Education on Life Support

California has pulled the plug on Calculus in public schools.

Children attending public school that wish to become engineers, technologists, scientists, and/or attend top-rated business schools can now kiss their dreams goodbye. Of course, all is not lost for those whose families have money, the ability to get their kids into a private school, or who can arrange access to Calculus at a city college. Those kids will be fine.

The kids who will suffer are the most vulnerable, who worked hard on their own to achieve math excellence.

The irony is eliminating calculus was done in name of social justice and equity. It seems California educators think it’s a good idea to slam the door to opportunity on our brightest kids, These kids, by some miracle of self-determination, qualified for advanced math without access to outside resources or outside support. How is taking away educational opportunities from our most vulnerable populations justice? Where is the equity?

Technology and engineering have always provided opportunities for advancement. Given the opportunity and the tools, our kids have always excelled. Setting high expectations, learning how to work hard, brings success. Telling people they are incapable of doing hard things, like learning calculus, only serves to set a low bar and perpetuate the cycle of failure. Again and again, we see the educational system has perpetuated this cycle of failure by consistently sabotaging the people and the programs that have led to success for their students.

In 1974, when Jaime Escalante started teaching at Garfield High, the students were among the state’s most vulnerable. Garfield was one of California’s worst schools and was at the point of losing its accreditation. Mr. Escalante, an immigrant himself, believed that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, could succeed at academically demanding coursework, no matter what their racial, social, or economic background.

To prove this point, Escalante realized he had to create a program to challenge these students and persuade them to believe in themselves. In 1978, Escalante tested his thesis by starting an advanced Algebra +AP Calculus class with 5 students. Escalante convinced these students, if they would learn math, they could do well and get jobs in engineering, electronics, and computers.

Just like today’s educators who think Calculus is too hard, from the beginning and at every turn, administrators put up roadblocks to oppose Escalante’s work. When the classes began, Escalante was threatened with dismissal by the assistant principal because he was coming in too early, leaving late, helping his students, and failing to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay the fees for his students’ Advanced Placement tests. What horrible things to have done!

But success spoke for itself. By ’83, 33 students participated with 30 passing the advance placement exam for AB Calculus. In ’87, 73 students passed the AB Calculus advanced placement exam and 12 passed the, more difficult, BC exam. Garfield graduates were entering the University of Southern California in record numbers, outnumbering all the other high schools in the working-class East Los Angeles region combined.

In 1991, the year, he resigned, the AP preparatory program had grown to 570. But as things improved for his students, they continued to get worse for Escalante. Classes were over-crowded; 50 vs. the 35 limit. The union would not support additional classes and harassed Escalante over the “overcrowding.” In the end, Escalate was kicked out as department chair, was regularly receiving threats, hate mail, and his life was viewed to be in danger. These threats were not from the students, but from the people who wanted him to fail. Upon his exit, the aggressive curriculum that prepared Garfield students for the AP tests was modified to be less rigorous. Administration interest and support ended. Five years after Escalante left Garfield, 11 students passed AP calculus, the last remnants of those who were part of his original program.

Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson, is a true story about an inner-city basketball coach who makes headlines in 1999 for suspending members of his undefeated high school basketball team because they did not meet the academic minimum standard they agreed to maintain. Before the season began, each player signed a contract agreeing that to participate on the team, they must maintain a C+ average. Despite the team being in the middle of a winning season, and also being a contender for their state championship, the coach suspended practice and players when he learned certain team members were submitting fraudulent reports about their grades. The school board and the parents fought Coach Carter, trying to fire him because they thought there should be no consequences for the players because they failed to keep their agreements. Why should players care about being able to pass high school with a C+ average, when they could play on a winning basketball team? What difference did doing well in school make? Why should they be punished just because they lied about their performance?

It was the players who realized that the lessons Coach Carter was trying to teach them were worth learning. Education, discipline, keeping your word, and honoring your commitments, were worth pursuing. In the end, they stood by their coach. They brought up their grades, and, surprisingly all were given the opportunity to college and, with the lessons they learned, build satisfying lives. For Coach Carter, though, the story did not have a happy ending. The pressure continued to support basketball, overriding, mind, and character. In the end, Coach Carter was gone.

Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High, an inner-city school in one of New Jersey’s worst areas, turned around the school by requiring students to meet standards for appearance, courtesy, and performance. He was not afraid to discipline his students with unusual severity and walked the hallways of his high school with a bullhorn and a bat. His credo was simple. “This school is my house. It is going to be a safe place for kids to learn and improve their lives. If you can’t read, you can come here to learn. If you have trouble with math, we will help you. If you are a girl and want to take auto shop because you can get a high-paying job when you graduate, we will sign you up.” What he wouldn’t tolerate was anyone who violated the sanctity of his school. If you couldn’t be bothered to show up for class, you were out. If you wanted to ditch class and smoke pot in the bathroom, you were out. If you wanted to sell drugs or recruit for your gang, you were out. The kids who remained did well, but two-thirds of the students he ejected ended up in the Passaic County Jail.

Administrators wanted him out. They argued that he should go because he ruined the lives of those he removed from school. Supporters recognized that, for the vast majority of children eligible to attend, they went on to be self-sufficient and lead productive lives. More importantly, it is the students that he helped who told the same story. They were all very clear that they would never have the success they did, had it not been for the safe space created by Mr. Clark. This story is repeated again and again…

In 2004, in Los Angeles, two former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teachers founded the Synergy Academies. Drs. Meg and Randy Palisoc had worked in elementary schools where the majority of students were significantly below grade level. Meg and Randy decided to open a charter school in order to prove that all students were capable of academic success, regardless of their background. The Synergy schools focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). They are co-located with and collaborate with traditional LAUSD schools, sharing their best practices with other schools.

Synergy Charter Academy started with 6 teachers and 120 K-5th grade students recruited from the local failing schools. Within four years, Synergy Charter Academy students’ ranked near the top 10% statewide. In 2008, they opened a middle school; and, in 2011, launched their high school. Today they serve over 1,300 kids in grades K-12. Like all their predecessors, Synergy gets a lot of pushback for their stellar results and the demands they make on their students.

The good guy is always the person getting in trouble for setting high expectations and standards for their students. The thing that stands in the way of success for these students is not poverty, poor parenting, drugs, or even the student’s inability to learn. Standing in the way of successes for vulnerable students are those in the administration who try to thwart those who demand excellence. Setting high expectations, standards, and/or requirements for students and demanding hard work is what ultimately leads to success. Good guys set high expectations and make demands. Bad guys think students are victims of their environment and incapable of learning. This produces a cycle of victimization, infantilization, and failure. That is really the problem.

Taking away the opportunity to learn calculus because not everyone will master it means that those who want to learn will lose their chance.  Remember Garfield High! Creating opportunities allowed 500 kids a year to get AP credit and become qualified to go to the colleges of their choice.  Yes, not every student succeeded.  But, dumbing the program down meant that no one succeeded.  Five years later, only 11 students completed the program.  Then there were none.


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