Former East Los Angeles high school teacher, Jaime Escalante, whose exemplary teaching led to the inspiring film Stand and Deliver, passed away last week. As a math teacher at Garfield High School, Escalante was able to motivate inner-city students to achieve top scores on advanced placement calculus. His influence on the school’s math program and its students led to its becoming one of the top public high schools in the country for the number of advanced placement calculus students it produced. Only four other public high schools nationwide could boast greater success. Not even the neighboring, upscale Beverly Hills High outpaced them. Today we would say that Mr. Escalante was closing the achievement gap.
Then why was he ousted as the head of the school’s math department in the early 90s? Andrew Coulson reports in the Wall Street Journal that it was due to the opposition of teacher’s unions. Not wanting to turn students away, Escalante would fill his classroom with upwards of 50 students, whereas the union only allowed 35. However, because his students still excelled it lowered the union’s bargaining power and created resentment. As a result, Escalante left the school. Its math program no longer achieves near the same level of success.
An educational system that sacrifices the education of its children at the hands of powerful interests groups is a broken system.
A most recent example of this dysfunction is the opposition to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Similar to Mr. Escalante’s success, this program has helped inner-city students in D.C. succeed. This program provides children from low-income families in D.C.–one of the lowest-achieving school districts in the nation–with a scholarship to attend a private school of their choice. The latest study results show that these students are outpacing their peers in the public schools. Furthermore, the scholarships cost less than half of the price taxpayers spend to send a child to a failing D.C. public school. Yet, Congress has blocked new students from entering the program and wants to shut it down, again due to opposition from teachers’ unions.
Instead, the Obama administration is proposing similar, top-down approaches that have failed in the past. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report shows that American students’ math and reading scores have remained relatively flat, despite continual increases in federal education spending. Greater control at the federal level will only lead to more constraints that discourage innovators like Escalante and programs like the DC Opportunity Scholarship, as well as other ground-breaking successes, such as the KIPP charter schools around the nation.
Florida can also be looked to as an example of success when states innovate outside the bureaucratic boxes handed down from Washington. A variety of school reform options have been put in place there–including school choice options–and unlike student scores in the rest of the nation, children from the Sunshine State are improving their test scores. Once again these innovations have led to a diminishing achievement gap, with Hispanic and African American students making the greatest gains. Hispanic students in Florida now outpace or tie the reading scores of all students in 30 states; and fourth-grade African American students in the state outpace or tie all children in 8 states.
If the United States wants to improve education and help children succeed, it can no longer afford to bend to the will of special interest groups. Driving away the talent of those like Mr. Escalante and blocking programs that pull D.C. children out of failing schools and up to greater achievement, are reprehensible. As did Jaime Escalante, we need to stand for children and deliver them the best educational options.