Teaching from the Top-Down---It Takes Ganas, Ch 6

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Chapter 6 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante's Secret to Inspired Learning

For Escalante, inspiring and equipping students to excel depended on taking charge of the teaching environment: schedule, curriculum, teaching technique, discipline, testing, everything. Ever analyzing what he sensed around him both as teacher and department head, and with the support of principal Henry Gradillas, Escalante constantly fine-tuned his teaching approach to make the most of the time available. He could re-explain something a different way, add another help session, or move on to a new topic depending on the needs of a particular class on a specific day.

During Escalante's tenure in the 1970's and 80's, Garfield High was a three-year school; the youngest students were in the tenth grade. Almost none of them had any advanced math in middle school that would have prepared them for advanced calculus. To ready them for the AP exam, Jaime had to cram five or six years' worth of math into three. That meant blazing his own trail, fighting for new textbooks, carving out extra time, and dealing with endless complaints from the bureaucracy for not doing what he was expected to do. He was expected to meet expectations, not to vastly exceed expectations!

Escalante's success stemmed in large part from the rapport he established with students and the attention he gave to them. He took time with his students and challenged them to make time to learn even when it meant giving up other activities. He talked with parents when necessary, bought the kids meals, gave them rewards, and otherwise became part of their lives outside the classroom. He resisted the ever-present interference and control from above that was almost always an impediment to success, seldom a benefit.

Decision-Making Taken Out of the Classroom

Great teaching originates in the classroom. It has to. That's the only place where all the variables in a class of students can be clearly seen and assessed. It is the point of engagement where teachers take the initiative to apply their unique skills and interests in the best way possible. Everything else is generalizations and assumptions.

Yet for more than sixty years, the trend in American education has been to transfer decision-making and control of the classroom out of teachers' hands and into the higher rungs of the national educational bureaucracy. Rather than encouraging local oversight and equipping teachers for the task, the process has become increasingly centralized to the detriment of students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers who have seen breathtaking sums of money disappear into the endless gray buildings of Washington. The farther decision-making gets from the classroom, the less effective it is, the more frustrated teachers become, the more money is wasted, the more cheated America's schoolchildren and their parents are, and the farther we drift from solutions to restore an educational system that everybody agrees is broken.

It isn't supposed to be this way. According to the Act of Congress that authorized the Department of Education in 1979, "... the primary responsibility for education resides with States, localities, and private institutions; ... No provision of law relating to a program administered by the Secretary [of Education] or any other officer or agency of the executive branch of the Federal Government shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer or agency to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school or school system; ..."

From the outset, then, the federal government promised to leave education in local hands, declaring that the purpose of the new Department of Education was, instead, to ensure "access to equal educational opportunity for every American" and "to support more effectively States, localities and public and private institutions in carrying out their responsibilities for education." Equality of access and effective support — full stop.[1]

The Department of Education

Despite these noble and limited objectives, the idea of a full-fledged federal Department of Education was controversial. Republicans believed it was unconstitutional since the Constitution says nothing about education; Democrats believed it was constitutional under the Commerce Clause (which gives Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce) and that it would raise the level of education overall. Professional educators were divided: the National Education Association supported the legislation while the American Federation of Teachers opposed it.

The Department was one of a series of steps that brought federal control into neighborhood schools. The process unfolded slowly at first, picked up speed in the 1960's and again in the 80's, and has rushed headlong since the first decade of this century. Over that time the federal role expanded from gathering and distributing information; to targeted spending on the poor, minorities, and other student groups; to effective oversight of curriculum, testing, teaching technique, and more. With regard to each of these educational variables, Jaime Escalante insisted on controlling them from the front of his classroom.

America's interest in education at a national level is older than America itself. The Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed in 1647 that every town of fifty families or more had to have a school. The first federal educational organization, in 1867, was under the Department of the Interior and was assigned to collect and share nationwide "such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and territories." Sponsoring legislation for the education bureau was submitted in the House of Representatives by former Civil War general and college president James Garfield, later the twentieth President of the United States and namesake of Escalante's Garfield High.

The first attempt at setting up a Cabinet-level department of education occurred in 1924, when it was derailed by strong national opposition to federal interference in educational policy. After being folded into a New Deal agency during the Depression, the education bureau became part of the new Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1953. This national agency used its power over education sparingly at first. One early step into the politics of curriculum occurred four years after HEW began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. The American government was shocked and stunned to be beaten to this milestone in the space race. To promote math, science, and engineering education, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act the following year, which offered incentives to students of these fields (and some others, including foreign language) in order to fill positions in government and academia that would enable America to pull ahead of the Soviets in space exploration and national defense.

Beginning in the 1960's, the federal government used educational programs and legislation to battle racial discrimination, address economic inequality, grant direct financial assistance on a vast new scale, and give greater freedom and opportunity to disabled students. The biggest changes came as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation. This included a flood of new laws that gave Congress unprecedented power to disburse billions of dollars directly to public schools. Of course, such funding came with strings attached: for the first time Congress was able to set requirements for public schools to receive these funds. For example, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 awarded money for books and supplies to districts with concentrations of low-income students.

In imposing such top-down conditions on local schools, the federal government largely ignored what teachers taught in the classroom or how they taught it. The focus was not on methods, curriculum, or results, but on equal access.

The next major step toward extending government control over schools was signing the new Department of Education (DoED) into law in 1980. The creation of the DoED set off a classic Washington turf battle when newly appointed members of the Department replaced workers who had been doing the same jobs in the education bureau of HEW. Arriving at their offices on the first day, some of the new hires discovered that the workers they replaced had nailed their office doors shut.

The Department survived numerous legislative efforts to shut it down, as well as Ronald Reagan's promise as a presidential candidate to do the same. After his election in 1980, President Reagan reduced the Department's budget but did not eliminate it right away. (Successive Republican presidential candidates promised to defund or otherwise dismantle the Department, also without success.) He assigned his Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, the job of closing down the Department. Convinced that many of the education programs were good ones – it was the Department bureaucracy that was bad – Secretary Bell commissioned detailed studies on where programs could be relocated when the Education Department was shuttered.[2]

A Nation at Risk

One of the commissions formed by Secretary Bell produced a report that shocked the American public. The most famous passage from "A Nation at Risk," released in the spring of 1983 by Bell's National Commission on Excellence in Education, reads like the opening of a spy novel:

"If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war: As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems that helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."[3]

The report delivered a scorching criticism of American education, claiming America's "once unchallenged preeminence" was being "overtaken" by foreign competitors and that "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity," having "lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them." The Soviets, Japanese, South Koreans, and Germans were all outshining us in world educational achievement. American employers and military leaders spent millions on remedial education because the educational system churned out graduates unqualified for the work they were supposedly trained to do. The study warned of dire consequence in world competitiveness because American education was failing and justified historic involvement by the federal government in education, even though the results of the study were controversial and in some cases hotly contested.

According to Gerald Holton, a member of the Bell committee and author of the famous introductory paragraph, the study found that 23 million Americans were illiterate and 80 percent of seventeen-year-olds could not write a persuasive essay. There was also evidence that schools on the whole were run more as social welfare institutions than academic ones. He later wrote, "We also heard that 'too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high-school and college students' with low levels of preparation, little retraining in the subject matter, and low pay."

To right these wrongs, the committee made specific recommendations, as described by Holton: "Four years of English; three years each of math, science, and social studies; and a semester of computer science ... two years of foreign language for the college-bound ... We called for more-rigorous, measurable standards; higher expectations for academic performance and conduct; more time to learn the basics; heightened admissions requirements at four-year colleges and universities; and the recognition of, and rewards for, teaching as a profession. Finally, in italics, we urged citizens to 'hold educators and elected officials responsible for providing the leadership necessary to achieve these reforms,' and to 'provide fiscal support and stability.'"

He added, "Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society ... A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society."

Holton also touched on a critical point that most education debates ignore completely. He identified "the basic flaw in the structure on which the educational system in this country is built: that apart from their own parents' sympathy and the politicians' sentimental pronouncements, the children of America are the most disenfranchised members of society. They do not vote, they do not contribute to election funds, they have no ownership in the media, they do not count when budget wars are waged against their schools."[4]

For all the headlines it generated and its prominent place in the history of American education, the Bell report produced few results at the time. Holton and others believe President Reagan used the report as a tool to win reelection in 1984 by taking the education issue away from the Democrats. After the Reagan victory, Holton writes, "the Education Department's budget was again sharply cut, and educational improvement disappeared from the administration's agenda." As control of education became more concentrated in Washington, the educational system got ever more relentlessly enmeshed with the world of national politics. Presidential elections were now influencing America's educational policy, and education reform became just another political football.

Thus, in 1991 another government report cast doubt on statistics used to support the dire predictions in "A Nation at Risk."[5] Prepared by the data crunchers at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, the new report showed that while overall test scores had declined as "A Nation at Risk" had claimed, scores in each subgroup of students had actually improved. The overall decline was because the relative size of the subgroups changed, a statistical condition known as Simpson's Paradox. Educationally relevant but politically sensitive, the followup study was never released by the government. The report itself correctly predicted, "Administration officials will use a lengthy review process to bury the report." Only when it appeared two years later in the Journal of Education Research did its conclusions get a public hearing.

Education reform, its control reassigned to Washington, has increasingly been at the mercy of political winds. The result is lots of talk, lots of money being spent, lots of posturing and finger pointing, and little action. In 2008, an advocacy group called Strong American Schools suggested that there was no shortage of "commonsense ideas, backed by decades of research, to significantly improve American schools." The missing ingredient, the group believed, was political, not educational. Reformers have been "stymied by organized special interests and political inertia." Unless educational reform finds strong national leaders, it is doomed to be eternally discussed but never implemented.

Keying off of "A Nation at Risk," a report published by Edutopia[6] and sponsored by the George Lucas Educational Foundation concluded, "Only on-site teachers can really make a broad ongoing assessment that gets at a range of achievements and takes the individual into account. By contrast, uniform standardized testing whose outcomes can be expressed as simple numbers allows someone far away to compare whole schools without ever seeing or speaking to an actual student. It facilitates the bureaucratization of education and enables politicians, not educators, to control schools more effectively."

By the time this report was written in 2007, America was spending about $500 billion per year on K-12 education (the 2016 figure is $600 billion). How many governmental bureaucrats and elected officials in Washington would be willing to give up their share of that pie in order to return control of education to the teachers, taxpayers, and local districts – and possibly put themselves out of a job? Self-interest and self-preservation being what they are, such government workers are more likely to try to add to their responsibilities rather than reduce them. The resulting bureaucracy is massive, unresponsive, and unyielding.

Edutopia goes on to quote James Harvey, a member of the commission that produced "A Nation at Risk," who expressed concern about how the report was interpreted and the direction it has given to school reform today: "... educational decisions have been moved as far as possible from the classroom. Federal officials are now in a position to make decisions that would have been unimaginable even two years ago. They've established the criteria for disciplining schools, removing principals and teachers, and even defining appropriate curriculum for American classrooms.'"

The No Child Left Behind Act

While "A Nation at Risk" identified shortcomings in American education, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 had far more impact on the role of the federal government in the nation's schools. Passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses and supported by politicians as diverse as John Boehner and Edward Kennedy, the NCLB granted the federal government "unprecedented sweeping oversight" of education in America, requiring states to test its students every year or lose federal education funding.[7] It set goals for improving below-average schools and sanctions for failure to improve up to and including shutting schools that repeatedly underperformed. Critics would later call it "rigid and overly ambitious and punitive," with too much emphasis on testing.

Introduced as an update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which helped fund education of disadvantaged students, NCLB was promoted by civil rights and business groups to improve American competitiveness and close the achievement gap between poor or minority students and the rest. A retrospective look at the law in Education Week noted that it was changed several times over the years, and that "for the most part, each new iteration has sought to expand the federal role in education."[8]

The law set procedures for judging teacher standards and required schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress. If a school failed to meet improvement targets two years in a row, it had to let students transfer to another school in the district. If it missed three years in a row, it had to offer free tutoring. Further failure could lead to state intervention – shutting down the school, turning it into a charter school (which almost happened to Garfield at the beginning of Escalante's tenure), taking it under state control, or other remedies. Failing schools had to set aside ten percent of their federal Title I grants for low-income students to pay for tutoring and school choice.

States had to test reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. Each state had to demonstrate progress in student test performance and reach the state definition of proficiency by 2014. Not a single state made it.

The Race to the Top

In the intervening years, lawmakers debated legislation to make NCLB more flexible and return more oversight to the states. At the same time lawmakers were trying to reshape the unpopular NCLB, in 2009 President Barack Obama signed into law Race to the Top, a competition among states for federal funding. Awards would go to states "leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans" for "educational equity," according to the Department of Education. Other states would then adopt winning programs for their own districts.[9]

Critics wondered how competition among states for money would create equity. Furthermore, their chances of winning were enhanced by adopting the controversial Common Core standards. To some, the program was yet another unwelcome federal intrusion into local education, though participation was optional.

Texas was one of the states declining to compete in the Race to the Top. According to Governor Rick Perry, "We would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington."[10]

Common Core requirements were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. (Their names notwithstanding, these are both Washington-based trade associations.) The federal government encouraged states to adopt Common Core standards while allowing some leeway in those standards and how they are measured. By the end of 2015, 42 states and the District of Columbia used Common Core as a basis for their educational assessment. Yet Common Core was itself criticized for being overly rigid and focused on math and English to the exclusion of other equally important subjects.

Meanwhile, NCLB led to a 160% increase in spending by the states by 2008 while student performance declined. Between 2002 and 2009, the US ranking in math on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) fell from 18th place to 31st. The question became whether the NCLB concept should be salvaged at all. Political expedience required it to be salvaged because to end it would be to admit defeat. On the other hand, taking the side of academic integrity, Education Review criticized the policy for "growing the federal footprint in K-12 education, and for relying too heavily on standardized tests ... emphasis on math and reading has narrowed the curriculum, forcing schools to spend less time on subjects that aren't explicitly tested, like social studies, foreign language, and the arts. Also the law has been chronically underfunded."

Are States Regaining Control?

In the summer of 2015, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives approved separate legislation that, in the words of Senate Education Chairman and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), "restores to states, local school districts, teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do" about student education. A summary of the bill stated, "The federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core. States will be free to decide what academic standard they will maintain."[11]

The National Education Association hoped the new law would "bring real teaching and learning back to the classroom" and take "a major step in closing the door on the disastrous 'test, blame, and punish' legacy of No Child Left Behind." NEA president Lily Eskelsen García praised evidence of a shift in Washington "away from the one-size-fits-all assessments that educators know hurt students, diminish learning, [and] narrow the curriculum ..."[12] House Speaker John Boehner commented that the law would replace "top-down mandates with conservative reforms that empower the parents, teachers and administrators at the heart of our education system."[13]

In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced NCLB, restoring educational accountability to the states. Critics of top-down control of education were cautiously optimistic about the new law, even though annual standardized testing would still be required.

Are decisions that define what happens in America's classrooms moving back home? The lack of support for Race to the Top and the successful bipartisan effort to overhaul NCLB are signs that this may be the trend. Certainly teachers everywhere would celebrate the chance to take charge of their classrooms again rather than carrying out orders from policymakers who never met the students involved and probably never spent a day as a classroom teacher. The general consensus among teachers and local administrators is that the farther from the classroom decisions are made, the less likely they are to be in the best interests of students, teachers, and the learning enterprise.

Terry Beasley, a middle school teacher in Missouri, speaks for many of his colleagues when he says, "So much has gone wrong since NCLB." He cites, "over-testing," "educators not having any flexibility to do what is needed in the classroom," as well as a "terrible business model approach to education." He concludes, "Students don't enjoy school like they used to, because they're not treated as individuals. They're just this group that we're supposed to whip into shape. That's not what education should be about."[14]

Jaime Escalante, by contrast, refused to let bureaucrats take charge of his teaching environment. That was for him to control. Not only did he leave us his own example, we have other successful educators who followed in his footsteps. Ray Mayoral began his career at Garfield under Escalante and recently retired after a distinguished career as a principal in Oregon and Nevada. His observations on the struggle for control in America's classrooms could have come straight from Jaime himself.

"The district, state, and feds dictate what you do," Ray says. "They shove mandates down your throat – Expeditionary Learning, Common Core – constant monitoring and dictating. They take away the principal's ability to run the school. They keep adding mandates and not asking what's best for the kids. As a principal, my worst enemy was all the mandates. It forced teachers to do things I philosophically didn't believe in."

"When people move to the district office they lose sight of what's important. They get caught up in the bubble of politics and policies and lose sight of the classroom. They become policy peddlers and rule mongers." In the Escalante mold, Mayoral believes that money should be spent directly on improving the classroom experience. "The system should be changed so that the majority of resources go to support the schools. Cut back on administration. Cut the bureaucracy in half and transfer that money to the school site."[15]

Ray in turn passed the Escalante philosophy down to his colleague and friend, teacher Mark Peabody at Novato High School in Marin County, California. "Education is a political football," Mark says. "Everybody is allowed to beat up on it." Politicians and administrators anxious to make their mark replace the existing curriculum and assessment system with their own. "Every three to five years, new reforms are led by legislators and handed to us to implement. The problem is that many of them don't work. Older teachers know reform will fail because it always fails. Teachers in the classroom don't have the techniques or materials required by top-down planning. By the time an administration brings in its program, new textbooks and curriculum guides are in hand, and teachers learn the material and the standards for proficiency, a new regime brings in a new set of materials and standards and the process begins all over again."[16]

To sum up the preceding arguments and statistics, teaching from the top-down is destined to fail because students are not data points. Every young person is different, unique, exhibiting distinctive skills and experiences, and needing specifically adapted tools to succeed. Not only do blanket bureaucratic rules fail to apply successfully to everyone but they can't even benefit anyone in particular. The bigger the blanket, the more encompassing its bureaucratic rules, and consequently the more the actual teaching environment get shortchanged, smothering creativity and achievement through irrelevant and counter-productive rules.

Just as students are not data points, teachers are not soldiers simply following orders. The best teachers are creative, innovative professionals with their own special talents and classroom skills. They have to have control and flexibility, like Escalante tossing a pillow at a distracted sophomore once in a while. To the extent that a top-down system takes away these freedoms, it takes away from great teachers the very things that make them great.


1. Text of legislation authorizing the Department of Education at govtrack.us/congress/bills/96/s210
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2. Historical background on Department of Education at archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/441.html
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3. "A Nation at Risk" at www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html
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4. Gerald Holton quotations from "An insider's view of 'A Nation at Risk' and why it still matters" by Gerald Holton, Chronicle of High Education v49 n33 April 25, 2000
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5. "The Sandina Report and U.S. Achievement: An Assessment" by Lawrence C. Stedman, The Journal of Educational Research v87 n3, 1994
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6. Edutopia report at edutopia.org/landmark-education-report-nation-at-risk
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7. "Unprecedented sweeping oversight" quotation from "Why America overhauled its main education law" The Economist, December 10, 2015
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8. Education Week quote and background on NCLB from "No Child Left Behind: An Overview" by Alyson Klein, Education Week v24 n27 April 2015
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9. Race to the Top quotations at www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop
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10. Governor Rick Perry quote from "Texas Shuts Door on Millions in Education Grants" The New York Times, January 13, 2010
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11. Senator Lamar Alexander quote from U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions press release "Alexander Offers Plan that Rejects 'National School Board' ..." June 11, 2013
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12. Lily Eskelsen García quote from "U.S. Senate Passes Every Child Achieves Act, End of NCLB Era Draws Closer" by Tim Walker NEA Today July 16, 2015
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13. House Speaker John Boehner quote from "Every Child Should Have A Chance at a Great Education," Speaker's Press Office July 8, 2015
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14. Terry Beasley quotes from NEA Today, July 16, 2015 (op.cit.)
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15. Ray Mayoral quotes from author interview (2/16/15)
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16. Mark Peabody quotes from author interview (2/19/15)
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