Home > Education > Test Anxiety: “Stand And Deliver”

Test Anxiety: “Stand And Deliver”

October 20, 2007

  • Check out comment #12 from Lastcall, and leave your own ideas too

Last night we went to see the 1988 film Stand And Deliver, which tells in Hollywood style the story of James Escalante, a math instructor at a failing, poverty-stricken high school.  While fitting in the mold of the standard “education hero” movie (brilliant maverick fights the system, saves the kids, and triumphs over adversity) this one is based on a true story.

The real James Escalante left the Burroughs corporation to teach high school, only to find an entrenched culture of failure.  Over a decade, he built up an AP calculus program that in one year passed 18 students through the state test, which was unusual enough to invite post-analysis and an accusation of cheating from the testing company.  12 of the students took the test again, demonstrating they had not cheated, and had their scores reinstated.  The story made national news, became a novel, and then the inspiring movie we saw last night.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the backstory is more complicated than the Hollywood version, but in most essentials that’s about how it happened. Except politicians and other educators didn’t bother to learn about the complexities or to consider that Escalante’s program was essentially a benevolent cult of personality.  His triumph may be at the root of president Bush’s famous “soft bigotry of low expectations” quote but the substance of what he did was not incorporated into the various programs and initiatives inspired by it. 

The story does challenge preconceptions of what kids and educators can accomplish but the reality illustrates the crab-bucket effect. Fellow teachers and a later principal just didn’t like Escalante.  No doubt he wasn’t an easy person to get along with but when you think about what it meant to the kids, it’s difficult to care about anyone’s personal irritation over a high-achieving colleague. 

Today our public schools are beset by conflicting concerns, ranging from political correctness to religious objections against biology instruction.  Teachers are under tremendous pressure for students to pass NCLB certification tests, leaving little room for innovation.  Textbooks are, frankly, just an expensive racket. School curriculum is a mish-mash of programs unrelated to core skills. Convoluted procedures make it all but impossible to fire incompetent teachers.  It is difficult to imagine a more moribund enterprise. 

The majority of private K-12 schools are not so much havens of academic achievement as refuges from science.  It would be only a slight exaggeration to call them “Christian Madrassas, so they aren’t much of an improvement either.

Of this I am sure: stifling innovation in education is not the solution. No parent wants their children to be the subject of methodological education experiments; we want ‘tried and true’ methods.  But currently our schools are using ‘tried and failed’ methods.  American children routinely score poorly in international tests.  In the 13 October Economist is a 14-page special report on innovation, but I’m not holding my breath for it to get passed around and dog-eared in the education industry.  How can we wake up our schools?  How to get there from here?


Categories: Education
  1. james old guy
    October 20, 2007 at 13:28 | #1

    I think unions of any kind of outlived in useful purpose they once had. If the example is any clue it seems that the state lawmakers are as much to blame as anyone. Maybe its time to rethink the whole education flow and the expected results. Personally I think we over use testing and we have all seen the results of a poorly written test. Some things are best done at the federal level, but education is not one of those. In my opinion the federal government has no business in education and unless you read the constitution sideways,you won’t find that power granted to the federal government. This is state, town, parent issue.

  2. October 20, 2007 at 14:09 | #2

    James if you turn education to local state and town governments, where will funding come from? How will schools in very poor areas get funding? Have you been to a school in a poor area lately? Next time you are ask them how there funds are doing…

    I think we need to get better educated parents. Ones that understand one of the best ways to let teachers educate students is to let the teacher do their job. There are so many issues with the education system though its hard to tell where to start. This is a topic I might need to sit on for awhile…

  3. james old guy
    October 20, 2007 at 15:17 | #3

    Web, you better check who really funds the schools, it’s the local tax payers and state taxpayers that foot the bill. The part that the federal government kicks in is less than 10%. School’s in poor areas? I live in South Carolina, poor is almost a religion, some of my best friends are teachers and the title one crap that they have to jump through hoops to get dollars tied to strings that don’t make sense is ridiculous. Your half way there on the better parents thing, we need parents who think of school as more than a place to dump their kids. Read what Bill Cosby and Dr. Poussaint have to say about black parents, it applies just as well to the rest of the population.

  4. October 20, 2007 at 20:47 | #4

    I think we need to get better educated parents.

    Sure, and nice if it were cooler in summer and people always used their turn signals.  Most of the kids we’re trying to educate better are going to be parents someday.

    Read what Bill Cosby and Dr. Poussaint have to say about black parents, it applies just as well to the rest of the population.

    I know Cosby but had to look up Poussaint and learned of the book they co-authored, Come On People, on the path from victims to victors which a reviewer described as “a book that could put Sharpton and Jackson out of business”.  That one is going on the reading list.

    Also ran across an NYT editorial from last week on the work they share: An effort to save the soul of black America.

    I would like to see more federal funding for education, not less, because I hate to see poor regions have poor funding.  But federal control should not exceed a set of minimum and boundary curriculum standards, or innovation can suffer.  James is right about schools spending the lion’s share of time and effort jumping through hoops to qualify for 10% of their funding.  I’ve heard scattered reports of school districts telling the feds to shove it, keep their 10%.

  5. lastcall
    October 20, 2007 at 22:25 | #5

    Having taught in a parichial school for 5 years and now teaching at my 2nd public school I can honestly say that the biggest difference is parental involvement. The public schools were better funded, higher teacher pay, and better overall fascilities. However, it was at the parochial school where I saw much better teaching.

    First of all, the parochial school was not required to take a state mandated test. The school did administer a standardized test to k-7th graders. (8th grade took High School placement tests that showed us where the kids ranked against different feeder schools) but the purpose of the test was to see where the school needed improvement and for parents to see how their student compared to students nationwide. Since we did not have to teach to a test, there was much more freedom for the teacher to create a curriculum that made sense over a multi-year period.

    My second observation is that when parents are actually paying for school they take a much more hands on approach. Parents want to make sure that the are getting their money’s worth. This is one of my problems with a “free” education. If you are not invested in something what incentive do you have to take care of it or make sure it works?

    As far as text books go, I am pretty sure history textbooks are the WORST!! I would regularly point out mistakes or have the students point out biases in the book. The way so many things are made as facts instead of opinions or one interpretation drove me crazy. However, my biggest problem with textboks is that they do not ask the students to think. Only to regurgitate. I NEVER used materials that came with textbooks because there was no thinking involved – only regurgitation. I always felt my job as a teacher is not to give information but to teach the students how to think on their own. Especially with history, I did not always want everyone to have the same answer, I wanted them to come up with a reasonable interpretation of the events that happened.

    Now I am not saying that public school is bad, parochial is good. I am now teaching at a public school – partly because i wanted to retire someday – and there are MANY great teachers there. However, I do see more teachers in the public system that are protected by their tenure and who put as little energy into their job as possible. At the parochial school there was no tenure and during my 5 years there, 3 teachers were let go due to job performance and 1 since I left.

  6. October 21, 2007 at 08:49 | #6

    My second observation is that when parents are actually paying for school they take a much more hands on approach. Parents want to make sure that the are getting their money’s worth. This is one of my problems with a “free” education. If you are not invested in something what incentive do you have to take care of it or make sure it works?

    I think there’s more going on here than that. Aren’t parents that are willing to pay for there students education already interested in the education. For instance, if everyone in America had to pay I am not convinced all parents would suddenly care. The ones that care are going to care whether or not they have to pay, for the most part.

    So what is a parochial school?

  7. October 21, 2007 at 09:07 | #7

    Lastcall, thank you, I am so glad to hear from a teacher. 

    I have the sad feeling that Americans care more about their money than about their children.  And I wonder if the money that parochial school parents pay doesn’t foster a sense of responsibility both ways? 

    What I mean is, I certainly got involved when sending my children to public school.  And I volunteered often.  But whenever there was an issue I got the distinct feeling they were “handling” me and nothing changed, ever.  And why not?  They have mandates from ‘above’ that they have to meet, which are related directly to their funding.  They know I can’t easily pull my child out of their school and I am not (voluntarily or directly) the source of their funding.  Children and parents have the least power in a public school setting.

    Webs; So what is a parochial school?

    Normally “parochial school” refers to a Catholic school and generally has pretty high standards.  Protestant charter schools are also technically parochial schools but as I mentioned above, seem to exist for a different reason.

  8. lastcall
    October 21, 2007 at 18:48 | #8

    I must say, the link you have titled “Christian Madrass” is a rather extreme example. My parochial experience is generally limited to Lutheran Schools, however, with the exception of Religion textbooks, all of te other textbooks we used were non-faith based textbooks. I seriously doubt that Bob Jones whatever school is the norm. While some schools may point out the differences in what the book teaches and what the chuch teaches, educators know that the students wil be exposed to these theories eventually. It makes more sense to expose them while they are in within the confines of the school.

    One other notable difference between a public and parocial school is who the teachers teach to. With the trend in public education to be inclusive and many schools getting away from tracking students, the students that I see most affected our the higher gifted students. Teachers must now teach to the lowest common student. If I had a gifted son or daughter I would really have to consider sending them to a parochial school and here is why. Parochial schools do not have to offer special ed services. If you have a student that requires spec. ed services they probably will not be able to receive what they need in a parochial school. Now most parochila schools will offer accomodations to help those students who have an IEP that allows teachers to make modest accomodations, ie. having tests read, more time for tests, student allowed to have a spell checker with them at all times, etc. However, if they need a special resource teacher, that is generally supplied by the school district where that student s located.

    Because the students, in my opinion, tend to be more advanced and because there are fewer students with IEPs in the parochial schools, I think the gifted students will get more out of the parochial school experience vs. the public school experience. (K-8) However, most public high schools have more to offer than most parochial high schools.

    Again, this is JUST my opinion. Obviously there are numerous exceptions. I am just speaking from my experience.

  9. October 21, 2007 at 19:57 | #9

    Our two older sons were in the Gifted program of the public school system.
    One teacher actually told me that I should pull the oldest and put him in a private school, thinking he would get a better education.
    I told her First: we could not afford to write an extra payment in the budget, and that our property taxes already are set to fund public schools, and
    Second: if all the smart kids leave, then public schools would not have to raise their standards.

    I have worked as an aide in both private and public schools, and what I have observed is the attitude and skill of the classroom teacher counts very high as to whether the child gets quality education.

    DOF’s link to the backstory of Escalante’s work in the classroom and lack of confidence of his co-workers speaks much about support of a skilled teacher.

  10. October 21, 2007 at 20:00 | #10

    I must say, the link you have titled “Christian Madrass” is a rather extreme example.

    Yes it is extreme, but unfortunately it is not uncommon.  There is a subset of parochial schools attached to fundamentalist churches from the right-wing and pentacostal persuasions.  It is my understanding that Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. parochial schools tend toward a more responsible curriculum.   

    Teachers must now teach to the lowest common student. If I had a gifted son or daughter I would really have to consider sending them to a parochial school and here is why. Parochial schools do not have to offer special ed services.

    MrsDoF confirms that the public school class cannot move much faster than the slowest student.  I bet public school apologists point to this difference as a major reason for the superior curriculum in mainline parochial schools, as if that worked in their defense.

    Again, this is JUST my opinion. Obviously there are numerous exceptions. I am just speaking from my experience.

    Sure – we understand that.  Still appreciate you sharing your experience, it helps the statistics and newspaper articles be a little more real.  Any thoughts on how to improve the public school experience?

  11. October 21, 2007 at 20:02 | #11

    Oh, hey – MrsDoF posted while I was typing!  Cool.  (Now you know what our house is like.  Up to three people each sitting at their own computer, typing away at stuff…)

  12. lastcall
    October 21, 2007 at 21:34 | #12

    Here are my top problems and my proposed solutions for public schools.

    1. discipline
    2. Parental involvement
    3. Inclusive classrooms & teachers teaching to the lowest students.

    Discipline – I am amazed that schools spend so much time on curriculum and yet spend so little time on a cohesibe discipline plan. Parents rarely know that their child is in trouble until the child has been suspended or received some form of severe punishment.  This despite the fact that there are more lines of communication tahn ever before – ie. websites, email, phone, etc. Parents know instantly how there child is doing with grades thanks to online grades nowadays. However, there is no place for discipline.

    Also, every teacher has their own discipline system generally because the school has no master plan. Every student starts every class with a clean slate despite their behavior in a prior class. Also, students have a hard time knowing what is expected of them as every classroom is different.

    At the parochial school I worked at, students carried in their day planner a sheet that had a column for each day. The students were limited to two warnings per day before consequences kicked in. Now think about that. Currently in most schools, students generally receive about two warnings PER CLASS PERIOD. At this school, the discipline sheet was transferred from class to class. If they received 4 marks in a day – they were removed from class. Hypothetically, that is one warning from 4 different teachers. Now instead of students receiving essentially unlimited number of warnings, they know where they are when they step into each classroom.

    The other benefit to this system was, parents could look at their students sheet each day and see how the child was behaving. They could see which classrooms their child behaved poorly in and they knew this before their child had received a major consequence. The school also used this system to determine who was eligible for different events based on their behavior. While it was not a GRADE, students were expected to receive fewer than 3 warnings per week at least half the time. Teachers were able to look at the students sheets and determine who was and was not eligible for events.

    Typically public schools have very few consequences. Detentions are overused to the point that students don’t care. Also, detentions aren’t really a punishment anyway. The are simply a mandated study hall. When I was growing up detentions were painful because we were not allowed to do ANYTHING except sit at a desk silently for 45 minutes. We could not do homework. Now thye have to do homeowrk (which they would have to do anyway at home.) In reality a detention just gives the student more free time at home.

    Parental involvement – My biggest frustration with many parents is they don’t care until the day report cards come out. Nevermind that your child’s grade has been posted online all semester. Nevermind that I called you and you never called me back. Once the report card comes out IT IS TOO LATE!!!

    I think there should be some sort of fee that parents are exempt from if they volunteer a certain number of hours at school. I am not sure of the legalities of this but there has to be a way to get the parents involved in their child’s life. Maybe if a student has a certain GPA their parent has to come in for a parenting class. SOMETHING to get the students who need the help from their parents the most some help.

    Inclusive classrooms and teaching to the lowest students – well again here I am stuck. I would like more tracking and more separation. Everyone is not good at everything I think it is time we acknowlege that again and allow the students that perform the best in each subject the opportunity to advance faster.

    However, some things that we can do is involve special ed teachers in the general classroom more. Instead of sending the spec. ed. students down to the spec. ed room. Allow them in the general class but with the spec ed. teacher in the classroom as well. Maybe they are assisting the gen. ed teacher. Maybe they are observing the students work. I think we can more effectively help the students with learning disabilities function on the gen. ed. classroom, but we can’t just assume they can function there like everyone else. There has to be more and the teacher cannot do it alone or the whole class will receive essentially a spec. ed. lesson.

    Well, there you go. I am not sure if I have actually solved anything but these are the first steps I would take to fix public schools. I can’t wait to see what other people think!

  13. Mrs SEB
    October 21, 2007 at 23:16 | #13

    I was a teacher.  I got burnt before I really began. I am no longer a public school teacher.

    I agree with lastcall that discipline, Parental involvement, and Inclusive classrooms & teachers are at the top of the NEEDs list.  However, in my opinion, It’s not so much a single need for “teaching to the lowest students” as there is a serious need for smaller classroom sizes to enable the instructor to meet the gambit of needs expressed by each student in the classroom appropriately. 

    In addition to the improvement suggestions lastcall has made I would include the following:

    I find it disturbing that America tends to place having babysitters for our youngest children ahead of the education of our young adults.  I want to see a societal system in place that allows for the care of younger children while also providing the best learning environment to our teens so that they may learn, develop, and grow into well educated, highly functioning adults.

    We need a better system of education period. I am an advocate of developmentally appropriate educational practice.  We need to cultivate a better attitude toward education and to practice it as a nation, as a people valuing education.  How can we expect our children to take their education seriously if the parents do not?  If teachers and administrators and parents act like opposing factions in a cold war?  It’s all about the blame and what doesn’t work. What does work?  How can we make it work for everyone involved?

    I believe one improvement would be a year round education system (ex. 6 weeks on, one week off ).  Another beneficial change would be smaller ratios of students to teachers (ex. 10-1).  The timing of our typical school day for our various aged children is also, flawed.  We need to send our younger students to school earlier and our teenagers to school later in the mornings.  Young children are at their best, early in the day, wherein teenage metabolisms lend toward later mornings (reaching into later afternoons).

    We know the problems.  We have the solutions.  How can we convince our political powers that be and the average Mommas & Papas that the only way out of the poverty hole is high quality (but personally less convenient and much more costly) education? 

    Poor systems of education and health care are the plagues of 21 century America.  They are the roots of our societal decline.

  14. Lucas
    October 22, 2007 at 01:31 | #14

    “Jaime didn’t get along with some of the teachers at his school. He pretty much was a loner.”

    Yeah, that incredibly successful and charismatic teacher who tutored his students after hours and managed to push through an agenda in other schools sounds like a downright antisocial sociopath.  Ummm, wait.

  15. Lucas
    October 22, 2007 at 01:49 | #15

    A computer science professor I talked to recently gave the following breakdown for a large state university she used to teach at:
    “The electrical engineering majors who couldn’t cut it became computer science majors; the CS majors who couldn’t cut it became math majors, and the math majors who couldn’t cut it became math education majors.”

    I wonder if this phenomenon has anything to do with the problem.

  16. Mrs. SEB
    October 22, 2007 at 18:46 | #16

    How does working after hours and finding a way around bureaucracy to cultivate success in students who live in poverty equate to antisocial and sociopath?

    What bloody “phenomenon?” I honestly believe that computer science professor’s comment is a load of horse shit.

    I do not see any validity in “rating” those fields against one another is such a manner.  To suggest that any one individual is less intelligent to another due to their choice in careers or according to what area of study they enjoy most is just asinine. How could you possibly fail at being an engineer and go to being a mathematic major when that individual must have failed the mathematics of engineering in the process? 

    It seems to me that professor obviously doesn’t have much self-confidence in their own teaching abilities.  Teaching is much more difficult than “doing.”  Such comments lend more towards bitterness and the possibility of said professor suffering from “burn out.”

    The debate of quality American higher education is   a separate debate to quality public education for our children and young adults.  However, I recognize that both systems of education may be in need of restructuring.

  17. Lucas
    October 26, 2007 at 15:57 | #17

    First of all, the GPA and course requirements are approximately in that order (at least at my university), and a lot of the fields lie on top of each other.  All require you to do well in calculus and discrete math, CS adds programming and software design, and EE adds a lot of physics and circuit design to the mix.  In my experience, several people I’ve known who couldn’t cut it as math majors became math education majors, and the mathematical knowledge of math ed majors was very, very low.  (Quote heard in calculus III:  “I don’t know why I have to take this course.  This material is never taught in high school.”)

    Based on my limited experience with teaching and tutoring, I have little doubt that teaching high school math is *very* difficult, but I think that it is not made easier by increasing knowledge and ability in higher math.  Also, people who enjoy the glorified arithmetic taught in high school, but are put off by more abstract reasoning are more likely to become math ed majors than math majors.  Since they require different skills, they will tend to attract different sorts of people.  Many of these math education majors might be good high school teachers in many ways, *but* they will be much less able to help very gifted students, and also much less able to design and implement more advanced tracks in HS math education.

    This largely jibes with my experience as a high school student who was very good in math.  The teachers I had (with one exception) did not know very much beyond calculus I.

Comments are closed.