairy tale movie My Fair Lady and the 1962 The Miracle Worker about the blind and deaf Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan certainly top the list.  In group or typical class-room settings, there are different dynamics and challenges.  While Stand and Delivery is about a Math teacher, music, as a performing art, lends itself easily to silver screen as seen in the 1995 Mr. Holland's Opus, the 1999 Music of the Heart, and the 2004 French movie Les choristes (aka The Chorus).   Of course, there aren’t always happy endings in reality despite well-intended actions and sometimes heroic efforts, like the 2008 French movie Entre les murs (aka The Class) and the 1989 Dead Poets Society. Was it worth the price?  I would think so as the alternative is much worse.  Well, want to see more tough kids and classes and turn-around?  You will find some of them in 1967 To Sir, with Love and the 2007 Freedom Writers.  Then there is the 2009 Oscar winning movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire  where the focus was more about the struggle and triumph of this abused high school girl, with her teacher’s help, in an almost impossible environment.  There are also better days and “easier life” though.  As a confused freshmen student in a highly competitive pressure cooker, you may still have a chance to win the girl and earn a prestige diploma like James Hart in the 1973 The Paper Chase.  In a larger schema of things, the 1954 Japanese movie Nijushi no hitomi (aka Twenty-Four eyes) zoomed into how simple and plain love and dedication by a teacher can help her young students through difficult time during and after the war waged by their own government.  It delivered more reality and messages without miracles and fanfare and color.   Finally, for some, the teacher-student relation can be lifelong.  And there is always something that the student can learn and teacher can teach as seen in the 1999 Tuesdays with Morrie based on a true story. Need I say more?

Talk to you soon!

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