Monday, April 5, 2010

Remembering Jaime Escalante

When I taught my first math class in the Peace Corps, in September of 1974, I'd never heard of Jaime Escalante. That class, in O-level math, was directed at Fourth form (13-14 years of age) students at a comprehensive (public) school in Barbados. The syllabus included material that might even have been tough for American public school students at the same age level: matrices (see diagram of the type we explored), spherical trigonometry - including finding distances between cities on the Earth's surface (differing latitudes, longitudes), linear programming, and regular geometry with some basic algebra.

I was confident, however, because while I possessed no teaching diploma, I was a subject specialist (degree holder) in Astronomy and had under my belt nearly the equivalent of a Mathematics minor- including differential equations, Advanced calculus, Abstract Algebra and linear algebra. This specialization provided me with the resources and background to confidently teach a subject I'd never taught before - and attain terrific success in the external exams (marked by the O-level center at Cambridge University, UK).

Similarly, Jaime Escalante - made famous in the 1988 movie 'Stand and Deliver'- came from a specialist background, this time in engineering. He had the subject he proposed to teach down pat, and this was especially crucial when he commenced teaching AP Calculus to the students of Garfield High School in East LA. Predicated on one word, "ganas" (desire) Jaime drove his mostly Latino students to level of success never dreamed possible for an ordinary public school.

How did this transpire? I believe it was perhaps three-fifths Escalante's dedication and passion, but two-fifths his specialist background. As opposed to simply gaining a degree in "Education" - no specialist exposure to the level needed, Jaime had more than ample knowledge and insight from his engineering background.

This insight enabled him to arrive at the most expeditious methods of getting the AP Calc material over to his students- including the format for the drills he used. (One particularly fascinating one depicted in the movie was to show the students how to integrate by parts. I thought at the time, watching this, how many education degree holders would conceive of that? Not many!)

The tragedy is that Jaime's ingenious methods were never replicated or passed on. Why? One reason is that Jaime himself was removed from his department chair in 1990. A year later, dispirited, he returned to his native Bolivia. He came back subsequently to the States, but -now out of the teachig circuit- Garfield's results diminished.

Many have blamed the teachers' unions, but I think it goes deeper to the quality of teacher education. If one scans who the people are that are actually teaching in public schools, one finds few subject specialists. They are nearly all what I call specialists in pedagogy - but not the subject. Little wonder many lack the confidence to teach difficult subjects, or difficult aspects.

The reason Escalante's methods weren't replicated at Garfield, then, had less to do with the unions than the lack of confidence of the teachers who would have had to follow in his (very large) footsteps. Where the unions enter, perhaps, was in expediting Jaime's removal as head of the Garfield Math dept. when he could have remained and overseen the inculcation of his methods in other staff. Another issue the teachers unions had with him - from what I gather- is that he'd often pack his classrooms with as many as 50 students - way over the 35 limit. This didn't meant the students learned less, but perhaps lots of union members believed the same expectation to contend with enormous class size would be on them. (Footnote: One thing most teachers deplore is an overly large class size! In my case it was always around 27-30)

But why did Jaime have to deal with 50 students at once in his classes? Likely, because so many wanted to do his AP Calc classes, but there were too few confident or trained staff to pick up the slack. What needed to be done, was for other qualified members of the staff to be drill trained in Jaime's methods until they could virtually sleepwalk using them. I suspect Jaime was in part let go, because the 'powers that be' knew they would never get the qualified staff they needed to enable a successful replication. A pity.

In my own case, in Peace Corps math teaching - I had ample resources for backup if I needed them. I seldom did, other than an issue of adminstration - how long to spend on any given topic, etc. My methods were always to incite questioning and curiosity and let the students then contribute in any ways they could. For example, I might write on the board the wrong form for a rotation matrix - then let an eager beaver student correct me. They became more and more encouraged each time they "bested the teacher". (No, we didn't have computers in those days, this was 1974- at least seven years before the first Commodore 64s came onstream)

As for Jaime, he was an inspiration to all math teachers, and one hopes that all those students at Garfield and other public high schools will soon find a way to revive and replicate his teaching methods for those AP classes.

The students demand it, and it would be the most enduring tribute to Jaime's legacy!

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