The Best-Kept Secret in U.S. Education

It’s the best-kept secret in U.S. education. Poor black and brown children are just as capable of learning as rich white children are. This simple fact has been proved many times in various private schools, which can serve only a lucky few. If someone dares to prove it in a public school, which could then serve as an example for others, the educational system responds in a predictable way. First, there are accusations of cheating. Then, after it turns out that the accusations are unfounded, efforts are made to destroy the program that is responsible for the poor and minority children’s high achievement. The attempts to destroy the program sometimes start even before the program has made much progress. This pattern of unexpected success, false accusation, and suppression is common in schools that serve the underprivileged. In contrast, the schools that serve the children of the wealthy and powerful are expected and allowed to be excellent.

I first became aware of this pattern of unexpected success, false accusation, and suppression because of the movie Stand and Deliver, which was released in 1988. The movie tells the story of Jaime Escalante, a Bolivian-born math teacher at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, California.

Few people expected much of the students at Garfield, a school plagued by low achievement and a high dropout rate. Escalante had begun his teaching career in Bolivia. When Escalante started teaching at Garfield, he was shocked at how poorly prepared his American students were to study higher mathematics. To solve this problem, he developed an enrichment program that started in the junior high school. Escalante didn’t believe in academic tracking. Thus, these classes were open to anyone who wanted to take them. Many students who had never before taken any honors classes thrived in these demanding math classes.

When Escalante started his program, he met resistance from an assistant principal, who threatened to fire him for coming in too early, staying too late, and raising funds without permission. Fortunately, Escalante got the full support of a new principal, Henry Gradillas, who had a sincere commitment to academic excellence.

Although the movie Stand and Deliver emphasized Escalante’s effectiveness as a classroom teacher, much of the success of his program was due to teamwork among the math teachers and improvement of the math curriculum.

As chairman of Garfield’s math department, Escalante worked with the junior high school and high school math teachers to improve lesson plans and raise expectations. To help the students at Garfield catch up to the kids in the wealthier school districts, Escalante established a program at East Los Angeles College, where high school students could take summer school courses in algebra or geometry or trigonometry. Escalante also established tutoring sessions before and after school. As funds became available, he hired students to tutor other students.

In 1982, eighteen of Escalante’s students passed the AP Calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the exams, became suspicious and demanded that 14 of the students retake the exam. Twelve did so (the other two felt that they didn’t need the college credit from passing the exam). All twelve passed. In the following few years, enrollment in Escalante’s AP Calculus class grew. The high water mark of Escalante’s math program was 1987, when 73 students passed the AP Calculus basic exam, and another 12 passed a more advanced version that’s usually given after the second year of calculus instruction.

Unfortunately, 1987 marked the beginning of the end of the program. In that year, Principal Gradillas took a sabbatical to finish his doctoral degree. He hoped that afterward he’d come back to Garfield or perhaps go to another school that needed to improve its academics. Instead, he was assigned to supervise asbestos removal. Gradillas’s replacement was far more interested in the football team and the marching band than in academics. The release of Stand and Deliver in 1988 made Escalante a celebrity, but it also aroused jealousy and made him a target of threats and hate mail.

Escalante also became embroiled in conflicts over class sizes. He refused to turn away any students who wanted to take his class, and he did not want to assign them to teachers who did not meet his standards. As a result, there were more than 50 students in some of his classes, even though the teachers’ union’s contract limited class size to 35 students. In 1990, Escalante lost the chairmanship of the math department, which stripped him of the power to direct his overall enrichment program. He left Garfield in 1991. Escalante’s hand-picked successor couldn’t solve the class size problem either, and he left shortly thereafter.

Escalante had shown that brown and black kids in a poor neighborhood could learn higher mathematics just as well as the rich white kids in Beverly Hills could. But instead of applying Escalante’s successful methods more broadly, the administration clipped Escalante’s wings, and those of the principal who supported him. Note that these events occurred at precisely the same time that California’s Board of Public Instruction implemented its disastrous “whole language” curriculum, which predictably led to severe declines in reading scores among the children in California’s public schools.

Escalante and Gradillas were eased out, but I’ve heard of other cases in which teachers and principals were fired for excellent performance. John Taylor Gatto had been named New York City’s Teacher of the Year three times, and then was named New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1991. Yet in 1986, the Board of Education tried to fire him and get his teaching license revoked. Gatto explained that they “lost” the paperwork for his medical leave, and then sent the notification for termination of his teaching license to an address where hadn’t lived for 22 years.

Another case involved Tiffany Parker, the principal of an elementary school named Lewis Lemon Global Studies Academy in Rockford, Illinois. Parker had been trained to use “balanced literacy,” which is the standard method for teaching schoolchildren in the United States to read. However, she felt that this approach didn’t meet her students’ needs. Instead, she took the opportunity to use a program of phonics and direct instruction, under a federal grant obtained by William Bursuck, a former professor at Northern Illinois University.

The program started at the beginning of the 2001–2002 school year. In 2003, Lewis Lemon ranked second out of the 35 elementary schools in the district that administered the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. It beat all of the schools except a selective school for the gifted and talented. This success was particularly impressive given that 80% of the students at Lewis Lemon are black and 85% come from poor families. Ninety-seven percent of the black children at Lewis Lemon met state standards, as compared to only 73.7% of the white children in the district at large.

Many people find it normal and acceptable for privileged white children to outperform poor black children academically. So what happens when a large group of poor black children outperforms the middle-class white kids? In Rockford, Illinois, the school system reacted by hiring a new superintendent, who accused the staff at Lewis Lemon of cheating on the test. When those charges wouldn’t stick, he insisted that Lewis Lemon switch back to the ineffective standard reading curriculum. Principal Parker refused, partly because the switch would have been bad for the children and partly because it would have violated the terms of a federal grant. Parker was then fired.

When you want to solve a problem like poor academic achievement among the children in poor neighborhoods, you have to identify the cause of the problem. Many people believe that the cause can be found in the children’s DNA, or in their family’s culture. Yet the AP Calculus program at Garfield High School and reading program at Lewis Lemon Global Studies Academy show us that black and Latino children from poor families can achieve great things if they are given good schooling.

In the cases I just described, the enemies of good schooling were not the children, their parents, or even the teachers or the teachers’ union. The problem came from the upper management of the educational system: the people who train and certify the teachers, choose the curriculum, and hire and fire the principals. Why might they want to degrade the quality of education in poor neighborhoods? To understand that, all you need to do is consider what happened to Jaime Escalante’s AP Calculus students.

Many of Escalante’s students scored a 4 or a 5 on the AP Calculus exam. Many of those who did went on to highly selective universities, such as MIT, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, USC, and UCLA. An education at a prestigious university is practically a pass to enter the upper middle class. The problem is that the upper middle class is not growing, and the people who are currently in it want to reserve space in it for their own children. There are only so many openings at prestigious universities and at law schools and medical schools. If millions of young people had access to the kind of excellent education that Jaime Escalante provided to his students, the children of the privileged would have far more difficulty in following in their parents’ footsteps.

Even basic literacy among the poor poses a threat to the power and the privileges of certain elements of society. When children learn to read well, they gain the ability to read and understand documents such as leases and employment contracts and mortgage agreements. Thus, they become far more able to defend themselves and their parents against exploitation. The landlords, employers, and bankers in the community may find such a development troubling.

Remember that Jonathan Kozol was fired from his teaching job in South Boston in the 1960s for giving his students a copy of Langston Hughes’ poem Ballad of the Landlord. The children loved the poem so much that many chose to memorize it. Yet instead of being praised for inspiring children to love poetry, Kozol was fired. The excuse was that he taught something that wasn’t on the official curriculum. They were supposed to read a Wordsworth poem about daffodils, rather than a Harlem Renaissance poet’s lament about a form of exploitation and oppression that they understood from personal experience.

The take-home message from these stories is simple. Decisions that can destroy a school and blight the lives of poor children are often made at such a high level in the educational establishment that the children and their families, the classroom teachers, and even the principal can be powerless to change them. The people who make these decisions do so to serve their own desires and class interest, and they are rarely if ever held accountable for the harm they do to children. That’s because their constituency is not poor or middle-class children and their parents but the wealthy and powerful.

In the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge said,

The chief business of the American people is business.

In reality, the country was (and still is) run by self-serving businessmen, either directly through their philanthropy or indirectly through the politicians they support. One could say the same about the educational system, which was redesigned in the 20thcentury by the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and the National Association of Manufacturers. The system they designed was intended to serve business, not to provide social uplift to the children of poor people.
As Rockefeller’s General Education Board explained in 1906,

We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

Escalante was trying to turn his students into men and women of science, which is not what the people who control the commanding heights of the economy wanted him to do. As William Torrey Harris, the U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, explained,

Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening. The average American [should be] content with their humble role in life, because they’re not tempted to think about any other role.

When teachers like Jaime Escalante and principals like Tiffany Parker “over-educate” the poor black and Latino children under their care, they tempt those children into thinking that they can break out of the social class into which they were born. The fact that people like Escalante and Parker “overeducate” low-income minority children within the public school setting makes parents of children in other public schools wonder why their own children can’t get the same high quality of education. Moreover, their success shows that the racist and social Darwinist excuses for inequality in the United States are lies. That’s why people like Escalante and Parker must be accused of cheating before they are driven from their jobs, and why their successful methods are not used more broadly.

Photo by Steve Snodgrass

2 thoughts on “The Best-Kept Secret in U.S. Education”

  1. A very good story. As it happens I’ve been writing a lot about John Saxon recently; and his career overlapped with Escalante’s. They were both genius outsiders who actually enabled children to learn algebra, etc.

    We seem to have an equal contempt for the Education Establishment. Ruthless SOB’s. But you are quicker to say that these people are serving the business community, whereas I think they’re serving John Dewey’s progressive vision. What we really need is for some of the top professors at Harvard, etc. to come out of the educator’s closet and tell us what in fact they were really trying to do in their meetings.

    Rendering children illiterate and ignorant is not an easy job. I would say it was somewhat like running the gas chambers in Germany. Surely some of these people know the evil they do. 

    My own analysis is that the people in the middle and lower levels of the Education Establishment may be sufficiently simple-minded that they don’t actually know what they’re doing. But there have to be people at the very top, maybe only 10 or 50 of them, who know that when, for example, they banish phonics from elementary grades and force children to memorize sight-words, they are condemning millions to illiteracy (or semi-literacy).

    Please, if any ruthless education commissars are out there, weighed down by heavy consciences, please contact this site with your confessions, or contact me. I would love to interview you.

    Bruce Deitrick Price

  2. Thanks, Bruce!

    Gentle readers, I strongly recommend that you study Bruce Deitrick Price’s excellent Web site:

    I have learned an enormous amount from his site. He explains how and why many of the educational approaches that are routinely used in public schools in the United States do not work. The interesting question is why the Educational Establishment, by which I mean the people who run the teachers’ colleges and make decisions at a state and school district level, insist on forcing teachers to use ineffective teaching methods. I hope to answer this question studying the historical record, by reading the books written by people such as William Torrey Harris and John Dewey, and by looking at the financial relationships among the key decision-makers. Fortunately, a lot of this information is becoming available for free over the Internet.

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