Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The most annoying math movie ever

Cue the lights!
Sound the sirens!
Fill the buckets with popcorn and the seats with your butts!

It's the most annoying movie ever made, Stand and Deliver! Watch gangbangers morph into AP Calculus kids in one year with a little extra work. See the maverick educator make the losers into winners as if by magic!

You should be able to do it too! It's in the Movies so it must be real! They're all Latinos and Blacks so it must be true or you're a racist.

Why aren't your students succeeding like that? You suck.

In reality, there was little magic and a whole hell of a lot of work on the part of the students and the teachers - and it paid off.

Escalante started as all teachers do, fighting the system and trying his best. It wasn't until he became Department Chair and had a supportive principal that the "magic" happened.

Escalante had complete control over the curriculum and the daily lessons for the entire Math department for about six years. He had Guidance following his recommendations. He could recruit teachers who understood him and his ideas and push out those who didn't into other schools in the district. He developed a feeder system that led from the middle schools into Garfield High.

Each teacher knew what to teach and when (they collaborated on the lesson plans to keep the continuity). Kids progressed through each course in the same order and with the same expectations. Any kid could take his class, but he had to succeed. A kid could jump forward based on ability and knowledge regardless of where he got that knowledge. There was no tracking nor were there effort grades. A kid was able to be whatever he could and allowed to attempt any challenge he wanted to set himself to.

Escalante taught many of the feeder courses and allowed his Calculus to get as large as needed. This open-door policy ran against the 35-person max in the teacher contract and would later become an issue with the union.

He arranged for summer classes at the local CC for those who wanted to jump forward.

Help was available because Escalante browbeat the administration and staff to allow folks to come in early, stay late, and on the weekends. Everything went as Escalante wanted. The success fueled the teachers' imagination and motivation. Everyone had a stake and everyone who helped push and who saw the results was inspired to do more. You know, that "Why I got into Teaching" thing.

Minority students (who were the majority, if not the totality, of this school) realized that brains and ability were internal but that effort was also required. Their success transformed them.

A goodly percentage triumphed and made it from pre-algebra to calculus BC, though they did it over four or five years instead of as in the movie. A huge majority succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, i.e., got a decent math education. A few dropped out or transferred - even the Great Ones can't make 100% of the kids succeed.

Consistency, a proper vision and a true idea of the abilities of his students. None of that reform math or fuzzy math anywhere. No effort grades. It was solid algebra, geometry, trig and calculus. No goofy integrated garbage. No maverick teachers trying to "let the students decide what they want to learn." No writing papers describing the math as a color or asking "How does that make you feeeeeel?".

It was too good to last, of course. Politics and class size regulations, celebrity from the movie, jealousy from other teachers outside of the "track" all contributed. A new principal and the union clashed with him over class-sizes and teacher assignments and student placement and all the other things. He and one of the other calculus teachers retired from Garfield and it all started to fall apart. A protege tried to continue it but the resistance was too strong and he left after a year, too. Mediocrity based on "common practice" and "reform" took hold.

Kinda different from the Escalante as "Deus Ex Mathematica" as implied by the movie? That's why I hate it. It tells too little of the truth and, in so doing, makes the real issues disappear and papers over the real genius of the man.

The implication was that the students didn't succeed but that Escalante performed some magical teaching. Don't get me wrong. The man is and was a great man. He was dynamic, smart, charismatic. "Kimo" could teach. But there's no mention of the program and the long-term view of the curriculum. There little mention of the other teachers who were a big part of the success.

Except for the heart-attack scene, there's little mention of the tremendous amount of work that kids, teachers, and Escalante put in. It all just sort of happens.

"The girl gets pregnant and drops out" is a more important scene to the producers than one describing the 200 kids who are doing everything they can to get in, but fall short of the calculus. They go on to college and fare quite well anyway - a tremendous success but it's not enough for the movie.

It's been a while since I saw it, but I can't recall if there was any mention of the intense pressures to stop recruiting teachers, to cut down class size and to stop offering extra help. (Pressure from the new administration, of course. He had good rapport with the one principal but the second was a typical wonk.)

I also can't recall if the Union's "help" is depicted. They insisted that he get his classes down to 35 but he refused - open door policy: any kid can come in but it's up to him to make it. His successor had the same problem and had the same issues with the union demanding to "help." Take 100 students and divide them into two sections or three? If you choose two and refuse the third section, don't be surprised when the teacher says "Bring it on, I'll teach'em anyway." And perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if the union bitches about it anyway.

My biggest issue is with the time-frame, though. The movie, for some reason, compressed everything into 1 year and made it seem as if it were possible to go from pre-algebra to AP Calculus in one year if only your teacher were good enough. (Hence the question "If he did it, why can't you?")

Reason #3284 to get annoyed at Hollywood.

1 comment:

  1. My issue with the movie, is much like other teacher movies. How many students? 1 dozen. I'm looking at 140 this year.

    Give me a dozen and I will get them all into Harvard.