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stand and deliever; the untold story
July 21, 2009 5:13 AM   Subscribe

Interesting article about the movie Stand and Deliever In 1988, the movie stand and deliver told the story of Jaime Escalante (information about him is here) and what happened in the class of '82 at Garfield high school. Essentially it is movie about a teacher who dares to challenge and believe in students to do what they, and those around them, think is impossible to achieve.

What is interesting about the untold story it explains how the system would end up turning its back on the man and ideas who helped create a different and arguably successful teaching program and beliefs.
posted by Prunedish (48 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Carpe diem and all that. To Sir With Love was good too.
posted by tellurian at 5:42 AM on July 21, 2009


Perhaps we all know others like Escalante who have lived for the benefit of others. It is sad that these heroes tend to be viewed as troublemakers by bureaucratic loyalists in any field. There is no doubt that the views of his former students would tell of a different Escalante. One who was caring and patient in the classroom. One who was persistent enough to not accept mediocrity. These are the views that really count.
posted by boots77 at 6:01 AM on July 21, 2009


I can't comment on what went on at Garfield High itself, but the author is a bit thin on sourcing when it comes to what the rest of the math teaching community believed about Stand and Deliver and what the results on pedagogy were. The fact that Stand and Deliver made Escalante famous also meant that he was very upfront and willing to discuss, personally, how he designed his classes. My math teacher was well aware that Escalante used the summers to teach calculus in order to cover the full BC Calculus curriculum. On the other hand, Jesness is an actual teacher, so maybe he knew people who weren't actually aware that the movie was not an accurate depiction of how much students could learn over the course of a single year.

As to the rest of Jesness's complaints about how the problems Escalante ran into are an indictment of the reality of public education, this is clearly a person who's never worked at a large, impersonal bureaucracy in the private sector... there are hundreds of stories of people used and abused in the workplace, but they don't attract the attention of Reason because criticizing corporate culture conflicts with their mission statement.
posted by deanc at 6:08 AM on July 21, 2009 [11 favorites]


Stand and Deliver informed my decision to leave corporate America and teach in the inner-city. I experienced the same frustration with the lack of preparation that the students had for succeeding in high school. I had kids tell me that in Middle School that they played cards all day. I believe them.

The kids all had aspirations of being doctors, lawyers and the president. NONE of them had equated these lofty ambitions with succeeding in school. IMHO these kids have plenty of self-esteem, and to para-phrase Daria, what they need is esteem for others.

What drove me out of teaching wasn't the asbestos, black mold, enormous class sizes or complete breakdown of society inside the walls of our school. It was the lack of respect that I recieved daily from these spawn of Satan.

In sharp relief, was the one class I enjoyed teaching. Debate. I had all of the incoming Freshmen who were in the magnet program. They loved the intellectual stimulation of the ideas and the process, and I loved them for loving it.

The class was a huge success, so huge that the second time it was offered, it was filled with 50 kids, 48 of whom had no desire whatsoever to be in the class. That class was a misery to teach.

Yes, one good teacher can make a difference, but there's WAY more going on in our public schools than just a lack of support for advanced courses.

It's all Maslow. Most of the kids have to settle their basic needs, food, shelter, safety, before they can turn their attention to higher needs, like intellectual stimulation.

There are dedicated teachers out there, God Bless them. But mostly you will find that the folks in the classroom have given up and given in. Many high school teachers go through the motions. They lecture, give assignments and if someone responds and does them, great, if they don't, they don't. Let the grades fall where they may.

We're watching the fourth season of The Wire. I am able to predict dialog and situations because it is so true to life. And that should frighten EVERYONE.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:10 AM on July 21, 2009 [21 favorites]


Thank you for posting this -- I've written (briefly) before about my experience teaching in a school in Southeast DC and what a challenge it was.

There were clearly lots of things going on in that situation, but I think it is a problem that we've created this cultural narrative of the one amazing teacher who turns everything around through sheer inspiringness and force of will. There is TONS of work that goes into teaching anyone anything, and we seem to be too willing to gloss over the work and just get to the inspirational outcome.

When I taught I had multiple kids in my seventh and eighth grade classes who literally couldn't recognize their own names when you wrote them down (not even close -- I wrote Antjuan's name and Cedric thought it was his). There was no way that my just caring a lot and inspiring them (and I DID care very deeply) meant that they were suddenly going to be amazing students who surpassed everyone's expectations. As the article points out, kids need a solid foundation in a subject before they can learn anything, and it's frustrating to both teachers and students if the teacher has an idea in the back of his or her mind that the kids will respond immediately to his or her energy, passion and enthusiasm. It just doesn't work that way; it certainly helps, but you can't expect the inspiration to take the place of the work. If Cedric, for example, had been so inspired by me (and he wasn't) that he wanted to read, he still wouldn't actually have the ability to read immediately. He'd have to work (and work HARD) to learn. Believing that just trying will make it so is at best naive and at worst actively hurtful to the entire educational process.

The other really excellent point is the one about the administration. At this point I've worked in well-run schools and badly-run schools and it really all comes down to the head. Experience has taught me that I would rather work at a difficult, underperforming school with a phenomenal, understanding, open-minded principal than an academically strong, well-established private school with motivated students and parents but a micro-managing, innovating-fearing, inconsistent head (NB: I have not worked at a "bad" school with a good head, but I have worked at a "good" school with both good and bad heads and I can tell you that it makes a WORLD of difference). Teachers, God love 'em, are often very, very focused on their classrooms and this does not always translate well to leadership positions (anecdotally, of course -- this is not including your sainted grandmother who transcended the norm and became the greatest principal ever. Actually, my mother-in-law is kind of in that category but right now I am speaking from the majority of my experience). Some teachers do wonderfully well in leadership roles and have vision and are able to help people cooperate and facilitate improvements in their schools, but there are plenty who maintain the focused, blinders effect when they move out of the classroom and into an office. Someone can be a great teacher and a terrible head of school. Finding a good head takes a lot more than just finding a good teacher and promoting him or her.

There's really a lot of foot-dragging in schools; teachers, parents and administrations are often resistant to change, and implementing improvements can be a harrowing process. The narrative of one teacher struggling against the odds and the school itself to bring his students through the storm by sheer force of will is ridiculous. You can't do anything in a school without good leadership. It really feels to me like until we prioritize work over inspiration and good leadership over the foot-dragging, non-wave-making mentality things are really not going to get any better.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:11 AM on July 21, 2009 [16 favorites]


The most striking thing to me about this story was not bureaucratic intransigence. It was that it took years for Escalante to establish a program that would have both the leverage to justify itself and would create the kind of momentum that would insure that kids in feeder classes would be more adequately prepared, and would allow kids to see from their peers' examples that success was possible -- and therefore make them willing to give the honors math classes a chance.

Quick fixes are an illusion. The kinds of results that Escalante was able to generate took years of commitment and strategy. So I think it's somewhat misplaced to lay all the blame at the feed of The Bureaucracy, or the Teacher's Union. The real problem seems to be a lack of long-term, systematic approaches to improvement and reform, a la No Child Left Behind. And in the end, it seems that movies like Stand and Deliver -- or, for that matter -- like Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers, are part of the problem, not just because they perpetuate the myth that the efforts of one dedicated and charismatic teacher is sufficient to create meaningful change, but also because they make it seem that the change we want to see can be achieved within the time constraints of a single school year.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:34 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I went to an inner-city high school (against my will, mind you) with a few decent members of the teaching staff, but incompetent administrators. It was horrible to see the few good teachers struggle for change and fail. The principal basically only did things that would make the sports teams better off; the football team reportedly had thousands of dollars; individual teachers had only $100 for classroom supplies yearly. The secretaries were semi-illiterate and incompetent, and one lost my final-round application for a $10,000 scholarship (something I still harbor resentment for - I was a shoo-in.)
posted by LSK at 6:35 AM on July 21, 2009


'Stand and Deliver' is also a neat Adam and the Ants video.
posted by box at 6:36 AM on July 21, 2009


Was just discussing this movie with someone the other day -- apparently Edward James Olmos is "that BSG guy" to a lot of people, sadly. Great movie and inspiring tale -- though as the rare exception rather than the rule, depressing, too.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 6:44 AM on July 21, 2009


apparently Edward James Olmos is "that BSG guy" to a lot of people

It was a bit of a shock, after suffering through some of BSG, to watch some episodes of Miami Vice and see Olmos in his younger, mustachioed, more angular incarnation. I'd pretty much forgotten he was on MV, although I did have memories of him being in a cop show.

He'll likely be "that BSG guy" for the rest of his career. *sigh*
posted by hippybear at 6:51 AM on July 21, 2009


No, dammit, he'll forever be origami-folding Gaff in Blade Runner!
posted by FuManchu at 6:54 AM on July 21, 2009 [14 favorites]


My teaching experience, for classes, is small, but my tutoring was not. I mostly focused on math. I could have college students, high school students, etc. When you tutor, to effectively do so you must learn the mind of the student. "How does this person learn? How can I most efficiently get knowledge out of me and into them? What is most effective for that student when it comes to mastering a skill?" This usually entails a great deal of unlearning bad habits and removing misconceptions.

It's detective work, really. "Why is this kid having trouble in math analysis?" would start me down this trail and I would often end up with something that happened years and years ago, some critical part that they just did not get on a deep level. They could go through the motions, but the understanding was not there. Yeah, algebra was often a critical turning point, but the most devastating one I found was fractions.

Fractions. A lot of people just never quite got on with how we do fractions and it negatively impacts their math skills ever after. I have seen it to a lesser extent with English and to the critical thinking aspects of science, but it stands out so much in math. So, if there's one thing that bugs me about "neglected high school kids magically become scholars," it's the idea that kids can be starved of good education for ten or twelve years, then we can just fix it all at the last second by pure inspiration and desire. The concept is very ... American.

I can only say this: Get them early, get them early, get them early. High school is usually too damn late. Oh, you can inspire and create some good work habits, but in terms of mastery, high school turnaround has a low payoff compared to a decent education before, say, fifth grade. It's never too late, but damn if it doesn't have a bigger payback if you start in time.

We don't need people who are passionate about high schoolers as much as we need those who understand that the critical years come before they're even tweens. Get those kids early. Get them for math, for English, and for science. Early. After thirteen, you're mostly doing patchwork.
posted by adipocere at 7:02 AM on July 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


This thread only has 12 comments so far but it already deserves a favourite for the many insightful and thought-provoking comments that have been posted and the many that I hope will follow. Thank you.
posted by liquorice at 7:03 AM on July 21, 2009


He'll likely be "that BSG guy" for the rest of his career. *sigh*

Yeah, because being one of the best parts of a great show (with a lousy ending, sigh) is really a dark mark on his reputation.

The people who care will know him for all of his work, those who refer to him as "BSG guy" ought to be smacked in the head not for that, but for referring to Ian McKellen as Magneto/Gandalf, or Patrick Stewart as Xavier/Picard.
posted by explosion at 7:07 AM on July 21, 2009


Fractions. A lot of people just never quite got on with how we do fractions ...

You're telling me. I taught a remedial math class at the University here once. When asked to convert the number 5.61 into a fraction, this student wrote 5 6/1. As in, 11.

Needless to say, this student is currently "decomposing in my locker".
posted by King Bee at 7:11 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Bad school are needed so that Hollywood can dip in to "based on a true story," find a great teacher who excites a class, and makes yet another movie about overcoming lethargy in inner city schools.

In fact, the article appears in a libertarian magazine and suggests that it is the bureaucratic mess that accounts for bad schools and that somehow things should be made better. But of course no explanation of how to do it. Thank the good lord, though, that they did not take the usual swipe at teachers' unions.

Teaching will improve as more jobs go to India dn China dn hands-on jobs such as teaching get competitive for the many who will be strouggling for wok in America in the days to come.
posted by Postroad at 7:19 AM on July 21, 2009


I was a terrible student in high school. I graduated with a D average. However, I attended a good quality Canadian high school and took advanced courses (which were really the normal courses) so I still learned at least by osmosis. All the quality teaching in the world didn't matter to me at the time. I wasn't interested or motivated.

It turned around for me when I decided to get a liberal arts college diploma (college in Canada being similar to junior college in the US). Suddenly I was learning things that were interesting and relevant to me. My grades shot up. I got into University and graduated second in my class and went on to graduate school. What do I think was the big change?

Choice.

Once I was out of the child warehousing robot manufacturing system I could choose what I wanted to do. And once I got to make the choice I was invested in making it succeed (I am, by the way, still paying off the financial portion of that investment..grrrrr...).

Trying to figure out how to motivate people to do what YOU want them to do and how YOU want them to do it is entirely the wrong thing. Even if YOU are a great educator and master motivator. It's not about YOU and your goals.
posted by srboisvert at 7:24 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why doesn't Reason follow up their lament about public bureaucracies squashing the free thinking individual with some stories about some of the amazing free market solutions to the problem?

Edison Schools was widely hailed at the beginning of the 21st century as the leader in what "school reformers" saw as the promising new privatization trend. Edison claimed that it could run public schools for less money than school districts could, and that it would improve student achievement while making a profit for its shareholders. Edison attracted ideological support from backers of privatization and school vouchers, including the Wall Street Journal[1] and the Hoover Institution. [2]

...

Edison's stock was publicly traded on the NASDAQ for four years. The company reported only one profitable quarter while it was publicly traded.[3] After reaching a high of close to USD$40 per share in early 2001, shares fell to 14 cents. Also in 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged that Edison failed to disclose that as much as 41 percent of its revenue that year consisted of money that it never saw: $154 million. By 2002, Edison was courting Roger Milliken for a possible bailout. The company was eventually taken private in 2003, in a buyout facilitated by Leeds Weld and Liberty Partners on behalf of the Florida Retirement System, which handles pension investments for the state's public school teachers; The deal valued the company at $180 million[4] or $1.76 per share[5]. The three pension fund trustees at the time that endorsed the deal were: Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, and Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

...

In 2008, the School District of Philadelphia, Edison's largest single client with 20 schools (Edison was originally planned to take over the entire district), later announced plans to dismiss the company as a manager, noting that it and other private firms would be eligible to reapply.[8] By June 18 that year, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission voted to seize six schools from outside contractors— four of them run by Edison— citing lack of improvement.[9]

posted by The Straightener at 7:32 AM on July 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


He'll likely be "that BSG guy" for the rest of his career.

I kept waiting for Crockett and Tubbs to show up on the Galactica.

Now that would have been a twist, people.
posted by rokusan at 7:37 AM on July 21, 2009



We don't need people who are passionate about high schoolers as much as we need those who understand that the critical years come before they're even tweens.


I would teach elementary school if I could. When I tell elementary school teachers that I think they have the most important job in the world, they look at me like I'm insane, even the good ones that care about more than the children's self-esteem. When I was earning my Master's degree, the early education building next door (unfortunately referred to its acronym SPED) was filled with a legion of clueless, immature, party-hard half-wits. I don't know what drew people with particularly poor student skills to early education at this university, but the many that I met were mostly concerned with not getting an underage drinking citation because that would keep them from certification.

But if I could teach young children without the appalling low pay, stifling bureaucratic enforcement by administrators with crackerjack graduate degrees, and colleagues who are more interested in going to that crazy piano bar they heard about down in the city than they are furthering their practice or professional development, I would drop post-secondary education in a heartbeat. I love teaching college students, but I suspect that the critical age to really intervene in a students life is K-6, and I suspect that is where students are being consistently failed the most in public education.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:41 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


We're watching the fourth season of The Wire. I am able to predict dialog and situations because it is so true to life. And that should frighten EVERYONE.

I went to one of the (supposedly) best K8 middle schools in Baltimore (at about the same time as the book The Corner that 'the Wire' was ultimately based on was written.) It was one of the best schools in Balt. largely due to it's higher than average percentage of white middle-class kids (like me.) Inside the school it was a mini-Apartheid system. All of the white kids were in the top two sections (each grade was divided into many sections) and got to take Latin and some other electives. Everyone else was black (including the teachers) and we passed each other in the halls. But even with that, there were 40 kids in my classroom, comically ancient textbooks, no recess, 15 minutes for lunch, no P.E.; eventually they phased out art and music.

The thing which is great about the Wire is that it is the anti-thesis of movies like 'Stand and Deliver.' It's not really about individual choices (so much for reason.com) but about larger forces pushing down from above. The problems of the US public school system have nothing to do with pedagogy or curriculum: they are about politics and economics, but mainly politics. The society that produces a George Bush, has to produce an Avon Barksdale. The two are inextricably linked.
posted by geos at 7:41 AM on July 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


Please, King Bee, what is 5.61 as a fraction? My 30 years out of school are showing.

As a parent with children in Houston schools, I have seen a lot of sincere efforts on the parts of teachers, students, and parents to promote knowledge and learning. As an employer in Houston, I have seen a lot of adults who did not get the education that the should have, for whatever reason.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 7:46 AM on July 21, 2009


Trying to figure out how to motivate people to do what YOU want them to do and how YOU want them to do it is entirely the wrong thing. Even if YOU are a great educator and master motivator.

Actually, trying to figure out how to motivate people to do what you want them to do is what good teachers actually do. They just convince you that it's what you want to do, also.

One of the things about Garfield High is that there were likely very few students who had taking BC Calculus as a goal when they showed up. Many likely didn't even know what calculus was. Somehow, though, there were dozens of students that wanted to learn calculus and wanted to do well on the AP exam. Why? Well, in part because the teaching was changed in order to convince able students that they should have that as a worthwhile goal.

The real story behind Stand and Deliver shows what a large, long-term project that really is.
posted by deanc at 7:48 AM on July 21, 2009


5.61, Five and sixty-one one-hundredths, 5 61/100, 561/100, 1122/200, etc.
posted by box at 7:54 AM on July 21, 2009


I appreciate the point that developing a system that can really turn kids around takes time.

I taught middle school students in the city for fourteen years (still teach now, but elsewhere). For most of that time, I had a principal who was very willing to shield teachers against the larger bureaucracy - while still demanding that we work hard and find ways to improve. I was a mediocre math teacher at first, though I was strong in other areas. I worked incredibly hard over a period of three to five years ... and that's what it took, to experiment and see how things worked out, to be able to gather evidence on where the holes were in my own teaching. By the end, I was a good enough math teacher that others were told to come observe.

By the end, because of AYP and No Child Left Behind, the principal wasn't able to shield us anymore. But you know, that Big Evil Bureaucracy out there really was made up of people who wanted things to get better for kids. Sure, there were some turf battles and CYA moves ... but in general, their hearts were in the right place. The problem was that every year there was a panic, and a new system or addition brought in to "fix" math in the school.

And when the principal can't shield you, and the bureaucracy has their new Silver Bullet, everyone has to get with the new program - regardless of whether kids from that particular classroom were passing the test. Because I was experienced, I was able to integrate some (and break the rules and ditch other pieces). But new teachers never had the chance to consolidate what they knew. They were whipped around from system to system, and could never figure out what worked because they never did the same thing twice.

The well-meaning but panicked efforts of the bureaucracy made the fatal assumption that the problem was always with curriculum and instruction, and that the changes must always be made through new curriculum and mandatory professional development. But the solutions nearly always fell flat, because they were insufficiently individualized. Experienced teachers whose students were successful were told they had to change what they were doing, while new teachers never had the chance to gain the experience they needed to make a given curriculum work.
posted by Chanther at 8:23 AM on July 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


The society that produces a George Bush, has to produce an Avon Barksdale.

Avon Barksdale would soooo kick George Bush's ass.
posted by storybored at 8:31 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


foxy-hedgehog: And in the end, it seems that movies like Stand and Deliver -- or, for that matter -- like Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers, are part of the problem, not just because they perpetuate the myth that the efforts of one dedicated and charismatic teacher is sufficient to create meaningful change, but also because they make it seem that the change we want to see can be achieved within the time constraints of a single school year.

This is a powerful but depressing statement. I would like to argue against it, but I'm having a hard time coming up with anything.

sboisvert: Trying to figure out how to motivate people to do what YOU want them to do and how YOU want them to do it is entirely the wrong thing. Even if YOU are a great educator and master motivator. It's not about YOU and your goals.

An old prof of mine used to like to say 'People learn, nobody ever teaches anybody anything.'*

So to that extent, I think you're right: The "right" way for schools to work is to get kids to learn -- position them so that it's easier for them to use what's around them for learning.

That said, there's a mentality that's evident in colleges and universities now (which I'm not accusing you of sharing, but which mis-appropriates some of the same kind of language you're using), that's exemplified by what's referred to as "student centered learning." In practice, it often means dumbing down the curriculum so students get whatever they are interested in -- the problem being that 17-22 year old students in hormone-rich, alcohol-vapor-infused environments rarely have a very reliable predictive vision about what choice they're going to wish five years from now that they'd made today. Put another way: At least based on what my wife tells me (she's been teaching at the college level for almost ten years, now), there's not much pressure on students to do much critical thinking**, and a lot of that seems to come from a twisted "customer service" mentality that thinks it's all about the students.

That same prof who said nobody teaches anybody anything? He had brilliant and powerful ways of challenging students. It was all about them for him, for sure: But that didn't mean just giving them what they wanted. It meant helping them figure out what they needed.

--
*I actually think he was wrong about that, but I also think it's an incredibly useful attitude. Because it seems to me that the instances I've identified where people are "taught" are not such good examples: propaganda, conditioning, mindfucking, etc.
**College-aged mefites are not a valid counter-example: There just aren't that many of them. Same for all the critical-thinkin' masses on the 'net.

posted by lodurr at 8:36 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


The kids all had aspirations of being doctors, lawyers and the president. NONE of them had equated these lofty ambitions with succeeding in school.

And sad that some people consider Sarah Palin a 'role model.'
posted by ericb at 8:39 AM on July 21, 2009


Chanter's point is dead fucking right. Things are so bad in some schools that if they don't improve immediately everyone scrambles around to find a new miracle cure. It's like the Mad Tea Party; if a new system doesn't work within a year, everyone shouts "change places!" and they all try something different.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:45 AM on July 21, 2009


Or, rather, Chanther's point, my apologies.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:45 AM on July 21, 2009


The people who care will know him for all of his work, those who refer to him as "BSG guy" ought to be smacked in the head not for that, but for referring to Ian McKellen as Magneto/Gandalf, or Patrick Stewart as Xavier/Picard.

For the rest of my life I will think of Ian McKellen as Magneto/Gandalf a combination of the two I invented in my head while reading this, and who is fucking AWESOME.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:49 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can only say this: Get them early, get them early, get them early. High school is usually too damn late. Oh, you can inspire and create some good work habits, but in terms of mastery, high school turnaround has a low payoff compared to a decent education before, say, fifth grade. It's never too late, but damn if it doesn't have a bigger payback if you start in time.

I taught at the community college level for many years. Because of open enrollment, CCs serve many students who are not well-prepared to be there. The college where I primarily taught put tremendous resources into bringing students up to speed and supporting them, but it was an uphill battle and not very successful overall, as very high dropout rates show. I often felt that this "too little, too late" feeling, too--and yet then I'm stymied about what to do. It would be better to improve things for kids in the early years, but how to do that? It's a terrible trap.
posted by not that girl at 8:51 AM on July 21, 2009


My only real memories of Stand and Deliver, a movie we watched in seventh grade on a day we had a sub, was cracking the whole class up by claiming that it was about a mailman with hemorrhoids.
posted by klangklangston at 8:53 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


"How can I reach these keeeeeeeds?"
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 9:19 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's detective work, really. "Why is this kid having trouble in math analysis?" would start me down this trail and I would often end up with something that happened years and years ago, some critical part that they just did not get on a deep level. They could go through the motions, but the understanding was not there. Yeah, algebra was often a critical turning point, but the most devastating one I found was fractions.

This.

So many kids get lost at some critical early point in the process, and it's often fractions or long division. They are crippled for any math they face going forward as well as much of science, and their confidence in their abilities as a student is significantly damaged as well. The good news is, it doesn't have to be too late to learn that skill, if they get the right method/teacher at a time when they are motivated to learn and participate and communicate what's working for them and what isn't. The bad news is, it often comes too late to make much of a difference.

My sister is one of those who got lost at fractions. She flunked and had to repeat every high school math class she took. I didn't know why, and she was too ashamed to tell anyone. She got her bachelor's degree with a single math class, passed with the help of tutoring. Eventually, she decided she was unhappy with her career and returned to school -- to become a nurse. There are not many professions in which understanding of fractions, decimals, and percents are more important to life and death. This time, she sought help until she truly understood what was going on with those numbers, and graduated class valedictorian at age 35.

I taught a GED math class years ago, and my most remarkable student was a 41-year-old woman who had stalled at simple arithmetic (2 digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). She never caused any trouble or made any waves in school, so no one singled her out for attention, positive or negative. She wanted to learn, and because of her motivation (and the fact that I had no bureaucracy to report to and no textbook or standardized tests or overcrowded classroom to worry about), she learned and came a remarkable way. This woman went from being unable to guess at what her grocery bill would come to, figure a discount, balance a checkbook, divide a recipe, or calculate sales tax to being able to do all of those things, add/subtract/multiply/divide numbers with 3 or more digits, calculate basic probability, understand and convert franctions and percents, and solve single-variable equations in a few months. She wasn't stupid, as she'd always believed she was. She just needed one-on-one attention, someone to listen, and an understanding of how important these concepts are in the real world. I was just a doorway she walked through to get to where she'd always been able to go but hadn't known how.
posted by notashroom at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


As to the rest of Jesness's complaints about how the problems Escalante ran into are an indictment of the reality of public education, this is clearly a person who's never worked at a large, impersonal bureaucracy in the private sector...

I don't think that necessarily negates the observations about problems in public education. I've spent plenty of time in the private sector, including a year at a company which made Dilbert look functional, and it's absolutely true that businesses often have bureaucracy to match or even exceed the stereotypical public bureaucracy (which is one reason Scott Adams has had such a great career).

And yet I took the proverbial one look at the public education system while student teaching, and concluded I was quite probably going to be more frustrated there than I was inside of industry if I kept on that track (and I had a nice school to student teach at). I believe in the idea that you can shop around for schools with better administrators and potentially find a good spot, and maybe if I'd kept on and done that it would have been enough, but my guess was that the reach of state boards and federal initiatives and lots of others who felt they had their own epiphanies of How To Fix Public Education(TM) was going to be broad enough that certain kinds of initiative and experimentation and, as the article says, ownership were going to be harder opportunities to find than they would be in the private sector.

So my own big idea on how to fix things has always more or less matched some of the apparent points in this Reason article: give individual teachers in the system more freedom (hey, maybe even more support) regarding how they run their classrooms and programs, particularly if they're getting results. I'm sure like most other big ideas it has its own problems and problems it doesn't solve, and I suspect there's always going to be some inherent tension between it and a "system" of any kind (even a charter or private system). There probably should be some standards and certainly some order. But I think that rather than having reached an elegant balance between those principles, we're too far in the direction of a system where the value of an individual taking initiative and refining their art is ignored or even disparaged.

On preview: looks like Chanther is saying kindof the same thing but actually speaking from real experience as opposed to my toe-dipping.
posted by weston at 9:42 AM on July 21, 2009


... and an understanding of how important these concepts are in the real world.

And this.

This is the thing my stepson just wouldn't grasp for the longest time. Really smart kid, but every time we'd try to convince him to pay attention in algebra or science or actually practice his sax, he'd effortlessly deflect with the 'that's not important in real life' canard.

Starting to think that stuff through a little more, though...
posted by lodurr at 9:55 AM on July 21, 2009


This has already been said, but I feel the need to say it again.

The mentality in America (even at GenericUrbanCommunityCollege where I teach) is that if a solution is found that works in one group of students in one area of the country, it should immediately be copied EXACTLY everywhere else where it will, of course, be successful.

Then, when it fails in the new school where it is being tried, rather than tweaking it, we throw it out and try something else. The idea of one-size-fits-all education is maddening to me, yet I consistently come across administrators who feel that if they can just buy the right product (because hiring good teachers is CLEARLY not the answer), all of the problems in remedial math, english, and reading will be solved.

I also reiterate that if you are really behind by the time you get to me, there is sometimes no way I can get you through elementary algebra in one semester. Essentially, I am teaching a year and a half of high school algebra in 13 weeks. If you are really behind, you just can't do it.

I am often asked in meetings what I think the solution is, and I have said on many occasions, "If I knew, I would be wealthy". It is a bit of a mystery to me that we seemed to routinely graduate college ready students in the 50s and 60s, but can't seem to do it now.

<>
posted by wittgenstein at 10:04 AM on July 21, 2009


it was supposed to say "end rant" at the end of my speech. I should have previewed.
posted by wittgenstein at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2009


A friend of mine with an HD TV told me never to watch Stand And Deliver on HD.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:11 AM on July 21, 2009


Long-time teacher once told me: we take even bad students and promote them to next grade. We must. If we start keeping students behind, the system would collapse. Too many coming along. Called Social promotion. Just perhaps, she said, someone might fix them, spark something. Or they might drop out on their own.

The film depicts a great teacher as though no olthers. Meantime, papers today tell us about how great the writer Frank McCourt, the famous Irish author, was as long-time teacher in NY.
posted by Postroad at 11:00 AM on July 21, 2009


Olmos is the Zoot Suit guy!
posted by jasper411 at 12:00 PM on July 21, 2009


When ever someone excels at something, there are those who become insecure and undermine the success, often any way they can. It is a sociological concept called, Society's Control of Excellence. We see it her on MetaFilter all the time...
posted by vvurdsmyth at 12:07 PM on July 21, 2009


It is a bit of a mystery to me that we seemed to routinely graduate college ready students in the 50s and 60s, but can't seem to do it now.

I don't think it's a mystery at all: far fewer students even thought of going to college in the 50s and 60s than do now. My father was the youngest of 3 children. He was the only one who went to college. Between his children and his siblings' children, there's 13 of us. All 13 started college, and 12 of us graduated.

What we don't know how to do is make a large portion of students "college ready." The reason we're only noticing this now is because lots of people who never got the hang of algebra were able to go into the workforce without having their academic shortcomings get noticed.
posted by deanc at 1:14 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll speak up here as one of the kids who never got fractions, and as a result wound up not only hating math but being bad at it for most of my life. I'm not sure I can really quantify the number of ways this negatively affected my life: for starters, when I took the SAT in 1988, my verbal score was a 730, and my high math score was 480. I know that affected my choice of colleges.

It also meant that because I was bad at math I wound up in the "basic" track at my college-prep Catholic school. There were three tracks: "basic", "academic", and "honors". Kids who were in "basic" classes were not treated particularly well by the rest of the school, and the "basic" classes tended to have a high percentage of kids who knew they were never going any further than their diploma and a local minimum-wage job, and were either resigned or fundamentally okay with this.

I came from a family where it was always a foregone conclusion that I'd go to college: that was just what you did. I'd also tested off-the-charts for most of my life on standardized tests: I was that "potential" kid, who, if he could just live up to his potential, would be extraordinary. You get the basic narrative idea.

Because I was bad at math, I got stuck in the "basic" track for math and science, and I'm here to tell you it did a huge amount of damage. Mostly psychological, but it sure didn't help me prepare any for college-level math and science, both of which I was going to need. When I decided to become a paramedic, the only reason that I was able to survive in the early going was because my wife, who has a master's degree in civil engineering, actually tutored me for a couple of years to help me prepare.

Trying to learn basic fractions in your mid-30's isn't something I'd wish on anyone. I've been thinking off and on about possibly going to medical school, and the one thing that terrifies me about the prospect is that I will have to somehow learn how to do everything from algebra to differential calculus in my 40's.

I bought fraction flashcards for my son before he was out of diapers. My wife keeps telling me that he's still a little young for advanced math, and that's fine. I'm not rational, though: I have the hysterical overreaction that comes from failing to learn something essential at a young age.
posted by scrump at 1:23 PM on July 21, 2009


when I took the SAT in 1988, my verbal score was a 730, and my high math score was 480. I know that affected my choice of colleges.

Jesus, that was me, five years before you. I was practically the only person in my high school whose verbal score was higher than her math, and higher by a ridiculous amount. Fortunately, I had in my public high school excellent and patient math, physics, and chemistry teachers (and a minimum of tracking), so my grades in those classes were better than my test scores indicated. I'd moved schools a few times in the 5th and 6th grades and missed things like fractions, but with their help I was able to wallow through and got into my first choice college. It's never been a strength, though, and likely never will be since I've filtered myself into a career where I can take my time and look things up when I need to, and no one expects me to be a math whiz.
posted by rtha at 3:34 PM on July 21, 2009


I had the benefit of the "new math", at least for fractions, and it's dead simple once it's explained that way: multiply by the numerator ("top number"), divide by the denominator ("bottom number"). If you don't have anything to multiply by, multiply by 1.

So 2/7ths is just 1 times 2 divided by 7.
4 times 3/4 is 4 times 3 divided by 4, or 4 divided by 4 times 3, or 1 times 3, or 3.
15 times 2/6 is 30/6 is 5.

etc.
posted by orthogonality at 5:03 PM on July 21, 2009


Another similar SAT score, rtha -- I wish to god someone had actually managed to teach me math properly, but it just never happened, and I had a freaky high verbal/freaky low math score, too!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:03 AM on July 23, 2009


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