Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cloning Jaime Escalante -- a thought experiment

One of the fundamental tenets of the reform movement is the belief that we could fix all of our schools problems if, through big bonuses and wholesale firings, we could replace all of the lazy and incompetent teachers with great ones. Counterarguments generally point out that our metrics for identifying good teachers were unreliable and that, even with high-quality metrics, trying to restaff a major industry so that, say, 80% of the new recruits were in what had been the top 10% is simply not practical.

But what if we moved past those arguments altogether? What if we could create perfect duplicates of any teacher we want and place them in a million classrooms? Surely that would do it, but who should we pick?

How about Jaime Escalante, the teacher immortalized in the movie Stand and Deliver? Escalante was beyond question a spectacular teacher and he managed to build one of the country's most successful math programs in a very troubled urban school, Garfield High. By the end of his time at the school, he was teaching huge calculus sections (for HS) and producing better than a 90% pass rate on the AP exam. Only four schools in the country had more students passing the test.

So what would happen if you could clone "the best teacher in America" (as reporter Jay Matthews called him) and have him teach your AP calculus class? We can never be sure but I suspect that it would go something like this:
In 1991, he packed up his bag of tricks and quit Garfield, saying he was fed up with faculty politics and petty jealousies.

He headed to Hiram Johnson High with the intention of testing his methods in a new environment.

But in seven years there, he never had more than about 14 calculus students a year and a 75% pass rate, a record he blamed on administrative turnover and cultural differences.
Jaime Escalante was a great teacher, but to achieve those amazing results at Garfield he had to be in the right place at the right time. He needed a compatible and supportive administrator and, more importantly, a unique and powerful bond with the student body and the community. Compatibility and rapport are difficult to measure and next to impossible to predict but they are often the difference between adequate and astounding results.

1 comment:

  1. I think we need to be clear about what the market signals here are. There are a lot of teachers in the United States. If the problem with student performance is weak quality, where are we going to get the new and superior teachers?

    More importantly, policy by anecdote (i.e. looking at a few outliers) can lead to very misleading conclusions.