Steve Poizner Is No Jaime Escalante

Sorry, Steve Poizner. But you’re no Jaime Escalante.

Escalante, who died recently of cancer, arrived in the United States from Bolivia in 1963 with very little money and knowing very little English. He mopped floors and worked as a short-order cook by day, while earning math degrees and a teaching credential in night school. He went to work for an electronics company before taking up teaching where he became, in the words of Jay Matthews, education reporter for the Washington Post, "the most famous and influential American public school teacher of his generation."

Escalante -- who made East Los Angeles' Garfield High School famous when his story was immortalized in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver -- earned that title by teaching calculus to students who the school system had decreed couldn’t handle anything harder than general math.

Escalante’s secret? In order to overcome low expectations, he believed, a teacher has to show students that he has faith that they can learn and excel and then put in enough hard work so that they’re inspired to match his effort with their own. All you need is “ganas,” Escalante used to tell the audiences he’d address on the lecture circuit. And, no doubt, a thick skin, given that education reformers must inevitably battle cynics intent on substantiating their own prejudices about who can learn and who can't.

People like Steve Poizner. The California Insurance commissioner and GOP gubernatorial candidate is a long shot to defeat the Republican frontrunner, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. According to polls, Poizner trails Whitman by more than 40 points despite recent and shameless attempts to scare up votes by impersonating a restrictionist on illegal immigration.

If Poizner loses the race, which seems likely, the multimillionaire and former Silicon Valley entrepreneur will likely still have plenty of job opportunities. But whatever Poizner does next, he shouldn’t go back to one of his earlier jobs -- teaching 12th-grade government at the largely Latino campus of Mount Pleasant High School in East San Jose. It’s clear from some of what Poizner has written in his new book, Mount Pleasant, a controversial memoir of the year he spent volunteering in the classroom, that Poizner doesn’t have the chops to teach barrio kids. In large part, it seems, because the gubernatorial candidate bought into the same culture of low expectations that Jaime Escalante spent a career trying to overcome.

Poizner wrote that he wondered whether students might be "too busy ducking bullets" to focus on their careers and perhaps become an entrepreneur like he had. He wondered what was it like to be “a teacher or a young woman, or a small freshman, or even a gangbanger senior, on this campus …(and) look over their shoulders every day of the school year.”

He discussed “Jimmy Vega” (a student composite) who “looked the part” of being in a gang and who, Poizner worried, might hit him if he demanded more work. He talked about visiting an honors class, and how he “had forgotten how well-behaved, interested and articulate Mount Pleasant's students could be.” He remarked how it was tough to motivate students who “figured that they'd ultimately be working in hair salons or machine shops and saw no need to learn anything so challenging that didn’t have to do with the tools of such trades." Finally, Poizner concluded, perhaps it was best “not to expect Silicon Valley-caliber ambition and smarts from East San Jose school kids."

Such were the lessons from Poizner’s missionary work in the inner city. Now under fire from teachers and parents at Mount Pleasant High School, Poizner says he stands by his book. The best education reform plan, he says, would be for the federal government to give more local control to schools.

You don’t say? This guy doesn’t understand the first thing about how to fix the public schools. It’s not with a lighter federal footprint and more local control. It’s dangerous and destructive to leave school districts to their own devices when we should be stressing higher standards and greater accountability.

Poizner is a Republican, and I have to explain this to him? It was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who tried to increase accountability with the education reform law No Child Left Behind. And it’s a Democratic president, Barack Obama, who wants to return control to the local level by focusing on the worst 5 percent of schools, while leaving most schools to decide on their own how to reach academic performance goals.

Wait a minute. Aren’t these the same local officials who have presided for years over a failed system? Why would anyone trust them to fix a problem that they helped create by maintaining a culture of low expectations?

Local control must not be used as an excuse for mediocre schools or a way to shield educators from scrutiny. Schools need a strong partner at the federal level to hold people responsible for how much students are learning and how well teachers are teaching. And, above all, the system needs a lot more teachers in the mold of Jaime Escalante and a lot fewer like Steve Poizner.