Stand and Deliver Revisited

The untold story behind the famous rise -- and shameful fall -- of Jaime Escalante, America's master math teacher.

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Of course, not all of Escalante's students earned fives (the highest score) on their A.P. calculus exams, and not all went on to receive scholarships from top universities. One argument that educrats make against programs like Escalante's is that they are elitist and benefit only a select few.

Conventional pedagogical wisdom holds that the poor, the disadvantaged, and the "culturally different" are a fragile lot, and that the academic rigor usually found only in elite suburban or private schools would frustrate them, crushing their self-esteem. The teachers and administrators that I interviewed did not find this to be true of Garfield students.

Wayne Bishop, a professor of mathematics and computer science at California State University at Los Angeles, notes that Escalante's top students generally did not attend Cal State. Those who scored fours and fives on the A.P. calculus tests were at schools like MIT, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, USC, and UCLA. For the most part, Escalante grads who went to Cal State-L.A. were those who scored ones and twos, with an occasional three, or those who worked hard in algebra and geometry in the hope of getting into calculus class but fell short.

Bishop observes that these students usually required no remedial math, and that many of them became top students at the college. The moral is that it is better to lose in the Olympics than to win in Little League, even for those whose parents make less than $20,000 per year.

Death of a Dynasty

Escalante's open admission policy, a major reason for his success, also paved the way for his departure. Calculus grew so popular at Garfield that classes grew beyond the 35-student limit set by the union contract. Some had more than 50 students. Escalante would have preferred to keep the classes below the limit had he been able to do so without either denying calculus to willing students or using teachers who were not up to his high standards. Neither was possible, and the teachers union complained about Garfield's class sizes. Rather than compromise, Escalante moved on.

Other problems had been brewing as well. After Stand and Deliver was released, Escalante became an overnight celebrity. Teachers and other interested observers asked to sit in on his classes, and he received visits from political leaders and celebrities, including President George H.W. Bush and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This attention aroused feelings of jealousy. In his last few years at Garfield, Escalante even received threats and hate mail. In 1990 he lost the math department chairmanship, the position that had enabled him to direct the pipeline.

A number of people at Garfield still have unkind words for the school's most famous instructor. One administrator tells me Escalante wanted too much power. Some teachers complained that he was creating two math departments, one for his students and another for everyone else. When Escalante quit his job at Garfield, John Perez, a vice president of the teachers union, said, "Jaime didn't get along with some of the teachers at his school. He pretty much was a loner."

In addition, Escalante's relationship with his new principal, Maria Elena Tostado, was not as good as the one he had enjoyed with Gradillas. Tostado speaks harshly about her former calculus teachers, telling the Los Angeles Times they're disgruntled former employees. Of their complaints, she said, "Such backbiting only hurts the kids."

Escalante left the program in the charge of a handpicked successor, fellow Garfield teacher Angelo Villavicencio. Escalante had met Villavicencio six years previously through his students -- he had been a math teacher at Griffith Junior High, a Garfield feeder. At Escalante's request and with Gradillas' assistance, Villavicencio came to Garfield in 1985. At first he taught the classes that fed into calculus; later, he joined Escalante and Ben Jimenez in teaching calculus itself.

When Escalante and Jimenez left in 1991, Villavicencio ascended to Garfield's calculus throne. The following year he taught all of Garfield's AB calculus students -- 107 of them, in two sections. Although that year's passing rate was not as high as it had been in previous years, it was still impressive, particularly considering that two-thirds of the calculus teachers had recently left and that Villavicencio was working with lecture-size classes. Seventy-six of his students went on to take the A.P. exam, and 47 passed.

That year was not easy for Villavicencio. The class-size problem that led to Escalante's departure had not been resolved. Villavicencio asked the administration to add a third section of calculus so he could get his class sizes below 40, but his request was denied. The principal attempted to remove him from Music Hall 1, the only room in the school that could comfortably ac-commodate 55 students. Villavicencio asked himself, "Am I going to have a heart attack defending the program?" The following spring he followed Escalante out Garfield's door.

Scattered Legacy

When Cal State's Wayne Bishop called Garfield to ask about the status of the school's post-Escalante A.P. calculus program, he was told, "We were doing fine before Mr. Escalante left, and we're doing fine after." Soon Garfield discovered how critical Escalante's presence had been. Within a few years, Garfield experienced a sevenfold drop in the number of A.P. calculus students passing their exams. (That said, A.P. participation at Garfield is still much, much higher than at most similar schools. In May of 2000, 722 Garfield students took Advanced Placement tests, and 44 percent passed.)

Escalante moved north to Sacramento, where he taught math, including one section of calculus, at Hiram Johnson High School. He calls his experience there a partial success. In 1991, the year before he began, only six Johnson students took the A.P. calculus exam, all of whom passed. Three years later, the number passing was up to 18 -- a respectable improvement, but no dynasty. It had taken Escalante over a decade to build Garfield's program. Already in his 60s when he made his move, he did not have a decade to build another powerhouse in new territory.

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  • Josh||

    Great article! With the budget cuts and everything, our education is getting worse and worse, but the teachers continue to do their best, and that is what makes all the difference.

  • ||

    Excellent article. It ties in with a book I've just read, "There Are No Shortcuts", by Rafe Esquith. Esquith is another inspired teacher in the LA area whose students consistently achieve. Like Escalante, Esquith opens the doors to his classroom early in the morning and closes late in the afternoon. That teachers have to jump through all sorts of hoops to offer extras to their students is nothing short of criminal.

    Our current educational system is doing a good job of discouraging and punishing teachers who think, and operate, outside the box. Administrators and bureaucrats who stand in the way of these inspired teachers should be dismissed. Administrators should be eager to support teachers who refuse to participate in the dumbing down of the system; instead, mediocrity is rewarded. Enough!

  • ||

    I appreciate so much background on Escalante. It would be interesting to find any information on what became of these students, especially those portrayed in the film. Did they find success in life due to Escalante's teaching methods? Anyone have follow up information on any of the students?

  • Angie||

    Shameful fall? I didn't see any shameful fall. That's an overstatement. Too bad the program couldn't have been permanently successful, but Escalante worked hard and succeeded for a time at the school.

  • The Opinionator||

    Angie,

    It is indeed shameful that a man who successfully taught and changed the lives of students was run out of the school and now it is a shadow of it's former self. That is definitely a shameful, and preventable, fall. And it is the students that will pay the price is lost opportunities. The Union however, is still thriving even though they are not producing.

  • ||

    "... might now be retiring from Unisys ". Anyone who has worked for or with Unisys will definitely find the comedy behind that statement. Never have I seen so many lost souls in one organization.

  • David B. Cohen||

    The 2010 CA Teacher of the Year offers her thoughts on Escalante and his legacy:

    http://accomplishedcaliforniat.....kes-ganas/

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    Although I have not read the other comments, anyone who has watched the movie and paid attention saw the passage of three school years, not one as Jerry has suggested. That was a little closer to the true story than having us try to believe that this could happen in one school year.

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