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Want to design a good math program? Just do what Jaime Escalante did

Want to design a good math program? Just do what Jaime Escalante did
Jaime Escalante teaches a math class at Garfield High School in Los Angeles in 1988. (Associated Press)

To the editor: The approach to teaching described by David L. Kirp — less emphasis on individual teacher effectiveness, and more of a focus on coaching instructors and tweaking lessons depending on the performance of the students, who are drilled less often under this method — is standard education school mythology. It prioritizes learning through doing instead of learning through being well taught.

“Stand-and-deliver is now verboten” at John Muir Elementary in San Francisco, Kirp writes. This is a subtle dig at the late Jaime Escalante, whose unparalleled success at L.A.’s Garfield High School was dramatized in the movie “Stand and Deliver.”

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No math teacher was ever more directive than Escalante, which is why some of his students were suspected of cheating on the AP calculus exam — their answers were so much alike. In reality, Escalante’s students were very directly taught to follow his leadership, and he turned around the lives of hundreds of people.

If two-thirds of the student at John Muir are still not meeting the state’s math standards, then their opportunities in education will be small — not nearly what they could and should be.

Wayne Bishop, Altadena

The writer is a professor emeritus of mathematics at Cal State Long Beach.

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To the editor: I have no reason to question whether the “lesson study” approach described by Kirp is effective, as similar past teaching practices have also met with success. My problem is that this methodology is used as a training device for teachers currently in classrooms.

Why isn’t this arguably successful method taught to university students in teacher training programs? Better teachers can be made by requiring undergraduates to take rigorous course work in a wide variety of applicable subjects.

Further, it should be required that those wanting to be teachers should possess excellent academic records just as in other professions.

Of course, in order to motivate highly prepared professional educators to want to enter teaching, they would have to be compensated at levels comparable with other respected professions. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Stu Bernstein, Santa Monica

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To the editor: The approach Kirp describes for math education is certainly an improvement. But even major improvements in teaching will not overcome the effects of poverty, unquestionably the strongest factor in school achievement.

Poverty’s effects include food deprivation, insufficient healthcare and limited access to reading material, each of which bear on school success. The best teaching in the world won’t help when students are hungry, ill and have nothing to read.

Until poverty is eliminated, schools must protect students from its impact by investing more in food programs, healthcare and libraries.

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In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. came to the same conclusion: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

Stephen Krashen, Los Angeles

The writer is a professor emeritus of education at USC.

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