Jaime Escalante’s Legacy — Why wasn’t innovation rewarded?

Edward James Olmos and Jaime Escalanate

Edward James Olmos and Jaime Escalanate


Many of you saw the 1988 film, Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante, a math teacher at Garfield High School, located in predominantly Hispanic  East Los Angeles.

If you haven’t seen the film, rent it on DVD.  It’s worth watching because of the myth it shatters:  poor, inner-city kids can not excel in advanced math.

At the peak of Escalante’s career, Garfield produced more students who passed Advanced Placement calculus than Beverly Hills High.  Because of this and some similarities in the errors they made on the AP exam, the Educational Testing Service questioned their scores.  Outraged by the implication of cheating, Escalante believed his students were being singled out because of their racial and economic status .  The students agreed to retake the test at the end of the summer, months after their last class.  The students all passed and their original scores were reinstated.

How did Jaime Escalante achieve this extraordinary success?  He did it through innovavtive teaching techniques, using used props and razor-sharp humor to illustrate abstract concepts of math, believing all his students could master these.  He demystified the notion that higher math was inaccessible to his students.  He made his students believe they could do it.  “Calculus does not have to be made easy,” he would say.  “It already is.”  He conveyed the necessity of math in everyday lives to students who aspired to more than the menial jobs held by immigrant parents.  Escalante was able to transform even the most defiant, unruly teens into motivated students.

Another film on Escalante would be worth making.  This one would document what happened to Escalante after his phenomenal success.   His success was resented.  While the teachers union contract limited class size to 35, his often had 50 as he would not turn a student away.   This weakened the union’s bargaining position, so it turned against him.  By 1990, Escalante had been removed as chair of the math department.  A year later,  he returned to his native Bolivia.  Garfield’s math program fell into a decline.

The best tribute we can offer Jaime Escalante is to understand why our education system failed him.   Why wasn’t his success copied and disseminated throughout our school system?  We can and must do better for our children.  Innovation must be rewarded.

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