Adapting to New Challenges---It Takes Ganas, Ch 8

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Chapter 8 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante's Secret to Inspired Learning

Though it was only a generation ago that Jaime Escalante made headlines, he lived and taught in a world far different from the one educators face today. Teachers who see the value of Escalante's example now have to apply his ideas in situations he never imagined. But as we have seen before, no matter what stands in the way of a great education, the teachers who are brave enough, energetic enough, and imaginative enough to apply Escalante's methods are the most likely to break through.

Single Parent Households and Increased Poverty

Mary Poplin writes, "Some of the biggest problems facing public education today come from the larger culture – children live in more poverty and families increasingly are single parents. Some problems are exacerbated by the lure of the Internet and social media, which occupy an increasingly inordinate and largely unproductive segment of children and adolescent time. It's hard to compete."[1] Here Poplin identifies two of the biggest challenges to today's teachers, one of which Escalante dealt with in a less serious form and the other not at all. Although he isn't here to give specifics on how to tackle them, Jaime can guide us in meeting these challenges through the lessons he left behind. Whatever the issue in education, whether in LA or Houston or Harlem, Escalante continues to offer remedies that get results.

Commentators tend to tiptoe around flashpoint topics such as the effect of single mothers on their children in school. Powerful statistics can lead to controversial arguments, especially when the subject is culturally or racially charged. The purpose of highlighting the rise in single parent households here is not to pass judgment or make assumptions based on the numbers. The unfortunate truth is that there are far more single-parent households in the country now than when Escalante was in the classroom (up from 19 percent in 1980 to now 34 percent), and that single parenthood is by some measures one of the best predictors of poverty and low educational achievement.

For reasons that are outside the scope of this book, the American nuclear family continues to fragment. In Escalante's time, about one-fifth of students were from single parent households. Today the figure is one in three and growing – this is a huge proportional increase over a generation. Since the Moynahan Report of 1965, there has been a steady increase in children living with single mothers, and these children are overwhelmingly likely to struggle in school with lower grades, more discipline problems, and higher dropout rates. Children whose parents did not go to college are much less likely to attend college themselves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for single mothers in 2014 was about $26,000 per year, compared with the median for married couples of $84,000. More than 39 percent of single mothers lived in poverty compared with less than 8 percent for married couples.[2]

Many of these children have never had fathers at home. Today about 30 percent of white children, nearly half of Latino children, and 73 percent of black children are born to single women. This means children depend on their schools for meals, before and after school care, tutoring, and other needs their families traditionally met, as in Escalante's day. Working mothers trying to juggle two or three low-paying jobs don't have enough hours in the day to help their children with homework, come to school open house nights or PTA meetings, or give them the stable environment they need to study effectively.

Teachers have no control over these social trends that nevertheless have a huge impact on their work. They have to take time away from traditional instruction to shoulder responsibilities that students' families used to cover. And these trends have a disproportionate effect on minority children. The Obama administration points out that two-thirds of black children live with only one parent, and the absence of a father makes it 75 percent more likely that a black child will never graduate high school. Black students are more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended, with boys having a harder time than girls. In fact, of all student groups, single parenting seems to have affected black boys the most. When looking for the best ways to help them, educators with the best results once again take their cues from a thickset Bolivian with a comb-over.

In 2010, black boys made up 17 percent of the student population in Oakland, California, but drew 42 percent of suspensions. In response, superintendent of schools Tony Smith launched the office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) to fill the gaps left by absent fathers and the shortage of black male role models. In a district where 70 percent of teachers were white women, Smith (who is white) recruited black men for a Manhood Development Program. The school board was wary of endorsing a program funneling public money to a race- and gender-specific program, but Smith persevered and got the approval he needed.

One of his most popular instructors was William Blackwell, an Oakland native and NFL veteran who was looking for a way to give back to his community. His approach took a page directly from Jaime Escalante's playbook. "I tell them, 'You belong to me!'" he says. "I take ownership. 'You're not going to act up in my class or any other class. Don't embarrass me.' Some of them have never had a man talk to them straight up like that."

Setting a standard and holding to it worked. After four years, AAMA cut suspensions by about a third and raised the graduation rate 10 percent. Boys inside the program had an average GPA of 2.12 versus 1.7 outside the program. One sixteen-year-old who raised his GPA from 1.5 to 3.5 admitted, "They've held me accountable for the things I need to do."[3]

Accountability, high and consistent expectations, no excuses. Once again results bear out the wisdom of the Escalante way.

The other big new hurdle for teachers in the last thirty-five years has been the wireless world of the Internet in all its permutations. Powerful forces can be both good and bad: fire is both a cheerful giver of life and a terrible destroyer of life. Certainly the Internet has ushered in a long list of benefits. At the same time, however, it has brought a host of problems to modern culture and plenty of headaches to teachers.

First is the distraction factor. Internet use occupies "an increasingly inordinate and largely unproductive segment of children and adolescent time," as Mary Poplin says above. It saps time away from learning, even in class. Especially in class. It's all too easy, especially with smartphones and tablets, to check email, punch in a text, or take a selfie, not just outside of class but in the class with the teacher standing over you. Moreover, the evidence is now in and clear: multitasking does not work. Students who are cruising the Internet while in class are not learning what the class was designed to teach them.[4]

Second is cheating. Children can surf the Internet to discover anything about anything. It is increasingly difficult to know whether students are handing in their own work or something copied from a website. Even some college teachers have all but given up any expectation of receiving truly original work from their students. Escalante and his contemporaries fought against accusations of cheating; today, in many instances, it can be impossible to determine with any assurance that cheating has not occurred.

Third is the lack of practical knowledge. When young people can turn to a smartphone or some other handy source for everything, the result is a generation that can't make change, can't read a map, and doesn't know its home phone number. By making knowledge too easy, the Internet can dumb us down. We can take precautions to prevent this (e.g., by forcing our memories to do some heavy lifting, such as memorizing the Constitution or a poem or lines to a play). But by consulting the Internet for everything, we render our mental faculties lazy, sluggish, and flabby. The end result of unbridled dependence on the Internet is that our practical knowledge of this world becomes impoverished, diminishing our independence and everyday experience.

Fourth is lack of privacy. Social media deprive children of their privacy in ways they seldom realize. Their photos, contact information, friends and relatives, travel plans, and more are out there in the cyberworld to be viewed by anybody. Combining Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Google Hangouts, and all the other popular applications, young users unwittingly give a wide audience access to minute details about their lives. And heaven forbid that young users do something embarrassing such as posting an inappropriate remark or a compromising photo. Nothing published on the Internet ever disappears.

Software Companies Targeting Teachers

Access to private information is part of the controversy over personalized Internet learning tools. Software companies are now targeting teachers directly, bypassing school and district review protocols to put products in teachers' hands, sometimes for free. As The New York Times observed, "Scores of education technology start-ups ... are marketing new digital learning tools directly to teachers." As a result, they've "left school district technology directors scrambling to keep track of which companies are collecting student information – and how they are using it."[5]

Teachers are not equipped to vet programs for safety and privacy. There are special problem with adaptive learning products because they capture personal information. "Some schools have experienced data breaches," reported the Times. "In a few cases student records have been publicly posted on the internet."

Some legal experts believe signing teachers up directly for online services rather than going through the school district "skirts federal privacy laws. Administrators ... say they want teachers to have free access to the best learning applications. Yet guarding against the potential pitfalls – data breaches, identity theft, unauthorized student profiling – is a herculean effort." Education technology software was a nearly $8.4 billion business in 2014. Each of the 14,000 school districts in America is scrambling to handle this massive new medium on its own.

Of the 14,000 answers they come up with, the best will be no-nonsense, consistent, respectful of others, and focused on high standards of learning. They will set clear boundaries for phones and other devices that keep them off and out of reach during class. No negotiating, no whining, no exceptions. Consequences are swift and inevitable. Violators must hand over their devices until the end of class. Repeat offenders go for a chat with the principal.

If this sounds like something out of a parenting magazine, it is also a reminder of the timeless and universal nature of what works to keep a classroom on track. "All right, you burros," we can almost hear Escalante say. "I'm asking you nice one time to turn those things off and put them out of sight. The next one I see, I'm taking it up and reading the emails out loud to the class. You don't need these little toys in class anyway with me up here to entertain you," which he would illustrate with an enthusiastic dance step or two. "Pay attention, learn your calculus, and in a few years you won't be buying smartphones any more – you'll be designing them!"


1. Mary Poplin quotations from author interview (3/16/15)
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2. Census Bureau figures at; and
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3. Information on AAMA and Oakland schools from "How Oakland's public schools are fighting to save black boys" The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell MSNBC, July 15, 2014
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4. Criticism of multitasking at
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5. Quotations on Internet technology and privacy from "Privacy Falls as Education Apps Spread Haphazardly" by Natasha Singer, The New York Times, March 12, 2015
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