This article from Reason.com gives the "untold story" behind Jaime Escalante's (Stand and Deliver), rise and fall as an AP calculus teacher in Los Angeles. Like many other educators, I viewed Escalante's story as an inspiration for what a skilled teacher, willing to do whatever it takes, could accomplish with students from any background. Escalante's departure from teaching has a lot in common with the stories of other good teachers I've heard - a stifling administration, union pressures, and lack of ownership of the program he worked hard to build eventually pushed him out of L.A.
The Stand and Deliver message, that the touch of a master could bring unmotivated students from arithmetic to calculus in a single year, was preached in schools throughout the nation. While the film did a great service to education by showing what students from disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve in demanding classes, the Hollywood fiction had at least one negative side effect. By showing students moving from fractions to calculus in a single year, it gave the false impression that students can neglect their studies for several years and then be redeemed by a few months of hard work.
To me, the most interesting part of this "untold story" is the feeder program Escalante developed to support the AP classes he taught. He worked with junior highs to develop summer sessions to prepare students for more advanced classes. He also held to an open enrollment policy to encourage more students to enter the program. Developing a math program involved more than one teacher teaching one class, it required the development of talent (in both teachers and students) throughout the system.
Good sports programs get this. They get kids playing sports early, they develop talent throughout younger years, then cultivate that talent at the upper levels. Escalante did this successfully with his math program, a model that should be emulated throughout our education system. If we want good scientists, we need to develop science skills earlier, an idea that is gaining steam.
So many questions arise: Why do current school structures stifle teacher leaders like Escalante? How do selective enrollment and tracking affect student success? How do we design flexible curricula that give the most students a chance to succeed?
P.S. Thanks to Jordan Rule for pointing this article out to me.