Jaime Escalante, one of the best known and most accomplished classroom teachers in the U.S. has died. What lessons can we learn from his life in pushing forward with educational reform? I think there are three — at least two of which will likely require a major restructuring of U.S. education to achieve on a mass scale.
1. Combining High Expectations and Culturally-Sensitive Teaching
Educational reformers have been divided between their emphasis on communitarianism (fostering greater respect for and among learners by addressing student needs, empowering students, creating a positive collaborative atmosphere, and teaching in a culturally sensitive and relevant way) and academic press (ensuring high academic standards through a challenging curriculum, high teacher expectations, and assignment of homework). Escalante showed that both of these are important and was a master at combining them. We need to have the highest expectations and most rigorous standards, but we also have to teach to those standards in a way that reaches out to diverse students, understands and respects where they are coming from, and makes them feel meaningfully involved.
2. Highly Skilled/Well-Trained Teachers with Pedagogical Content Expertise
Similarly, there has been a divide between those who demand that educators have content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. Escalante, with a strong background in math and a teaching credential, demonstrated how both types of knowledge are required, and, what’s more, that they need to be combined in what Shulman called Pedagogical Content knowledge — that is, pedagogical expertise in a particular content area. (Or, in today’s world, what Mishra and Koehler call Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge).
3. Lengthening the School Day and Year
Escalante was able to achieve his goals only through immense personal effort, which involved teaching extra sessions for students before school, after school, and on weekends. This was accomplished at great personal cost to him, as he suffered a heart attack in his early 50s during one of his busiest years.
How then an we scale up what Escalante achieved at one school to improve education nationally. Of course we need to emphasize rigorous standards, high expectations, culturally sensitive teaching, and the development of pedagogical content expertise. However, we will not be able to lengthen the school day or year without massive infusion of new funds for education, as we cannot rely on the personal sacrifices of individual heros on a national basis. Nor will we likely be able to attract highly skilled teachers on a mass scale without improving their compensation. Charter schools, such as those run by KIPP, claim that they can recruit talented teachers and extend the school day and week without adding to costs, but their ability to do so is shaped by their particular context (they are small in number, and they are not required to accept all students with special needs, English learning needs, or behavioral problems). Such solutions are not feasible on a mass scale.
In summary, we need to improve our approach to educational reform, but also give public education a much higher priority. Jaime Escalante’s lessons require not only new approaches, but also infusion of new funding.
For further information on these topics:
Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054.
Phillips, M. (1997). What makes schools effective? A comparison of the relationships of communitarian climate and academic climate to mathematics achievement and attendance during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 34(4), u. doi:10.3102/00028312034004633
Shouse, R. C. (1996). Academic press and sense of community: Conflict, congruence, and implications for student achievement. Social psychology of education, 1, 47-68. doi:10.1007/BF02333405
Shulman, L. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15 (2), 4-14.
Warschauer, M. (2000). Technology and school reform: A view from both sides of the track. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(4). Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n4.html