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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Meanwhile, Villavicencio moved to Chino, a suburb east of Los Angeles. He had to take a pay cut of more than $7,000, since his new school would pay him for only six of his 13 years in teaching. (Like many districts, the Chino Valley Unified School District had a policy of paying for only a limited number of years of outside experience.) In Chino, Villavicencio again taught A.P. calculus, first in Ayala High School and later in Don Lugo High School.

In 1996 he contacted Garfield's new principal, Tony Garcia, and offered to come back to help revive the moribund calculus program. He was politely refused, so he stayed at Don Lugo. Villavicencio worked with East Los Angeles College to establish a branch of the Escalante summer school program there. This program, along with more math offerings in the district's middle schools, allowed Villavicencio to admit even some ninth-graders into his calculus class.

After Villavicencio got his program running smoothly, it was consistently producing A.P. calculus passing scores in the 60 percent to 70 percent range. Buoyed by his success, he requested that his salary be raised to reflect his experience. His request was denied, so he decided to move on to another school. Before he left, Don Lugo High was preparing to offer five sections of AB calculus and one section of BC. In his absence, there were only two sections of AB and no BC.

Meanwhile, after seeing its calculus passing rate drop into the single digits, Garfield is experiencing a partial recovery. In the spring of 2001, 17 Garfield students passed the AB calculus exam, and seven passed the BC. That is better than double the number of students passing a few years ago but less than one-third the number passing during the glory years of Escalante's dynasty.

And after withering in the absence of its founder, the Escalante program at East Los Angeles College has revived. Program administrator Paul Powers reports that over 1,000 high school students took accelerated math classes through the college in the year 2000.

Although the program now accepts students from beyond the college's vicinity, the target pupils are still those living in East L.A.

Nationally, there is no denying that the Escalante experience was a factor in the growth of Advanced Placement courses during the last decade and a half. The number of schools that offer A.P. classes has more than doubled since 1983, and the number of A.P. tests taken has increased almost sixfold. This is a far cry from the Zeitgeist of two decades ago, when A.P. was considered appropriate only for students in elite private and wealthy suburban public schools.

Still, there is no inner-city school anywhere in the United States with a calculus program anything like Escalante's in the '80s. A very successful program rapidly collapsed, leaving only fragments behind.

This leaves would-be school reformers with a set of uncomfortable questions. Why couldn't Escalante run his classes in peace? Why were administrators allowed to get in his way? Why was the union imposing its "help" on someone who hadn't requested it? Could Escalante's program have been saved if, as Gradillas now muses, Garfield had become a charter school? What is wrong with a system that values working well with others more highly than effectiveness?

Barn Building

Lyndon Johnson said it takes a master carpenter to build a barn, but any jackass can kick one down. In retrospect, it's fortunate that Escalante's program survived as long as it did. Had Garfield's counselors refused to let a handful of basic math students take algebra back in 1974, or had the janitor who objected to Escalante's early-bird ways been more influential, America's greatest math teacher might just now be retiring from Unisys.

Gradillas has an explanation for the decline of A.P. calculus at Garfield: Escalante and Villavicencio were not allowed to run the program they had created on their own terms. In his phrase, the teachers no longer "owned" their program. He's speaking metaphorically, but there's something to be said for taking him literally.

In the real world, those who provide a service can usually find a way to get it to those who want it, even if their current employer disapproves. If someone feels that he can build a better mousetrap than his employer wants to make, he can find a way to make it, market it, and perhaps put his former boss out of business. Public school teachers lack that option.

There are very few ways to compete for education dollars without being part of the government school system. If that system is inflexible, sooner or later even excellent programs will run into obstacles.

Escalante has retired to his native Bolivia. He is living in his wife's hometown and teaching part time at the local university. He returns to the United States frequently to visit his children. When I spoke to him he was entertaining the possibility of acting as an adviser to the Bush administration. Given what he achieved, he clearly has valuable advice to give.

Whether the administration will take it is another question. We are being primed for another round of "education reform." One-size-fits-all standardized tests are driving curricula, and top-down reforms are mandating lockstep procedures for classroom instructors. These steps might help make dismal teachers into mediocre ones, but what will they do to brilliant mavericks like Escalante?

Before passing another law or setting another policy, our reformers should take a close look at what Jaime Escalante did -- and at what was done to him.

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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||


    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:


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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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