Why I became an education writer

December 19, 2012

Dec. 7 this year was the 30th anniversary of a story in the metro section of the Los Angeles Times that transformed my career. The headline was: “14 STUDENTS RETAKE TEST AFTER SCORES ARE DISPUTED — PRINCIPAL CHARGES MINORITY BIAS.” I read it at the breakfast table of my home in Pasadena, Calif., and decided to steal it.

In 1982, I was the Los Angeles bureau chief of The Washington Post. The bureau was just me and an assistant in a small office in West L.A., but I was good at presenting myself as more important and talented than I was. That included jumping on stories where some other reporter, in this case Keith Love of the Times, had done the hard work. I just had to add some national perspective on the science and math teaching crisis to make it suitable for The Post.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The story was about 18 Advanced Placement calculus students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Fourteen of them had scored well on the AP exam but had been accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service. Twelve retook the exam under the sharp eyes of two proctors and again did well enough to earn college credit. Garfield Principal Henry Gradillas told Love that it was a triumph of poor Mexican American kids over a testing company that didn’t think they could handle a tough exam.

The cheating issue was interesting, but I wanted to know how a school like Garfield, with more than 80 percent of students low-income, could have 18 students with enough algebra, geometry and trigonometry to take AP Calculus. My suburban high school had only four students who reached that level my senior year. The story said the Garfield calculus teacher was Jaime Escalante. How did he do it?

I found Escalante that day in his third-floor classroom. He was stocky, with a large square head and a thick Bolivian accent. He also taught algebra to make sure his students started right. He believed in badgering slackers, offering imaginative lessons, demanding much practice and having older students help younger ones after school. The Post buried my story on page A6, but I was hooked. I stuck around to write a book about him.

I discovered that nine of the 1982 students did share an answer, an incorrect one, on the first exam. But they didn’t need to cheat. They did well on the second exam without help.

In 1987, Escalante and Ben Jimenez, a young math teacher he trained, had 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the country who passed AP Calculus exams. Only eight U.S. public high schools (all magnets, affluent or with many Asian students) had more students pass those exams. Why were the thousands of other high schools with calculus programs not able to do better than a barrio school in East Los Angeles?

Some teachers, not believing the numbers, suggested that Escalante had recruited only top students with college-educated parents. I surveyed 109 of the 129 Garfield students who took an AP Calculus exam in 1987. Only nine had even one parent with a college degree. Only 35 had a parent with a high school diploma.

Some outside critics said Escalante’s students must have memorized enough formulas to pass the test but lacked the conceptual understanding students gained in suburban and private schools. Engineering and math professors amazed by former Escalante students laughed at that.

The experience turned me into an education writer. I miss Escalante, who died in 2010, but news of his success, helped by the film “Stand and Deliver,” has changed the way AP is taught in much of America. Some still doubt, as I once did, that those poor kids can do it, but I discovered otherwise, and eventually they will, too.

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