Jaime Escalante didn't just stand and
deliver. He changed U.S. schools forever.
By Jay Mathews
Sunday, April 4, 2010
From 1982 to 1987 I stalked Jaime Escalante, his students and his
colleagues at Garfield High School, a block from the hamburger-burrito
stands, body shops and bars of Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles. I
was the Los Angeles bureau chief for The Washington Post, allegedly
covering the big political, social and business stories of the Western
states, but I found it hard to stay away from that troubled high school.
I would show up unannounced, watch Jaime teach calculus, chat with
Principal Henry Gradillas, check in with other Advanced Placement
classes and in the early afternoon call my editor in Washington to say I
was chasing down the latest medfly outbreak story, or whatever seemed
believable at the time.
Escalante, who died Tuesday from cancer at age 79, did not become
nationally famous until 1988, when the feature film about him, "Stand
and Deliver," was released, and my much-less-noticed book, "Escalante:
The Best Teacher in America," also came out. I had been drawn to him, as
filmmakers Ramón Menéndez and Tom Musca were, by the story of a 1982
cheating scandal. Eighteen Escalante students had passed the Advanced
Placement Calculus AB exam. Fourteen were accused of cheating by the
Educational Testing Service, based on similarities in their answers.
Twelve took the test again, this time heavily proctored, and passed
Whether they cheated was an intriguing mystery, but not the one that
kept me hanging around Garfield. I wanted to know how there could be
even one student at that school taking and passing AP Calculus, perhaps
the hardest course in American secondary education. Garfield offered the
worst possible conditions for learning: 85 percent of the students were
low income, most of the parents were grade-school dropouts, faculty
morale was bad, expectations were low.
Yet the school had produced phenomenal results that would
challenge widespread rules barring average and below-average students
from taking AP classes. The stunning success at Garfield led U.S.
presidents to endorse Escalante's view that impoverished children can
achieve as much as affluent kids if they are given enough extra study
time and encouragement to learn.
In 1987, 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the country who
passed the AP Calculus exams attended a single high school: Garfield.
That meant that hundreds of thousands of overlooked students could
probably do as well if they got what Escalante was giving out. But what
Whenever I suggested that the great teaching I was seeing at Garfield
might be the reason so many students were succeeding in AP, people at
parties dismissed me as romantic and naive. I was living in Pasadena,
where my children, like my neighbors' children, attended private
schools. People there didn't believe in teaching; they believed in
sorting. The idea that the sons and daughters of immigrant day laborers
and seamstresses could be made to comprehend calculus, the intellectual
triumph of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, made no sense to them.
"I bet if you checked out their backgrounds, you will find those
teachers are skimming off the few kids whose parents went to college,"
one professor told me. More common was the assertion that Escalante, and
the school's splendid history and government teachers, drilled enough
facts and formulas into their kids to fool the AP tests but had no
chance of giving them the conceptual understanding that well-prepared
suburban students developed.
These theories quickly fell apart. I surveyed 109 Garfield calculus
students in 1987 and found that only nine had even one parent with a
college degree, and that only 35 had a parent with a high school
diploma. The engineering and science professors at USC, Harvey Mudd and
the other California colleges recruiting Garfield grads laughed at the
"no conceptual understanding" myth, as did the Escalante students I
started running into who had become doctors, lawyers and teachers.
It took me several years to understand how Garfield's AP teachers, and
the many educators who have had similar results in other high-poverty
schools, pulled all this off. They weren't skimming. It wasn't a magic
trick of test results. They simply had high expectations for every
student. They arranged extra time for study -- such as Escalante's rule
that if you were struggling, you had to return to his classroom after
the final bell and spend three hours doing homework, plus take some
Saturday and summer classes, too. They created a team spirit, teachers
and students working together to beat the big exam.
Escalante celebrated "ganas," a Spanish word that he said meant the urge
to succeed. He was so convinced of the power of teaching that he lied
to keep students with him. He said school rules forbade dropping his
class. He told the parents of absent students that if he did not see
their children in his classroom the next day, he would call the
immigration authorities to check on their status.
I left Pasadena and moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1992. At Scarsdale High
School, I had a shock. My younger son wanted to take AP U.S. history. I
assumed that, like Garfield, the school would welcome anyone with the
gumption to take such hard course. Instead, he was told he could get in
if he passed an entrance test. Once again I was in a land ruled by
sorting, not teaching.
There are fewer schools like that now, largely because of a change in
teacher attitudes. My annual surveys of AP participation for Newsweek
magazine show schools like Garfield emerging all over the country,
particularly in the Washington area. Low-income students are being
offered a chance to challenge themselves. Those schools are full of
educators who tell me they have read everything about Escalante.
When I discovered that his vocabulary was spreading even to grade
schools, I knew that he had triumphed over those who wouldn't even open
the AP door to some students. In 2001, a fifth-grade teacher in
Southeast Washington told me that she had instituted "ganas points" for
students who took an extra step to help themselves and others prepare
for college. That school became the KIPP DC: KEY Academy, the city's
top-performing public middle school.
Escalante liked that story when I called him in Bolivia. It was amazing,
he said, what teachers could do if they believed in their kids. He said
he was still teaching. He was never going to stop.
When I got a call a couple of days after his death about another school
planning to open AP to all, I decided he was exactly right.
Jay Mathews is the education columnist for The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/02/AR2010040201518.html?referrer=emailarticle