Chapter 10 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
Imagine you learned that you were going to die soon and had to find a new home for your children. Imagine further that you had two choices. Your first choice was a wealthy family where your kids would have plenty of money and every material thing they wanted but where their happiness was of no real concern. They would live a regimented life doing what someone else directed them to do. Your second choice was a family of modest means who would love your children, spend lots of time with them, encourage them, and do all they could to make them happy. Virtually any parent would choose the second option: happiness and personal fulfillment over wealth.
A Shift in the Focus of Education
Yet when we talk about success in education, the focus is increasingly on students’ earning potential: are they likely to land a job in a well-paying field? As one surveys the vast field of books and articles on the value of education, everything from presidential speeches to sales pitches from testing companies underscores that success in education is measured in terms of material gain. Few parents would turn their children over to a foster family that revered money above all else, yet that is frequently the stated goal of laws, educational directives, campaign promises, promoters of testing, admissions gatekeepers, and a host of other interests that shape education policy in America today. The higher goals of education thus get shortchanged.
Future financial success is only the latest in a series of national educational objectives stretching back over decades. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the impetus was to move from behind to pass the Soviet Union in the space race. The plan worked: after sending the first artificial satellite and the first astronaut into outer space, the Soviets were swept aside as Americans traveled safely to the moon and back. Going on half a century later, the American lunar landings remain unmatched.
During the Great Society years of the 1960’s, extremely broad federal educational laws were enacted with the aim of educating all students more equally. Unprecedented billions of dollars were directed to schools with poor or disadvantaged student populations to give those children the same education as well off students. Tens of thousands of students rode school buses from their own communities to other neighborhoods in order to satisfy prescribed racial quotas.
Another memorable goal of education has been to make American businesses more competitive in the world marketplace. As the economy becomes more global, tomorrow’s workers will be competing with those from Europe, Asia, and the developing world. In recent years this has led to increasing attention to international competition. Michael Barber, chief education advisor for Pearson, the world leader in educational testing materials and programs, is one who holds this wide view, saying, “Students are going to be part of a global labor market. Either the work moves or the people move … We want to make sure when we say someone is good at math they are good at math anywhere in the world.”
Yet if parents honestly answered where their children would live in the event of their death, they would also have to admit that earning potential is not the only way to measure educational success. It may not even be the best way. In private moments, policymakers of every stripe would likely admit the same feeling. There is absolutely nothing wrong with financial success. All else being equal, most anyone would rather be wealthy than not. But is that a worthy goal for the American educational system? If not, what should the goal of education be?
This is a critical question. For if we don’t know or can’t agree on the objective of education, there is no way to judge whether any given educational policy is good or bad. Once an objective is clearly identified and articulated, it becomes far easier to determine whether any policy decision is right or wrong: if it takes us in the direction of our objective, it is right; if it doesn’t, it is wrong. Trying to build a national educational policy without a national consensus on clear objectives is like Alice’s experience in the animated version of her story when she was lost in Wonderland. Coming to a fork in the road, she asks the caterpillar which way to go. In return, the caterpillar ask where she’s headed. Alice admits that she doesn’t know. The caterpillar then observes that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do. For all the talk and investment in the question of which road to take, the discussion of public education in America is very thin on where, exactly, we are going.
The notion that financial gain should be the ultimate objective of education begins to fade in the light of careful scrutiny. For starters, three-quarters of high school graduates will never earn a four-year college degree. Some of them will be cooks, tailors, hair stylists, mechanics, carpenters, assembly line workers, and others who pursue a career that doesn’t require a college diploma. They may want to move up the income ladder later on or be happy to remain where they are. They are not chasing after immense wealth; they just want to earn a decent living doing something they enjoy.
Students who step off the traditional college track may be as bright and ambitious as any college graduate at the head of the class. They find their callings as artists, musicians, film-makers, designers, poets, inventors, or any of the many other thought leaders in our culture whose phenomenal artistic abilities aren’t measured in terms of academic performance. Some of them will be millionaires, far out-earning their college-graduate contemporaries. Golfing legend Tiger Woods, Microsoft co-founder and multi-billionaire Bill Gates, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, record executive David Geffin, and fashion icon Ralph Lauren are only a few examples of the legions of college dropouts whose creativity and drive brought them success and riches even without a degree.
There are also many college-bound students who are not driven by money. Librarians and nurses don’t pursue their fields to get rich but to be enriched by their work and to enrich others. Soldiers and sailors could typically make more money in civilian life. The best example before us is teachers, many of whom add graduate studies to their college experience, and barely earn their way into the middle class.
What Is the Objective of Education in America?
What then is the objective of K-12 education in America, and what should it be?
On the way to answering that question, we have to determine who is the client, the “customer,” of American education. Whose needs should be the focus of our educational objective, whatever it is? According to the seminal report A Nation at Risk, the client is multinational companies competing against the Japanese and other foreign business interests. The National Defense Education Act seems to single out military and defense organizations it takes to surpass the Russians. No Child Left Behind lifts up students with learning disabilities or other challenges. Common Core focuses less on students and more on schools and the performance of educators.
Yet there can be no doubt what Escalante’s answer to the question would have been: “The customer of education is the student!” Students were at the center of everything Jaime did. Students are the ultimate recipients of education. In consequence, any assessment of their education will hinge on what difference it makes to their lives and, in particular, what they are able to accomplish because of their education.
Professor of education, Mary Poplin, believes that education serves two customers, each with its own set of objectives. The first is the student, who “needs to have good general knowledge and the ability and practice of thinking critically.” She continues, “It is the responsibility of each generation to pass on its knowledge, to educate students broadly in wide ranging theories of how things work, history, literature, the arts and sciences. It is also our responsibility to provide students the understanding of and opportunities to practice the virtues of intellectual and physical work and the ethics that lie behind creating and living a good life.” This is a long list, none of which has anything to do with climbing the corporate ladder or building a big retirement account but everything to do with gaining a broad grasp of how the world works, how to appreciate it, and how to “practice the virtues” of “creating and living a good life.”
The second customer of education, Poplin suggests, is the parents “who want the best for their children; who want their children to be acquainted enough with the various possibilities and background knowledge to be able to choose their field of work and to have the skills and virtues necessary to apply this knowledge effectually.” As she points out, “Escalante didn’t just teach math; he taught the value of hard work and achievement. He taught virtues and mathematics.”
Escalante’s former students seldom if ever need to recall a calculus equation that they learned from him. What Kimo taught them about mathematics for the AP calculus test has faded over the years to an indistinct and distant memory. Yet what he taught about perseverance, personal accountability, hard work, and striving for excellence became a foundation on which they built successful lives and careers.
A small but representative sampling of Garfield High alumni who studied math under Jaime Escalante shows that while not all of them used math in their jobs, they all thrived by putting his larger lessons into practice. While some were doubtless more financially successful than others, every person listed here has had the satisfaction of a fulfilling, meaningful, accomplished career:
- Jorge Samayoa, the first Garfield graduate ever accepted at MIT. Two of his brothers went to Harvard.
- Daniel Castro, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering at MIT, then added a law degree from UC Berkeley. Today he runs his own patent law firm whose clients include Apple and Microsoft.
- Olga Reyes, who went on to get a master’s degree in civil engineering and is now a nationwide authority on bridge design and construction.
- Victor Mendez, a graduate of Cal State LA, who has led major product development projects at California Edison.
- Anthony Garcia, who received a degree in sports medicine from Cal Poly Pomona and is now a professional trainer.
- Ben Rodriguez, who won an internship at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Escalante kept him in class by failing him so he couldn’t play on the football team.
- Erica Camacho, now a mathematics professor at Arizona State.
- Christopher Martinez, today an attorney with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission.
- Leticia Rodriguez, the basis for the character Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver, earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering and became an electronics design engineer for Xerox.
We noted previously that MIT professor Amar Bose, inventor of the popular speakers, became a great admirer of Escalante’s students. One year in the 1990s, fourteen of them were attending Harvard, Yale, or MIT at the same time. Bose covered the cost for Escalante to spend Thanksgiving with them in Massachusetts. Bose also had a standing offer to any Escalante graduate: apply to MIT, get admitted, and he would pay all expenses.
Even students who didn’t make it to MIT benefited greatly from Escalante’s teaching. The most important lessons he taught went well beyond higher math. In 1997 Wayne Bishop, an admissions advisor at Cal State LA observed, “We got literally hundreds [of Garfield applicants] who had scored two or less on the AP calculus test or had never even taken it but had worked hard at their pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry so they could take Jaime Escalante’s calculus class but fell short of their goal. They were still better off, much better off, for having made that effort … their well-honed study skills allowed them to succeed in unprecedented numbers.”
Education researcher David Rose believes that chasing after personal economic achievement is a false god promoted by a misguided cultural and political system: “The primary goal of reform was always presented as an economic one: to prepare our young people for the world of work and to protect our nation’s position in the global economy.” However, he says, “If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder.”
Writing in The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, Lani Guinier reinforces Rose’s argument. “Meaningful participation in a democratic society depends upon citizens who are willing to develop and utilize these three skills: collaborative problem solving, independent thinking, and creative leadership. But these skills bear no relationship to success in the testocracy. Aptitude tests do not predict leadership, emotional intelligence, or the capacity to work with others to contribute to society … Success isn’t about being the best test-taker in the room … It’s about being able to work with other people who have different strengths than you and who are also prepared to back you up when you make a mistake or when you feel vulnerable.”
Earlier we heard from Nashville teacher Houston Sarratt. His grandfather, Madison Sarratt, was a campus legend at Vanderbilt University who arrived as a professor of mathematics in 1916 and stayed until his death sixty-two years later. He famously challenged a class of young men about to take a math test with the following: “Today I am going to give you two examinations, one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry, for there are many good men in this world today who cannot pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good men in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.”
In her classic essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers  articulates the critical difference between useful learning and the rote memorization of facts. “… although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” She uses the example of teaching a child to play one song by rote on the piano as opposed to teaching him to read music. Rote teaching produces a very limited result – one piece of music learned – while teaching the method allows the student to play anything. It is the old story about the difference between giving a hungry man a fish and teaching him how to fish. Giving him a fish keeps him from being hungry until the next meal, while teaching him to fish gives him the knowledge to feed himself for a lifetime.
Sayers adds, “Modern education concentrates on ‘teaching subjects,’ leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusion to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along.” Traditional education on the other hand “concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.”
Though her essay was written in the 1940s, her battle cry resonates with many today who lay the blame for failure in the education system to a tunnel-vision focus on a few facts in a few subjects (often in order to pass a specific test). As an educational objective, learning rote facts is a misguided substitute for learning how to think and reason. “For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armour was never so necessary,” she writes. “By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word … They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back.” All the “devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.
“To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door … The sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”
What Should Be Our Objective for Education?
James Barham, general editor of TheBestSchools.org, has a simple and straightforward answer to the question of what the objective of education should be. Rather than any measure of academic prowess (and Barham holds a master’s degree from Harvard as well as a doctorate from Notre Dame), the objective should be happiness and virtue. “It pretty much translates into good, old-fashioned common sense in the Gradillas/Escalante tradition,” he observes, “emphasis in the elementary grades on character building and the three Rs, in the higher grades adding in the humanities, the sciences, and citizenship.”
David Tomar, whose exposé of ghostwriting and college cheating rocked the Chronicle of Higher Education some years back, believes the primary objective of K-12 education is “socialization: within peer groups, with authority, within a structure that imparts cultural norms and society’s laws and values, and within a set of disciplines that are considered inherent to the continuity and growth of our economy and way of life.” In his view education should mold the whole person, imparting “learning to coexist in American society and in a cultural enclave: learning how to cooperate and collaborate, how to compete, how to follow rules, how to nurture strengths and overcome weaknesses, how to be a citizen.”
Tomar concludes, “Curriculum and content should foster a love of learning and knowledge instead of today’s far more compelling pressure to perform well in evaluation. I favor teaching and learning over training and testing … Perhaps the purpose of K-12 education should be socialization within a culture that is more compelled by knowledge than performance evaluation.”
Certainly all the hours students spend in class by the time they graduate from high school ought to make them expert in something. What should they be experts in? If we know that, we are much closer to articulating the purpose of education. Then we can plot the steps and shape the policies to achieve that objective.
Some experts tell us that mastery in any field can be attained by 10,000 hours of work in that field. The average high school graduate will have spent around 16,000 hours in school. That’s because K-12 represents about 180 days of school a year over 13 years at roughly 7 hours a day. Multiplying these numbers together yields roughly 16,000 hours.
How should all those hours be used so that students’ education and lives are maximally benefited? Socialization, moral training, emotional intelligence, extracurricular activities, and athletic development certainly deserve some of those hours. But the bulk of those hours should go into developing two types of knowledge skills. First, the directly practical, including the three Rs as James Barham mentions above. Second, the life-enhancing and affirming. These are the “learning to learn” skills that Dorothy Sayers and Mary Poplin highlight: reasoning, marshaling evidence, persuasion and rhetoric, critical and analytical reading, and memorization techniques that allow students to continue learning.
The flip side here is that whatever students learn in school, they tend to forget very quickly. In math, for instance, which is a skill rather than a spectator sport, anyone not working problems in a given area will start to forget what they have learned within two weeks. Of course, getting back up to speed will be quicker the second time around, but even so, we forget so much of what we learn. That being the case, what is the value of 16,000 hours of learning if only, say, two percent of what was learned sticks over the long term?
Two percent of 16,000 is 320. Could a 16,000-hour education be compressed into 320 hours if everything learned in those hours could stick? In raising this question, the 1980’s comic character Father Guido Sarducci comes to mind, of Saturday Night Live fame, whose Five Minute University promised to teach everything students would remember a year after they graduated. A dramatically compressed learning regimen may seem like a ridiculous idea, but it underscores the waste in time spent learning that results in massive forgetting. Many of those hours never do students any good. If the point is to educate students rather than warehouse them, then shouldn’t we try to be as efficient as possible, using as little time as possible to gain the same educational outcomes?
Henry Ford, one of the wealthiest and most successful people in American history, never went to high school. He taught himself the basics of machine construction by dismantling a pocket watch his father gave him. At age 16 he left home to work as an apprentice in a factory that made railroad cars. At 28 he took a night job in one of the early electric generating plants; two years later he was its chief engineer. Years afterward when his automobile company was building half of all the cars in the United States, Henry Ford faced a lawsuit. Attorneys on the other side tried to discredit him, attempting to show he was stupid by asking him questions about various matters of fact that presumably he should have known but did not. Ford told the opposing attorneys that he had a phone on his desk and employed people he could call to answer those questions if he ever needed them answered. He knew that having a library of facts at hand was far less advantageous, practical, and profitable than being in a position, cognitively, to figure out how to learn them if occasion required.
Emanuel Lasker, a contemporary of Henry Ford, mirrored this view that education is more than merely a store of facts, and that chasing after rote knowledge is a waste of time. Lasker was a philosopher, mathematician, and world chess champion from 1894 to 1921. To him chess was a metaphor for life. He wrote:
“Our education, in all domains of endeavor, is frightfully wasteful of time and values … Education in chess has to be an education in independent thinking and judging. Chess must not be memorized, simply because it is not important enough … Memory is too valuable to be stocked with trifles. Of my fifty-seven years I have applied at least thirty to forgetting most of what I had learned or read, and since I succeeded in this I have acquired a certain ease and cheer which I should never again like to be without. If need be, I can increase my skill in Chess; if need be I can do that of which I have no idea at present. I have stowed little in my memory, but I can apply that little, and it is of good use in many and varied emergencies. I keep it in order, but resist every attempt to increase its dead weight.
“You should keep in mind no names, nor numbers, nor isolated incidents, not even results, but only methods. The method is plastic. It is applicable in every situation. The result, the isolated incident, is rigid, because bound to wholly individual conditions. The method produces numerous results; a few of those will remain in our memory, and as long as they remain few, they are useful to illustrate and keep alive the rules which order a thousand results.”
There are fish, and there is fishing.
In the end, K-12 education has an obligation to prepare students to earn a living and have a career, and is therefore concerned with the directly practical. However, a key truth too often overlooked is that this preparation is not only – not even mostly – a matter of vacuuming up facts to be spewed out later. It is essential that we see the practical role in knowledge and skills that are life enhancing and affirming rather than a means of earning a paycheck. To truly enrich our lives we look to things like music, art, the joy of conversation, an appreciation of beauty.
Above all things, education should empower us to enjoy the beauty and good things of life, not as a form of self-indulgence, but for our mutual benefit – to make the world a better place for ourselves and others. Yes, education is a key to financial security. But success is more than money in the bank; it is also a sense of contentment; a curiosity about the world we live in; the satisfaction of learning how to learn so that any knowledge is within reach; and above all the confidence that whatever the world throws at us and however it changes, we have the nimbleness of mind and fortitude of spirit to deal with it. The ability to make money and a career thus becomes a byproduct of education, whose aim is to prepare students for a life in which no good thing need be withheld, in which all good things become possible.
That is the life parents would wish for their children if they knew they had to entrust them to someone else. That is the life so many of Escalante’s alumni have enjoyed since they sat in his classroom. That is the life the educational community should strive to deliver to every student.
1. Michael Barber quotations from “Everybody Hates Pearson” by Jennifer Reingold, Fortune, January 21, 2015
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2. Mary Poplin quotations from author interview (3/16/15)
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3. Information about Garfield alumni from author interviews with alumni, Henry Gradillas, Angelo Villavicencio, and Don Mroscak
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4. Wayne Bishop quotation from email exchange with Jerry Jesness, September 14, 1997
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5. David Rose quotation from “School Reform Fails the Test” by Mike Rose, The American Scholar, Winter 2015
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6. The Tyranny of the Meritocracy by Lani Guinier, Boston: Beacon Press, 2015
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7. Madison Sarratt quotation at studentorg.vanderbilt.edu/honorcouncil/honor-quotes
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8. “The Lost Tools of Learning” at gbt.org/text/sayers.html
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9. James Barham quotation from correspondence with author (2/1/15)
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10. David Tomar quotations from correspondence with author (1/8/15)
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11. Emanuel Lasker quotation from Lasker’s Manual of Chess by Emanuel Lasker. Dover Publications, Kindle Edition. Kindle locations 8654-8657
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