Thanks to the popular 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, many Americans know of the success that Jaime Escalante and his students enjoyed at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. During the 1980s, that exceptional teacher at a poor public school built a calculus program rivaled by only a handful of exclusive academies.
It is less well-known that Escalante left Garfield after problems with colleagues and administrators, and that his calculus program withered in his absence. That untold story highlights much that is wrong with public schooling in the United States and offers some valuable insights into the workings -- and failings -- of our education system.
Escalante's students surprised the nation in 1982, when 18 of them passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found the scores suspect and asked 14 of the passing students to take the test again. Twelve agreed to do so (the other two decided they didn't need the credit for college), and all 12 did well enough to have their scores reinstated.
In the ensuing years, Escalante's calculus program grew phenomenally. In 1983 both enrollment in his class and the number of students passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled, with 33 taking the exam and 30 passing it. In 1987, 73 passed the test, and another 12 passed a more advanced version ("BC") usually given after the second year of calculus.
By 1990, Escalante's math enrichment program involved over 400 students in classes ranging from beginning algebra to advanced calculus. Escalante and his fellow teachers referred to their program as "the dynasty," boasting that it would someday involve more than 1,000 students.
That goal was never met. In 1991 Escalante decided to leave Garfield. All his fellow math enrichment teachers soon left as well. By 1996, the dynasty was not even a minor fiefdom. Only seven students passed the regular ("AB") test that year, with four passing the BC exam -- 11 students total, down from a high of 85.
In any field but education, the combination of such a dramatic rise and such a precipitous fall would have invited analysis. If a team begins losing after a coach is replaced, sports fans are outraged. The decline of Garfield's math program, however, went largely unnoticed.
Most of us, educators included, learned what we know of Escalante's experience from Stand and Deliver. For more than a decade it has been a staple in high school classes, college education classes, and faculty workshops. Unfortunately, too many students and teachers learned the wrong lesson from the movie.
Escalante tells me the film was 90 percent truth and 10 percent drama -- but what a difference 10 percent can make. Stand and Deliver shows a group of poorly prepared, undisciplined young people who were initially struggling with fractions yet managed to move from basic math to calculus in just a year. The reality was far different. It took 10 years to bring Escalante's program to peak success. He didn't even teach his first calculus course until he had been at Garfield for several years. His basic math students from his early years were not the same students who later passed the A.P. calculus test.
Escalante says he was so discouraged by his students' poor preparation that after only two hours in class he called his former employer, the Burroughs Corporation, and asked for his old job back. He decided not to return to the computer factory after he found a dozen basic math students who were willing to take algebra and was able to make arrangements with the principal and counselors to accommodate them.
Escalante's situation improved as time went by, but it was not until his fifth year at Garfield that he tried to teach calculus. Although he felt his students were not adequately prepared, he decided to teach the class anyway in the hope that the existence of an A.P. calculus course would create the leverage necessary to improve lower-level math classes.
His plan worked. He and a handpicked teacher, Ben Jimenez, taught the feeder courses. In 1979 he had only five calculus students, two of whom passed the A.P. test. (Escalante had to do some bureaucratic sleight of hand to be allowed to teach such a tiny class.) The second year, he had nine calculus students, seven of whom passed the test. A year later, 15 students took the class, and all but one passed. The year after that, 1982, was the year of the events depicted in Stand and Deliver.
The Stand and Deliver message, that the touch of a master could bring unmotivated students from arithmetic to calculus in a single year, was preached in schools throughout the nation. While the film did a great service to education by showing what students from disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve in demanding classes, the Hollywood fiction had at least one negative side effect. By showing students moving from fractions to calculus in a single year, it gave the false impression that students can neglect their studies for several years and then be redeemed by a few months of hard work.
This Hollywood message had a pernicious effect on teacher training. The lessons of Escalante's patience and hard work in building his program, especially his attention to the classes that fed into calculus, were largely ignored in the faculty workshops and college education classes that routinely showed Stand and Deliver to their students. To the pedagogues, how Escalante succeeded mattered less than the mere fact that he succeeded. They were happy to cheer Escalante the icon; they were less interested in learning from Escalante the teacher. They were like physicians getting excited about a colleague who can cure cancer without wanting to know how to replicate the cure.
The Secrets to His Success
How did Escalante attain such success at Garfield? One key factor was the support of his principal, Henry Gradillas.
Escalante's program was already in place when Gradillas came to Garfield, but the new principal's support allowed it to run smoothly. In the early years, Escalante had met with some resistance from the school administration. One assistant principal threatened to have him dismissed, on the grounds that he was coming in too early (a janitor had complained), keeping students too late, and raising funds without permission. Gradillas, on the other hand, handed Escalante the keys to the school and gave him full control of his program.