Both supporters and detractors of this column should enjoy my confession of stupidity at the beginning of my new book, “Question Everything: The Rise of AVID as America’s Largest College Readiness Program.” Some will be pleased that my intellectual deficiencies have finally been exposed for all to see. Others will applaud my humility and candor.
My great mistake was my failure to see the unique depth and power of the way AVID, short for Advancement Via Individual Determination, has been tutoring middle school and high school students for the past 35 years.
I was completely unaware of AVID the first 15 years of its existence, even though it was spreading rapidly through my home state of California at a time when I was The Washington Post’s Los Angeles bureau chief. The story of its rocky beginning was compelling. Its English teacher founder, Mary Catherine Swanson, was a bonafide genius, but it took years for her to convince people with money and power that her low-income students’ achievement gains were real. One of her principals at Clairemont High School in San Diego did everything he could to kill her program.
All that escaped the notice of this alleged star reporter. Even when I discovered AVID and started to write about it, I still didn’t understand it. AVID students were required to take notes, keep their papers in order, be tutored regularly and apply to college. Those were all best practices, things I knew that good teachers had their students do, with the exception of learning how to take notes properly. That part of the Swanson formula was completely alien to American education, as all of us who have been through school here know.
AVID was doing good things so I concluded it was a good program. Its students, most of them Hispanic and black low-income kids, were almost all going to college. Amazingly, I did not look very carefully at what was happening when the tutors appeared two out of every five class periods in a typical AVID week.
I am embarrassed now at my ho-hum attitude. Part of my problem was that Swanson didn’t seem to be a rugged individualist dramatically fighting the forces of educational apathy and bureaucracy like my hero, Jaime Escalante. I had written a book about the East Los Angeles math teacher in 1988, the same year the film “Stand and Deliver” came out celebrating his exploits.
Escalante was often surly, rude and sloppy, with a thick Bolivian accent. Swanson was unfailingly polite and professional, even when her principal tried to humiliate her. She spoke perfect English. She came to school immaculately dressed, always looking and sounding like a docent in an upscale art museum. That might be why I and others so often underestimated her.
She has done much more than Escalante ever did to change the way U.S. schools support children tackling difficult academic material. There are about 400,000 AVID students in 5,000 schools in 44 states, including about 100 AVID schools in the Washington area.
The key to Swanson’s success is the tutoring system she invented. She started with college students as tutors, each one taking up to seven students every Tuesday and Thursday. She soon realized that her students would not be able to handle college material independently if the tutors just showed them how to answer the most difficult questions, as it was usually done.
So AVID tutors don’t answer questions. They instead ask questions that help students think through the problems themselves. In practice, they do much more than that. They teach each student how to come up with questions for the student whose homework problem they are discussing so that each one develops habits of inquiry vital for academic work.
It takes weeks, even months, for this to happen, but it works. If I had been an AVID student, I would have figured out much sooner how this is done.