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:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html. 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.