Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jaime Escalante vs. Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley: The Racism of Low Expectations

  Do you remember the late Jaime Escalante? 


He gained fame teaching AP Calculus to mostly Latino students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles from 1982 through 1991.  His success--more to the point, the success of his students in achieving passing scores on the national AP Calculus exam--was dramatized in the 1987 film, "Stand and Deliver."  In one of his best roles, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, Edward James Olmos played Mr. Escalante.

Despite his success, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Escalante encountered substantial opposition from teachers' unions, his fellow faculty members and the usual suspects who opposed his program of unyieldingly high expectations for his students.  Mr. Escalante lost his chairmanship of the Math Department at Garfield High, and in 1991, resigned his teaching position there, citing faculty politics and petty jealousy as the reasons for his decision.   According to Wikipedia, at the height of Escalante's influence, Garfield graduates were entering the University of Southern California in such great numbers that they outnumbered all the other high schools in the working-class East Los Angeles region combined. Even students who failed the AP often went on to become star students at California State University, Los Angeles.  However, after his departure, and that of several teachers who had helped him develop the Garfield AP Calculus program, the level of math achievement at Garfield rapidly declined.

Now please meet Elroy Ortiz Oakley, Chancellor of the California Community College System, who heads the nation’s largest community college system of 114 campuses.  In an interview published today in the Los Angeles Times, Chancellor Oakley advocates that intermediate algebra be dropped as a requirement to earn an associate degree. He said, "“College-level algebra is probably the greatest barrier for students — particularly first-generation students, students of color — obtaining a credential.”

At Central High School in Phoenix, where I graduated in 1969, Intermediate Algebra was a prerequisite to even take AP Calculus.  The head of California's community colleges thinks that what was once a high school standard is too tough for students of color.  That is the racism of low expectations.

Jaime Escalante's students were often first-generation immigrants from Mexico or Latin America, or the children of those immigrants. Nearly all of his students were people of color, usually Latinos.  He demanded that they stand and deliver their best. They did.  Jaime Escalante died in 2010.  Mr. Escalante, we mourn your death and need educators like you more than ever.

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