Chapter 12 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante's Secret to Inspired Learning
One of the hallmarks of a great legacy is its universal scope. Jaime Escalante showed the world the value of hard work and dedication in achieving an exemplary education. His two main rules, so powerful in their simplicity, were "No excuses" and "Never give up." He also taught us that change-resistant and self-serving bureaucracies are a fact of life; whatever is accomplished is done in spite of them.
Escalante battled educational red tape throughout his career at Garfield. He realized that bureaucratic forces, too often ill-informed and isolated from the classroom, were immovable. Consequently, there was no point in wasting time and resources railing against them. The better course was to execute an end run around them. In today's age, when educational bureaucracies and special interests are more powerful and deeply rooted than ever, Escalante's legacy inspires a radical response. This response flows out of a general principle that we will call the principle of radical decentralization.
Radical decentralization attempts to break up concentrations of illegitimate power by whatever legitimate means are available. It may mean anything from dismantling (against all odds) a bureaucratic entity completely to making an end run around it. Escalante's techniques included an effective mix of bending, breaking, and even strengthening bureaucratic rules; finding and exploiting areas where the bureaucracy was weak; making the most of rules that guaranteed a safe and effective learning environment; discovering ways to leverage his success and notoriety; and at times circumventing the bureaucracy completely, as when he started his own summer school at East Los Angeles College because Garfield High refused to host it.
In the same spirit, Houston principal Thaddeus Lott fired ineffective teachers and administrators by the dozen. Highly effective teachers and administrators in highly dysfunctional school systems understand the obstacles that stand in the way of students getting a good education and then figure out how to get around those obstacles. Sometimes this means making do with less, as when KIPP schools overcame burdensome government controls and union demands by walking away from government money and unionized teachers.
The word "radical" comes from the Latin word meaning root. Its use in the principle of radical decentralization plays on two senses of that word: (1) getting to the root of the problem; (2) empowering the grass roots to take effective action in reclaiming our freedoms. Radical decentralization is what we can do, either by applying effective pressure to government or by doing an end-run around government, to break up freedom-eroding concentrations of power.
Radical decentralization does not lament or wring its hands about the abuses of power that it finds. It is not interested in mere words. Nor does radical decentralization merely strive to look busy. It is not interested in activities that show our heart is in the right place but that in the end make no real difference. Rather, it attempts to discover and then implement effective ways to break up unhealthy concentrations of power that undermine our freedoms.
What does radical decentralization look like? Imagine an out-of-control fire that's inflicting large-scale damage and that's fed by a gas pipeline. You can, with deep emotion, bewail how bad the fire is. You can even throw some water on the fire. But neither of these activities will dampen, much less put out, the fire. To fight the fire effectively, you need to figure out some way to turn off the gas coming through the pipeline. That can mean turning off the main valve that controls the gas. It may mean disrupting the power grid that controls the valve that controls the gas. It may require imagination and ingenuity to figure out how to turn off the gas. And it may require courage to take the necessary measures to stop the flow once you've figured out how. But until you find some way to stop the flow of gas, the fire will continue to rage.
As a strategy for dismantling unhealthy concentrations of power, radical decentralization promises great success in the revitalization of American education – but only if the promise is kept. One of the longest-running disappointments in the history of American education is the promise over many years to shut down the Department of Education. Despite the resolve of many politicians, concerned citizens, and finally a sitting president who pledged on the campaign trail to dismantle the Department, it never happened.
Attracting the Wrong People
We have seen that there is a strong connection in America between education and politics that goes back to colonial times. It would seem that if a majority of people wanted to shutter the Department of Education, or double its size, or change the way teachers are trained and certified, it would be a straightforward matter of voting in candidates that shared those goals, revising the laws and policies as required, and moving forward with reform. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who also founded the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, expressed it this way. "I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office."
The difficulty with this approach, however, is that our present government systemically attracts the wrong people, who then further debase the political climate, which then further attracts the wrong people. Feedback loops like this are pernicious and eventually disintegrate, though for now the loop is in full swing. To say that our present government systemically attracts the wrong people may seem overblown. Yet much of what we call democracy these days is window dressing. Unelected bureaucracies are increasingly calling the shots. Moreover, elected public office faces so many temptations to do the wrong thing that many who start out as Friedman's "right people" end up as "wrong people."
The dilemma facing Friedman and the rest of us is how to achieve the right political climate that will induce the wrong people to do the right thing – in education as well as in everything else. The wrong people will do everything in their power to guarantee that the wrong political climate will continue. It seems, therefore, that the wrong people ensure the wrong political climate and the wrong political climate ensures the wrong people. How do we then break free of this vicious circle?
Even with the right political climate, would the wrong people refrain from doing the wrong thing? The wrong people are, by their very nature, loath to give the right political climate an opportunity to succeed. But even if it succeeds, Friedman is depending on the wrong people, suitably cajoled by the right political climate, to do the right thing. Yet what happens if the cajoling fails? What if the wrong people, taking a principled stand on the wrong principles, decide that they will continue to do the wrong thing? The principle of radical decentralization bypasses the wrong people entirely by avoiding the power centers they control or, ultimately, by pulling those centers apart and dissipating that power.
Was Friedman merely suggesting that, as leaven diffuses through dough, the right ideas need simply permeate the culture to transform the political climate of opinion and thus bring the wrong people to heel? Reality check: How is that working out for society at large, and American public education in particular? Are the wrong people doing the right thing because their critics have come up with bright ideas for bringing about the right political climate of opinion? Have the wrong people stopped doing wrong things, such as passing laws that undercut our freedoms or imposing regulations that suffocate promising educational initiatives? Are the wrong people still rewarding indolence and apathy, penalizing talent and industry? To pose these questions is to answer them.
This is the state of contemporary democracy: ideas clash, various factions dig in, and no coherent political climate of opinion can be established. Different politicians with different constituencies are listening to different viewpoints and coming to conclusions so diametrically opposed that effective government becomes impossible. Where government should be responsive to the exigencies of the moment and the will of the people, there is deadlock. This has been the status quo in Washington for decades now, to the detriment of education at every level and every other aspect of life. Where government functions at all, it is through bloated bureaucracies that trundle along by inertia, expanding their numbers and reach, like bacterial colonies in a petri dish that multiply until they have consumed all productive resources.
It is reasonable to hope that the absence of a coherent political climate of opinion would render government ineffective, inept, and wasteful but, in the main, harmless. After all, with so many clashing ideas, some good, some bad, won't the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, simply cancel each other out? Ineffective, inept, and wasteful, yes, but not harmless. The problem is that in a political climate with a wide diversity of opinion, the wrong people will always have a constituency that enables them not just to do the wrong thing but also to profit from wrongdoing.
In Escalante's world there were always jealous teachers, unimaginative administrators, and politicians who could not imagine giving up any of their influence or funding, all of whom benefited from leaving matters as they were. To endorse change, even in the unlikely event that they saw the need for it, would be to admit they had been wrong all along. And there would always be others around them who also gained from the status quo and would pressure them not to rock the boat. Simply put, the wrong people always find enablers. Conversely, without a unified political climate of opinion, there is little or no political profit in doing the right thing. It isn't worth the risk.
The presumed benefits of establishing the right political climate of opinion are overblown not because such a climate of opinion wouldn't be a good thing but precisely because available evidence suggests that it is unattainable. Where have we heard those words, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there's the United States of America." Hope of unity springs eternal, but the fact is that we live in a society deeply riven on the most fundamental issues. We are nowhere near establishing the right political climate of opinion that can hold the wrong people in check.
Therefore let's not waste time trying to establish the right political climate and instead cut to the chase. By all means, let the various factions write their treatises and promote their causes in an effort to move the political climate of opinion in wholesome directions. But the day is far spent and stronger medicine is required. For Friedman, establishing the right political climate of opinion was a means to an end – to get the wrong people to do the right thing by making it politically unprofitable for them to do otherwise. Friedman was an economist, and economists put a premium on incentives. But what happens when the incentives aren't working?
Friedman counseled an indirect path: change the climate of opinion, thereby incentivize right actions, and thereby get the wrong people to do the right thing. Yet instead of taking this indirect path, let us shift the focus to directly preventing the wrong people from undermining the freedoms of the right people.
But who are the wrong people? And who are the right people? Wrong people are not wrong because they commit high crimes or misdemeanors. Wrong people are not wrong because they are sinners. Wrong people are not wrong because they hold certain views on abortion or marriage or religion or any other issue. Wrong people are wrong not because of their faults but because of their presumed virtues.
Wrong people are wrong because they think their high ideals give them the moral authority to impose their ideals on the rest of us. They are wrong because they presume to know so much better than the rest of us what is best for us and are eager to force their conception of what is best on us. "The purpose of freedom," wrote novelist Bernard Malamud, "is to create it for others." Wrong people are wrong because they use their freedom to deny it to others. Wrong people are wrong because they make themselves masters and the rest of us slaves.
The Purpose of Freedom
Slavery in enlightened liberal democracies is more subtle than in times past, but its marks are readily visible: An indignant aristocracy ("the elite") identifies a problem, real or imagined, whose solution it regards as absolutely critical to humanity's well-being (e.g., rectifying inequality in education). The elite are indignant because the unwashed masses are seen to be significantly contributing to the problem (e.g., the unwashed masses prefer local control). The solution the elite light upon, however, entails significant costs and burdens, which the unwashed masses are not eager to bear. Bypassing the will of the people, the elite use the power of the state to extract compliance, rationalizing that this violation of freedoms is justified because the problem is so severe. Marxist socialism, liberal progressivism, extremist environmentalism, and, yes, top-down federally controlled and union sponsored education all follow this pattern.
Politicians, bureaucrats, and educators have spent half a century slicing the population of American school children into discrete categories, then declaring certain of them to be victims whose special requirements must be met no matter what the cost. Their demands have run roughshod over the non-victim classes and over everyone else who was forced to pay regardless of whether they shared the sense of urgency. Certainly many inequalities needed correcting, but the overwhelming trend was to go hopelessly overboard, trampling the freedoms of the majority in the process.
Jaime Escalante, a native Spanish speaker, deplored the English as a Second Language programs that he believed kept Hispanic children from achieving all they could. Henry Gradillas, also a native Spanish speaker, agreed with him. However, the people in power insisted that the Spanish-speaking students should participate in expensive programs that delayed their transition to English and kept them from achieving in their studies the success of native English speakers.
On a broader scale, consider the untold millions of dollars spent over decades to achieve racial balance in schools by busing children out of their neighborhoods and into others with a different racial mix. It was a controversial program whose costs and benefits are still being assessed today. All the same, court orders mandating busing remained in place long after any possible benefit. Why? Because a self-appointed elite perceived that it was needed and because it bestowed power on the elite.
The same dynamic is evident outside the educational field. Take the federally mandated national speed limit of 55 miles per hour, imposed in 1973 to save oil during the energy crisis. Even at its enactment the law was controversial, and actual fuel savings were reported to be less than one percent. After the energy crisis ended, the federal government refused to return control of speed limits back to the states, where it had originally been, saying the slower speed was now a matter of national safety. Even after the crisis the elite had used to justify taking control of speed limits was over, they came up with a new crisis. Finally the law was repealed in 1995.
As mentioned earlier, it would seem that encroachments like these on our freedoms have a straightforward solution: if the wrong people are using the power of the state to limit our freedoms, get the right people into government so that they can use the power of the state to restore our freedoms. There are two problems with this solution: (1) the attractor factor and (2) the bureaucratic ratchet.
The attractor factor refers to the fact that government, by its very nature, tends to attract the wrong people. Because government has tremendous power, it attracts people who are eager to game the system, obtaining by force of law what they could never achieve through consensus. Thinking that the best way to change the world in their image is through government, they compel the masses to alter their ways under threat of the state. These worshippers of government are the wrong people. By contrast, people not attracted to government are typically more interested in getting on with productive activities. These are the right people, but it usually takes a shockingly bad state of affairs to rouse them to take part in government.
The other problem, the bureaucratic ratchet, is that by the time the right people get into government to restore our freedoms, bureaucratic structures and regulations are in place that make it far more difficult to recover those freedoms than it was to remove them in the first place. Bureaucracies are self-perpetuating. It is in their interest to swell their ranks and inflate their importance. Once a government bureaucracy is in place, it gets a budget. Year by year members of that bureaucracy, convinced that their work is of signal importance to the well-being of our nation, lobby for an increased budget, which they almost always get. Thus the bureaucracy moves in only one direction, like a ratchet, growing ever larger and never smaller. The longer the ratchet turns, the harder it is to unturn it.
Many of our government bureaucracies range from completely useless (wasting productive resources) to downright destructive (steadily eroding our freedoms). If enough of them could be removed, the public would experience a sudden surge of freedom (and at the end of the day perhaps even a balanced federal budget). There would be no downside here except for the out-of-work bureaucrats who now need to find new jobs. But the eradication of these bureaucracies is not about to happen because for decades now the ratchet has been turning and these bureaucracies have thus become entrenched. If the political will is there, by all means put them out of business. But the track record of our politicians, even those who cast themselves as freedom's valiant defenders, is not good. The more conservative politicians are usually happy if they can simply slow the growth of freedom-undermining bureaucracies. To actually reverse the ratchet is for them the stuff of dreams.
Yet dream we must. The right people still aspire to eradicate power structures that undercut our freedoms despite the long odds that they will ever fully succeed. However, the fundamental aim of radical decentralization differs from the other approaches out there in that the aim is not reform. Reformation assumes that something of intrinsic value has been bent out of shape and needs to be bent back into shape. But the structures that compromise our fundamental liberties don't fit that bill. They are unredeemable. Nor is the aim of radical decentralization anarchy. Government has a legitimate sphere of operation; we need it to defend our nation and to provide for the common good in ways that are beyond the scope of other organizations. The problem arises when that sphere continually ratchets up, expanding to encompass areas where government lacks legitimacy. Nor is the aim revolution, as in a complete overthrow and reconstruction of existing structures. The basic framework for government as outlined in the U.S. Constitution is not easily improved.
The watchword for recovering our freedoms is decentralization, the purpose of which, as we have said, is to break up illegitimate concentrations of power with whatever legitimate means at hand. A fundamental principle of warfare is concentration of forces – to win at war, you need to focus your forces, thereby making them as effective as possible. The reverse of this principle is also a principle and is even better known than concentration of forces, namely, divide and conquer. Divide and conquer seeks victory by preventing the other side from concentrating their forces. Decentralization can employ a divide-and-conquer strategy, but it is more general, such as exposing a corrupt power structure and thereby shriveling it before the intensity of a spotlight.
Given a government responsive to the will of the people, decentralization would be part of the ordinary political process. For instance, government organizations with worthy goals might be instituted and then, when found to have fulfilled their mission, would be disbanded. Unfortunately, the attractor factor and the bureaucratic ratchet make this a very rare occurrence. And when such organizations transmogrify into self-perpetuating bureaucracies, mere decentralization is no longer enough. What's needed instead is a radicalized form of decentralization.
Though he never used the term, Jaime Escalante was a dedicated follower of radical decentralization. It was his intuitive response to the endless roadblocks that self-serving bureaucracies put in his way. His principal, Henry Gradillas, joined him in this and together they put the basics of the concept into practice at Garfield High for as long as they were there.
While others were wringing their hands and saying Latino children could never be high achievers, Escalante and Gradillas summoned the ingenuity to prove them wrong. Every student they worked with benefitted from their efforts to circumvent the powerful forces that hampered them. Often, in jiu-jitsu fashion, they redirected these forces arrayed against them in order to get the best from their students. Books, funding, curriculum subjects, time, commitment, publicity, political clout – whatever they needed to reach their goal of effectively teaching AP calculus to promising pupils, they got in spite of the impediments.
How can radical decentralization be used to transform education on a larger scale? To go from the drawing board to the next level requires what engineers call "proof of concept." Fortunately for us, and true to form, Jaime Escalante is once again one step ahead of the game. If we heed his example, he will teach us.
1. Milton Friedman quotation is widely cited; available at goodreads.com/quotes/738162-i-do-not-believe-that-the-solution-to-our-problem
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2. Quotation about unity in America from a speech by Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, at the Democratic National Convention, July 27, 2004
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3. Bernard Malamud quotation from The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.
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