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Jaime Escalante, More Inspiring than Ever

Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.
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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,, July 2002

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

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Kathy Baron

Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Gavin McGerald's picture

Having high expectations is one of the things I pride myself in. Unfortunately not all students are always going to be ready to meet those expectations. The reason we are seeing more students taking AP classes is because they are being pushed to do so. The number of students in AP classes are being tied to school grades and as a result we are seeing more students in AP classes who are not ready for the commitment and as a result not passing the AP exam. This year my AP calculus classes started out double what they normally were. Within three weeks half of them dropped because they were not willing to put in the amount of effort I expected. It is sad, but I am not about to lower my expectations just for the sake of having more students.

Jessica Gabrielli's picture

I am in the mist of taking graduate level courses, and I came across this article. I am inspired by Escalante's determination and high expectations. I teach in a school which is predominantly poor students, with a large hispanic population as well. We are looked down upon in the district as an "east side" school and often feel overlooked by the administration. Reading this blog has reminded me of the profound impact of a positive belief system. All students can learn and achieve the standards you set for them. I hope I can use Escalante as a role-model in my classroom.

Regan Mulrony's picture

On March 25 I saw the movie Stand and Deliever for the first time. Jaime Escalante walked the talk. He did not just say that he believed all students could succeed, he put his beliefs into action and dedicated himself to making sure that all students succeeded. After watching the movie I had to know more about Escalante. What I found was the story of a man who was driven by passion and belief; a story of a man that was dedicated to "making it happen" rather than making excuses for the way it was. Jaime Escalante changed not only the lives of the students he taught, but hopefully his story has changed the life of every educator who has ever heard it. I know it has changed mine.

Lisa Pryslopski's picture

I think that Escalante is a great reminder of how as teachers we can not make excuses for our students. We can't lower our expectations and we have to hold each student accountable. Students only reach as far as we expect them to. What a true inspiration Escalante is.

Liliana Walsh's picture

Escalante is a great example for our learning school community. He had the force of believe, the force that we as teachers need. He believed deeply in student's capacities, and was able to impact their lives. He understood beyond stadistics and theories that African Americans and Latino reputation could be the cause of misunderstandings concepts and stereotypes. I wish I could apply Escalante phylosophy as part of teaching strategies in any field of education, and share it with networks and learning school communities as part of Continuing professional education for teachers.

Liliana Walsh's picture

Escalante is a great example for teacher's learning community. He had a deep understanding on how to reach students, and how to impact their lifes. He learned about the community that he was targeting, and was intellectually active in decoding learning styles of this communities. He went beyond bias creates for african american and latinos and was able to make a difference in education. Escalante was a great example which style and phylosophy hopefully could take into account in our development as teachers and in any setting of school learning community.

Rasmiyyah Baskerville's picture

A teacher has to set high expectations and follow through with those expectations. High expectations are written, spoken, and posted. Students should be constanstly reminded what is expected of them and also informed that the expectations are not too high for them to reach. Students should feel that the expectations and goals of the teacher are attainable.

Joe R.'s picture

As an AP teacher I find this a very inspiring story. It is sad to consider that we sometimes keep students from reaching their potentials by setting expectations too low. It is always a challenge to keep students motivated throughout an AP course. Not only do we have to teach difficult subjects, but we also have to be aware of the emotional needs of students. Jaime Escalante clearly mastered both of these tasks. I hope we as teachers expect much from our students. They may sometimes fail to reach our goals, but will have accomplished much more than if the bar were set too low.

Catherine Berry's picture

It is strong teachers like Escalante that help our students succeed. The battle to get the students to learn calculus may have been arduous one, but he showed that it could be won with perseverance. His tacit message is not to give up on the students.

Teachers are expected to work their magic and some how get students to meet their expectations and that of the district.

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