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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Jaime Escalante, More Inspiring than Ever

Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.

When you think about Jaime Escalante, think about this: Passing Advanced Placement exams is an uphill battle for most students, but for African American and Latino high school kids it can feel like pushing a big rock up that hill. Even though more students are taking the exams, the pass rate is declining. Just 16.7 % of African American students and 41.3 % of Hispanic students scored well enough to earn college credit on the two AP calculus tests given last year. Versus more than 69% for white students.

These numbers make Jaime Escalante's feat at Los Angeles's Garfield High School even more awe-inspiring. The legendary calculus teacher, immortalized in the film, Stand and Deliver, died on March 30th after battling cancer. He was 79.

Credit: Associated Press

Escalante took a class of predominantly Latino, inner-city students, whom others said couldn't learn, and taught them to master calculus. He did so well, that in 1982 every student in his class nailed AP Calculus, nearly half with a perfect score.

That led to a much-publicized scandal where the College Board suspected cheating, invalidated the results, and made the students re-take the test. There were hard feelings and not all the students took it again, but those who did, all passed the second time around.

How did he do it? "He wouldn't budge on his expectations," said Thomas Valdez, who had Escalante for math class from 1989 through 1991. Valdez, now a senior member of the engineering staff at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, describes himself as one of Escalante's weakest students. "That poor man, I really put him through a lot."

Valdez has had many math and science teachers since high school - he's about to earn his Ph.D. - and says he's still blown away by all that Escalante accomplished. "My calculus classes in college were a joke compared to what I had gone through with him."

Valdez visited his mentor in the hospital a few weeks ago, and says he told Escalante how grateful he is that "even when he had a hard case like me, he stuck with me." He laughs and says it's no exaggeration. " He basically was just there at my side every minute."

His toughness didn't always sit well with fellow teachers, especially when he supported California's Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot measure that banned most bilingual education programs. He left Garfield High amidst some ill will. But there's no question that his methods worked. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement praising Escalante's doggedness. "His life provides yet one more reminder of the many teachers who work zealously every day to open the minds and doors of opportunity for students."

To read more about Jaime Escalante's life and legacy, and about the AP exam, here are some additional reports and articles:

Website of actor Edward Jame Olmos, who portrayed Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

Los Angeles Times Obituary, March 31, 2010

National Public Radio Obituary, March 31, 2010

Edutopia, 2006 brief about the movie

College Board AP Report to the Nation Feb. 2010

Stand and Deliver Revisited: The untold story behind the famous rise -- and shameful fall -- of Jaime Escalante, America's master math teacher, Reason.com, July 2002

Real-Life Flashbacks to 'Stand, Deliver'. Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1988

Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.
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Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

I think that Mr. Escalante's expectations for student learning was an important factor in getting kids to be high performers. "He wouldn't budge on his expectations," - The concern is what does this look like? Are expectations put on the sylabus, are they put on the classroom wall, or are they just spoken? How does a person internalize expectations and act to reach those expectations of someone else? We often hear teachers say that they have high expectations, but what do these expectations look like?

Dan Monroe's picture

"Even though more students are taking the exams, the pass rate is declining." Couldn't this possibly be rewritten with equal verity as "Because more students etc."?

Jim Dunning's picture

What do Jaime Escalante, Erin Gruwell, and Ron Clark have in common? For one, they have each been celebrated by public education and Hollywood as heroes of American education, leading their students to success against all odds, within and without the classroom.

The other thing they share is not as well publicized: they left public education far too soon. Escalante frustrated by bureaucratic, non-student-centric administration and union rules. Gruwell and Clark to find solutions to better learning achievement outside of public education; Gruwell after only four years to become a college professor, and Clark after about a dozen years to found a private school based on his principles and practices.

Why is that?

Consider the irony. Thousands of math classrooms show Stand and Deliver on the "off days" right before a holiday break or in the days after the end-of-class high stakes exams occur (effectively marking the end of the course), classrooms which have little in common with Escalante's classrooms in which students were able to develop an appreciation for education and their places in their world. Freedom Writers, also a staple of English classes, is regularly shown in classrooms which quickly return to the uninspired routine of teaching writing and literature with little attempt to connect to the lives of the students.

The greatest irony is the experience of watching Ron Clark give his inspirational, table-standing performance before 1,700 applauding and foot-stomping teachers at a National Council of Teachers of Math conference in Washington, DC (2009) with so few of those revelers even stopping to think that the teacher unions they support do not tolerate Clark's methods in their classrooms. And, of course, not even stopping to think that that may explain why Clark is no longer in public education.

These people are truly heroes. It would be so much better if they weren't martyrs as well.

niki hayes's picture

What is too often overlooked in a teachers' great achievements, besides their personality traits, are the materials they used for instruction. Mr. Escalante was NOT a fan of the reformists' feel-good textbooks and lessons that watered-down mathematics in order to get girls and minorities to "like" mathematics. Math doesn't have a color or gender or ethnicity, as proven through 2,000 years of historically rich instruction for peoples around the world. America decided to make it so, however, and we have lost far more children than we have encouraged to enter higher math and scientific study. You only have to read Mr. Escalante's own words on this subject to see how he felt--and one of the reasons that he was so successful.

Laura Robinson's picture
Laura Robinson
Parent of two teenagers and Secondary Education Student

Not only did he not budge on his expectations for excellence in math, he didn't budge in his belief that every student who sat in his classroom could live up to those expectations.

Laura Robinson's picture
Laura Robinson
Parent of two teenagers and Secondary Education Student

...and that's the real difference between a mediocre teacher and a great teacher.

Somabandhu Kodikara's picture
Somabandhu Kodikara
Headmaster at Gateway College - Colombo

I am saddened to hear that Jaime Escalante is dead.
As a teacher of Mathematics I had many things to learn from him. Most of all the perseverence and the steadfast determination.
May he attain peace.

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