If you are really good at what you do, you have a problem. Some of your peers are gunning for you — not to beat you by outperforming you, but by taking you down or out. To understand why, you would be wise to know the story of Jaime Escalante.
Jaime [HIGHmay] Escalante died of cancer on March 30. If you ever saw the HBO movie, Stand and Deliver, you know who he was. If you have not seen it, you probably don’t know.
He was a mathematics teacher in a Los Angeles high school from 1974 to 1991. The school was Garfield High. It had nothing going for it in 1974, either athletically or academically. It was in East Los Angeles, in what was functionally an Hispanic barrio.
When he arrived, there was no course in calculus. The school was about to lose its accreditation. It was arguably the worst school academically in the state, or close to it. By the time he left, it was the #3 school in the United States for the number of students enrolled in the Advanced Placement program for calculus. By then, there were almost 600 students enrolled in various AP courses, not just calculus.
One man’s presence produced that change. This is the enormous power of one . . . for a time. But then the law of large numbers reasserted itself: regression to the mean.
HBO broadcast the movie in 1988. He resigned out of frustration in 1991. He grew tired of the resentment of other teachers, who regarded him as a prima donna, which he surely was. Today, there are few students enrolled in AP courses at Garfield. It is no longer the best tax-funded high school in California to study for the AP exam in calculus.
HOW DID HE DO IT?
He was an immigrant from Bolivia. He had taught school in Bolivia, but he was legally unqualified to teach in the United States. He could not speak English. He got a job as a bus boy in a restaurant. Within six months, he was the head cook. He was that kind of man.
He enrolled in a local community college. With scholarship aid and a day job with Burroughs, he graduated in mathematics from a four-year school. He still wanted to teach. So, he quit his job and applied for a position in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was sent to Garfield.
This made sense. He spoke Spanish. He was a new teacher. Garfield was not on any new teacher’s list as the preferred school. So, he wound up in a school where there was no advanced mathematics training.
He was not content with this arrangement. He was able to add courses on more advanced math. He called mathematics the great equalizer. It does not care what your social background is. It does not care what language you speak. It is objective. Either you get the answer correctly or you don’t. He told them they could go to college. “I’ll teach you math and that’s your language. With that you’re going to make it. You’re going to college and sit in the first row, not the back, because you’re going to know more than anybody.”
He persuaded students that they were the best. This comes out clearly in the movie. He pushed them, he manipulated them, he sometimes humiliated them, but he got them to take his class. They showed up before school began. They stayed after school. They came to class on Saturdays. They came to summer school. They worked harder than students in their peer group, and I don’t mean just in East L.A. I mean the whole age group. They worked like the children of Asian immigrants.
They also scored like the children of Asian immigrants. Year after year, more of his students passed the AP. This was considered impossible — not genetically, but socially and culturally.
Escalante said that what students needed was desire — “ganas,” in Spanish. They needed a challenge, and he was going to give it to them. He did, year after year.
Word got out to sophomores. (There are no freshmen in Los Angeles City schools; it is a three-year program.) If they wanted in to Escalante’s AP class, they had to work like mad in the first two years of math. They started doing this. It was a badge of honor to get accepted into his calculus class.
He was a hard-nosed disciplinarian. He would not tolerate second-best from known bright students. He threw them out. But he did whatever he could to help not-so-bright students who worked hard to pass his class.
This is the way great teachers have taught from the beginning of time. This is the way students master the material. To get his reputation as a great teacher, he must first become a salesman. He must persuade students to work harder than their peers. He must keep them motivated to persevere. This is not easy in the early stages of a teacher’s career.
When the buzz gets going, and students perceive that they will gain respect from peers and adults for having persevered, the dynamics change. It is not so difficult to sell students on the benefits. But in the early phases of a career, it is no picnic. The teacher must persevere.
The movie shows the dynamics of the faculty. Escalante was not welcomed with open arms. He said later that the movie was 10% dramatic fiction and 90% accurate. I suspect that the movie’s chairwoman of the department was not so bad in real life as the movie portrays. I hope not. She expressed fear that the students would fail. They did not need another failure. Escalante countered that students will rise to a challenge. He proved his point.
His big institutional problem was envy. This is the desire to pull down a high achiever. It was a factor in the faculty.
Every institution suffers from envy. The question is this: How can the system be designed to restrict it? Here is the institutional problem. If someone is hired who is a spectacular performer, he exposes the other members as time-serving hacks. On the other hand, if a new employee is substandard, word may get out. The next layer up in the system may ask: “How did this person get through the screening process?” That is a huge risk. Officials in the next layer up may decide to interfere with the sieve-like lower level. Every institution wants two things: (1) more autonomy; (2) more money. A threat to its autonomy is a major threat.
What is the reaction? Unofficially, the screeners opt for mediocrity. They don’t hire the obvious winners or losers. If a loser gets through the barrier, the outfit does not renew his contract. But what to do with a winner? That is the problem. Fire him, and the administration may look into what is going on. That must be avoided at all costs. So, the goal is to get him to quit. The pressure is informal. It must not be traceable by the administration. But it is real.
In 1991, the informal pressure persuaded Escalante to quit. His assistant also quit. A few years later, his replacement quit.
The result was a deterioration of the overall academic program. This is standard operating procedure. It is true in every area of life. The phenomenon has a name: regression to the mean.
When any institution is driven forward by what is either a random factor or a statistically unlikely factor, it must adjust. Performance rises. But there are inherent institutional pressures to drive performance back to the status quo ante. What prevailed before reasserts itself.
To keep this from happening, there must be institutional factors that raise the level of performance. These factors will be resisted by most participants.
We all want more for less. We want our income without having to improve performance. This is a fact of human nature. It is a fundamental law of economics.
The problem comes when someone shows up whose goal is more, and who is willing to pay the price to get it. He enters the market and begins raising the standard of performance. Why should he expect applause from the existing suppliers of the service?
Escalante got negative feedback from some parents. This is in the movie. This is the plight of every great teacher. The parents do not always want to be shown up by their children. The children may get big heads, meaning big dreams. The students are already moving out from under parents’ authority, if not actual control. The children may choose not to enter the family business, which still exists in the barrio. Escalante showed up and taught students, “You are the best.” The ones who believed him moved up and out.
In interviewing his former students, several reporters said that the graduates said that his class had made them whatever they are today. Some of them took no more math classes in college. But he had persuaded them that they could perform at a far higher level than they had known. They also said they never had to work that hard in college. They got out of East L.A.
To overcome institutional lethargy there must be incentives. If the system operates in terms of tenure, seniority, or trade union rules, the negative sanction of getting fired is removed. At that point, only positive sanctions motivate people.
Systems that operate in terms of tenure or seniority tend to remove wage sanctions. He who stays employed automatically gets raises. Performance does not matter.
So, the pay system operates in parallel with the screening system. Both reveal regression to the mean. Then the mean declines: institutional entropy.
The tax-funded K-12 school system is dominated by the teachers’ union. When Escalante taught 50 students in a class, the union objected.
The most effective teacher I had in high school taught civics. He refused to use the time-honored technique of having all students face the blackboard. He made us move the desks into a horseshoe layout, two desks deep. He would often walk up and down the interior space, asking questions and lecturing. There were 30+ students in class in my era. He once offered the school this deal. Hire two low-paid assistants, and he would teach 150 students in a class. This would have meant that he would teach the entire senior class of 450 students for the equivalent of two full-time salaries, and he would do it in three hours a day. He would then get the rest of the day off. You can imagine what the response was. Thanks, but no thanks.
The three-time New York City teacher of the year, and one-time state teacher of the year, John Taylor Gatto, had a similar experience to Escalante’s. He finally gave up. He quit. He has been a tireless advocate of private schooling ever since. Visit his site. Read his free book, The Underground History of American Education.
The only way to generate increased performance is to structure the incentive system in such a way that the mean is raised. This means abolishing tenure and seniority, thereby removing the safety net for failure. Then find ways to give the best performers a piece of the economic action for increased productivity. If a man can increase the institution’s net income, give him a larger percentage of this when his output increases. This is the reverse incentive system of the graduated income tax, which is a disincentive system.
We understand this economic incentive system when it comes to business, yet most people fail to understand it in the field of education. They have been taught by bureaucrats in the tax-funded education system that profit-seeking schools are antithetical to education.
The University of Phoenix has 500,000 students enrolled today who think the conventional view is wrong.
What makes the difference? The University of Phoenix is owned by investors who profit when the school profits. They lose when the school loses. This raises price tag on envy. It raises the price tag on regression to the mean. A law of economics takes over: “When price rises, less is demanded.”
The story of Jaime Escalante is inspirational, 1974 to 1991. It is depressing thereafter.
He proved that one man can achieve enormous success in changing the lives of young people. It also shows that the incentive system of the tax-funded educational Establishment can overcome the efforts of such a man.
In contrast is the story of Marva Collins, who quit the Chicago schools in frustration and started her own school in the upstairs of her home in 1975. There was a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie about her amazing success: The Marva Collins Story (1981). It starred Cicely Tyson and the then-unknown Morgan Freeman. It is every bit as inspirational as Stand and Deliver. The difference is, her school, in the ghetto of Chicago, is still flourishing. Garfield High School is not. The Wikipedia entry for her reveals the following. “During the 2006—2007 school year, Collins’ school charged $5,500 for tuition, and parents said the school did a much better job than the Chicago public school system. Meanwhile, during the 2007—2008 year, Chicago public school officials claimed that their budget of $11,300 per student was not enough.”
Incentives matter. Ownership matters. There will always be regression to the mean. The #1 goal should be to raise the mean. That’s the nice thing to do . . . for consumers.