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Thanks to the popular 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, many Americans know of the success that Jaime Escalante and his students enjoyed at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. During the 1980s, that exceptional teacher at a poor public school built a calculus program rivaled by only a handful of exclusive academies.

It is less well-known that Escalante left Garfield after problems with colleagues and administrators, and that his calculus program withered in his absence. That untold story highlights much that is wrong with public schooling in the United States and offers some valuable insights into the workings -- and failings -- of our education system.

Escalante's students surprised the nation in 1982, when 18 of them passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found the scores suspect and asked 14 of the passing students to take the test again. Twelve agreed to do so (the other two decided they didn't need the credit for college), and all 12 did well enough to have their scores reinstated.

In the ensuing years, Escalante's calculus program grew phenomenally. In 1983 both enrollment in his class and the number of students passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled, with 33 taking the exam and 30 passing it. In 1987, 73 passed the test, and another 12 passed a more advanced version ("BC") usually given after the second year of calculus.

By 1990, Escalante's math enrichment program involved over 400 students in classes ranging from beginning algebra to advanced calculus. Escalante and his fellow teachers referred to their program as "the dynasty," boasting that it would someday involve more than 1,000 students.

That goal was never met. In 1991 Escalante decided to leave Garfield. All his fellow math enrichment teachers soon left as well. By 1996, the dynasty was not even a minor fiefdom. Only seven students passed the regular ("AB") test that year, with four passing the BC exam -- 11 students total, down from a high of 85.

In any field but education, the combination of such a dramatic rise and such a precipitous fall would have invited analysis. If a team begins losing after a coach is replaced, sports fans are outraged. The decline of Garfield's math program, however, went largely unnoticed.

Movie Magic

Most of us, educators included, learned what we know of Escalante's experience from Stand and Deliver. For more than a decade it has been a staple in high school classes, college education classes, and faculty workshops. Unfortunately, too many students and teachers learned the wrong lesson from the movie.

Escalante tells me the film was 90 percent truth and 10 percent drama -- but what a difference 10 percent can make. Stand and Deliver shows a group of poorly prepared, undisciplined young people who were initially struggling with fractions yet managed to move from basic math to calculus in just a year. The reality was far different. It took 10 years to bring Escalante's program to peak success. He didn't even teach his first calculus course until he had been at Garfield for several years. His basic math students from his early years were not the same students who later passed the A.P. calculus test.

Escalante says he was so discouraged by his students' poor preparation that after only two hours in class he called his former employer, the Burroughs Corporation, and asked for his old job back. He decided not to return to the computer factory after he found a dozen basic math students who were willing to take algebra and was able to make arrangements with the principal and counselors to accommodate them.

Escalante's situation improved as time went by, but it was not until his fifth year at Garfield that he tried to teach calculus. Although he felt his students were not adequately prepared, he decided to teach the class anyway in the hope that the existence of an A.P. calculus course would create the leverage necessary to improve lower-level math classes.

His plan worked. He and a handpicked teacher, Ben Jimenez, taught the feeder courses. In 1979 he had only five calculus students, two of whom passed the A.P. test. (Escalante had to do some bureaucratic sleight of hand to be allowed to teach such a tiny class.) The second year, he had nine calculus students, seven of whom passed the test. A year later, 15 students took the class, and all but one passed. The year after that, 1982, was the year of the events depicted in Stand and Deliver.

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.

This Hollywood message had a pernicious effect on teacher training. The lessons of Escalante's patience and hard work in building his program, especially his attention to the classes that fed into calculus, were largely ignored in the faculty workshops and college education classes that routinely showed Stand and Deliver to their students. To the pedagogues, how Escalante succeeded mattered less than the mere fact that he succeeded. They were happy to cheer Escalante the icon; they were less interested in learning from Escalante the teacher. They were like physicians getting excited about a colleague who can cure cancer without wanting to know how to replicate the cure.

The Secrets to His Success

How did Escalante attain such success at Garfield? One key factor was the support of his principal, Henry Gradillas.

Escalante's program was already in place when Gradillas came to Garfield, but the new principal's support allowed it to run smoothly. In the early years, Escalante had met with some resistance from the school administration. One assistant principal threatened to have him dismissed, on the grounds that he was coming in too early (a janitor had complained), keeping students too late, and raising funds without permission. Gradillas, on the other hand, handed Escalante the keys to the school and gave him full control of his program.

As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.

Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.

“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”

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Poke holes

The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.

“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”

But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.

“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?

“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”

Critique your own arguments

Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.

“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”

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Fine, use Wikipedia then

The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.

“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”

Focus your reading

Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.

Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.

You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.

“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”

There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.

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Look beyond the reading list

“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”

And finally, the introduction

The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.

“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”

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