Reformers ignore powerful example of elevating math for low-income students

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Many prominent American educators have joined a heartfelt but controversial movement to raise the level of math instruction for all students, particularly those from low-income families.

An important signal of this is a suggested revision in the California Mathematics Framework to be considered by the state school board. It tries to reduce tracking and put all children on the same path to mathematical literacy. “There persists a mentality that some people are ‘bad in math,’ ” an introduction to the revision says. This attitude is “exacerbated by acceleration programs that stratify mathematics pathways for students as early as sixth grade.”

Most of my writing about schools has focused on educators fighting such barriers to learning. They believe better teaching for all can reveal hidden potential in children thought to be incapable of challenging work.

I embrace what math reformers are trying to do in California and other states. But I think they are missing something. In the 1980s I witnessed what I consider one of the country’s most successful efforts to improve math instruction for impoverished children. What math reformers are attempting now lacks essential elements of the work I saw then with low-income Hispanic students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

The experiment began with the arrival in 1974 of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher from Bolivia. He was assigned remedial courses because no one expected much of a man with a thick accent who was beginning his career in America at age 43. His energy and imagination persuaded the principal to let him start an Advanced Placement Calculus course in 1978. But only five of its 14 students lasted long enough to take the AP exam. Only two of them passed it.

Escalante, who died in 2010, was the most stubborn teacher I ever met. He ignored all obstacles in his path. He never went to teacher meetings. He told parents he would report them to immigration authorities if their children missed his class more than two days in a row. He stayed in his classroom all day and had students with him until 6 p.m. He started a summer program so more students would be ready for calculus. He trained a younger teacher to help with the teaching load. His students were famously accused of cheating on the AP test in 1982 (the subject of the film “Stand and Deliver”), but that didn’t stop him.

In 1987, he and his colleague Ben Jimenez had 129 students take AP Calculus tests. The school had 329 AP tests in several subjects that year, with a passing rate above the national average. Sixty-six percent of AP Calculus students passed the three-hour exams, written and graded by outside experts. I was astonished to discover that one school accounted for 27 percent of all Mexican-Americans in the United States that year who passed the AP Calculus AB exam, and 22 percent of those who passed the AP Calculus BC exam.

The movie, and a book I wrote about Escalante, spread the word that children from impoverished circumstances could do much better if given more time and encouragement to learn. Since then, high schools have gradually opened AP to more students. In fact, Hispanic students are now by far the largest group of AP students in California, occupying 48 percent of the seats in AP classrooms. The portion of U.S. schools that had at least half of their juniors and seniors take at least one college-level AP exam grew from 1 percent in 1996 to 12 percent in 2019.

But the methods used at Garfield to challenge disadvantaged students don’t appear to be part of the math reform plans in California and other states. Garfield teachers significantly increased instructional time with lessons after school, on Saturdays and during the summer. The suggested California Math Framework revision says nothing about that. Escalante as math department chair — along with his ally, principal Henry Gradillas — made sure only the best teachers, including Escalante, taught the algebra, geometry and trigonometry classes that led to calculus. The framework revision has no rules that would allow that to happen. It does not say much about using AP Calculus or AP Statistics courses to raise standards.

Scott Roark, spokesperson for the California Department of Education, told me the revised framework is not designed to encourage such methods. He emphasized that it is only to present guidance and recommendations. “Decisions about high school courses, instructional materials, instructional minutes, professional development, pilot programs and school personnel are all made at the local level,” he said.

I was not surprised he said that. That is the way school is done in America. It has been 34 years since we learned the powerful effect Garfield’s methods had on disadvantaged children. I am pleased that more high schools are using college-level AP, IB and Cambridge International courses and tests to motivate overlooked kids, but most schools still haven’t gotten the message.

If the conscientious state officials really want to eliminate our tendency to write off many children as just bad at math or other subjects, they must provide more than the toothless guidance they have come up with so far.

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