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Jaime Escalante dies at 79

[This is my obit of the man who, as many readers of this blog know, changed my life. When I saw what he was doing at Garfield in 1982, I decided I wanted to write about schools forever. I have found great joy in celebrating the work of great teachers, and I have Jaime to thank for that. ---Jay]

Jaime A. Escalante, the most famous and influential American public-school teacher of his generation, died March 30 of cancer at his son's home near Sacramento. He was 79.

A lively, wisecracking Bolivian who did not begin teaching in the United States until he was 44, Mr. Escalante transformed one of the lowest-performing high schools in the country into a model for raising the achievement of disadvantaged children. A 1988 film about his success, "Stand and Deliver," with Edward James Olmos playing the East Los Angeles math teacher, spread his story around the world and inspired teachers in hundreds of inner-city schools to copy his methods.

Mr. Escalante pioneered the use of Advanced Placement, a program of college-level courses and tests designed for high-achieving private schools, to raise standards in average and below-average public schools. His success at Garfield High School, where 85 percent of the students were low-income and few parents had more than a sixth-grade education, suggested that more time and encouragement for learning could trump educational disadvantages.

Calculus was one of the most difficult of the AP subjects. The three-hour final exam, written and scored by outside experts, was considered an impossible goal by many Garfield teachers, familiar with the academic weaknesses of their mostly Hispanic students. Mr. Escalante's first calculus class in 1978 did poorly. Five of the original 14 students lasted the entire course. Only two passed the exam.

But each year's calculus class did better than the previous one. When in 1982 all 18 students passed the exam, Mr. Escalante hoped he had a thriving program that would only get bigger.

Then the Educational Testing Service, which administered AP exams for the College Board, accused 14 of the students of cheating on the exam. Outraged Hispanic community leaders suspected ethnic bias and called for protests. But Mr. Escalante urged his students to retake the exam, an option allowed under AP rules.

Twelve accepted his advice. The exam this time was heavily proctored. The results gave the film its dramatic high point and guaranteed Mr. Escalante's celebrity: All 12 passed the exam, including five who earned top scores.

A Washington Post investigation of the cheating charges unearthed copies of the original exams of 10 students, and they showed that nine of them had been involved in copying one another's work on one free-response question during the first exam. Mr. Escalante never accepted that account and noted that the second exam results were clearly valid.

The Garfield AP program continued to grow, with courses in history, government and biology, and spectacular results in calculus.

In 1987, Garfield students took 129 AP calculus exams, more than all but four high schools, public or private, in the country. That year more than a quarter of all Mexican American students in the United States who passed the Calculus AB exam attended Garfield.

Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutierrez was born Dec. 31, 1930, in La Paz, Bolivia. He was a fun-loving, athletic teenager who developed into a natural teacher.

His first job was teaching physics, without a textbook, to a class at the American Institute, a school established by Methodist missionaries, when he was 21. He became a popular science teacher in La Paz, often working at one school in the morning, another in the afternoon and tutoring at night.

His wife, Fabiola, arranged for the family to move to California, to which two of her brothers had already immigrated. Mr. Escalante went along with his wife's plan, but he was frustrated to discover upon arriving that his Bolivian credentials would not get him a job in any U.S. school.

He spent 10 years learning English and repeating his undergraduate education and teacher training, mostly at night and during the summers, before he was accepted as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Shortly after Mr. Escalante arrived at Garfield in 1974, its administrators were fired because the chaotic campus -- riven by gang disputes -- was on the verge of losing its accreditation. Few people noticed the balding teacher with the thick accent teaching basic math to the school's lowest-achieving students. But the new principal saw how well-decorated his classroom was, with sports posters and motivating slogans. Mr. Escalante was given more challenging classes, leading to his experiment in AP Calculus for barrio children.

Once Mr. Escalante became a national celebrity, rubbing shoulders with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron on his own PBS series on careers for students who applied themselves in school, he faced resentment from other Garfield teachers. He was quick to tell Principal Henry Gradillas about colleagues selling real estate in the teachers lounge or calling in sick to get a head start on their weekend. He was painfully blunt about the flaws in the teaching methods of other teachers in the math department, which he chaired.

Much of Mr. Escalante's success with students stemmed from his ability to persuade them to work on lessons in his classroom after school each day, and to attend Saturday and summer classes to prepare for calculus. He rejected the usual markers of academic excellence and insisted that regardless of a student's GPA, he would let her take the AP course if she promised to work hard.

On one occasion, a student he did not know wandered into his after-school classroom, crowded with people doing their homework. She said she was in the gifted class and needed help with a problem. His voice full of delight, Mr. Escalante motioned to a boy in the room and said, "Let me have a student who is not gifted show you how to do that."

Lured to a Sacramento school by an ambitious superintendent in 1991, Mr. Escalante ended his career quietly, making sure that his students passed the AP test without trying to revolutionize the school. In retirement, he divided his time between California and Bolivia, where he joked that several schools were named after him but had given him no money for the rights.

He is survived by his wife, two sons and six grandchildren.

Mathews, an education columnist who writes the Class Struggle blog for washingtonpost.com, covered Mr. Escalante as Los Angeles bureau chief for The Post and wrote the 1988 book "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America."

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | March 31, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Jaime Escalante dies at 79, secrets of Escalante's success  
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Comments

On the drive to work this morning NPR reported the death of Jamie Escalante. He was a remarkable teacher. They had an audio clip from him talking about the qualities of a good teacher. He said (I paraphrase here) "you have to love what you teach and love your students". I was thinking how amazing it was that his statement mirrored so closely the words of a panel of high school students that were spontaneously pulled together to talk with state leaders during a symposium to disucss what's wrong with education. Despite the varied questions that were posed to the students, their answers always seemd to come back to two simple truths. They said they wanted their teachers to care about them and to know and care about the subject they taught.

Jamie Escalante changed lives. He made a positive difference. He not only helped some of the most disadvantaged students learn math well, he taught them to believe in their potential. It is interesting that he was not popular among his colleagues. And it's sad that there are not more teachers like him. Kids need people like Jamie Escalante in their lives. You could say he reformed education in one small part of the world...

Posted by: highquality4kids | March 31, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Jay - I noticed that, shortly after he arrived here, Mr. Escalante took math and physics courses at the local community college. From time to time I've noticed that you speak highly of the value of community colleges. Could Escalante's community college enrollment been the seed to your idea? Furthermore, I think Escalante is a profile in courage. His legacy should be a reminder to all of us, that not only was he successful in helping students succeed, but he, himself, succeeded, brilliantly. Isn't it all about personality and perserverance? Jaime Escalante - RIP!

Posted by: 1voraciousreader | March 31, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Pretty shocking to learn that they did cheat after all, given that the movie presents it as this quasi-racist notion.

Rarely mentioned about Escalante's methods is that he taught the kids by rote, piece by piece. The kids often didn't have an "authentic" understanding of math, as Jay was just asking about.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it should let Jay and others know that even the miracle stories about teaching low income youths come with a catch. Jay is pushing AP for all based on Escalante's results, but Escalante's results prove that rote and drill--exactly the things that Jay bemoans--are the keys to success.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 31, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

HighQuality,
There are actually many teachers like Mr. Escalante; however, with the exception of this column, people don't hear much about them. For example, a department chair (and the department's teachers) took one high school in Fairfax from being one of the lower performing schools to one with the highest SOL pass rate within a few years. This school was recognized nationally and internationally, but was never mentioned in this area. This school had the highest percentage pass rate in Algebra 2, 2nd highest in Algebra 1 and 3rd highest in Geometry (excluding TJ)despite having the highest minority population, highest free and reduced lunch population and highest esl population in the county; but was this story was never written.

Posted by: williamhorkan | March 31, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Jaime was indeed a gifted and inspirational teacher who emphasized universal truths about education. He reminded us of the following:

Poor children, like children everywhere, are capable of extraordinary achievement;

A great teacher can make a huge difference in a student's life;

Even the best teachers need student involvement and parental support;

Learning can be affected by "administrative turnover" and "cultural differences."

Yes, the sooner we listen to the common sense of experienced teachers, the sooner we'll see the progress that we all want.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 31, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

I first saw Stand and Deliver two weeks before I was going to take my first AP tests as Junior in an inner-city school in Denver. It was inspiring for a lot of us at the time. The movie really did have an impact in that it resulted in a significant expansion of the AP program in the subsequent years. I know our high school did revamp our whole math program on the basis of the Escalante's program. The results were good for a period of time and then some retirements and now my old high school is one that has failed so many kids for so many years that they will need to revamp or shut it down soon. Garfield the school Escalante taught at is in a similar place of failure. Are reforms really only viable as long as the personality is there? Is this a cautionary tale for this era of reform? Is there an example of high achievement that has outlasted that charismatic teacher?

Posted by: Brooklander | April 1, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

For Cal---You couldn't be more wrong. I have heard this nonsense since I first began writing about Escalante and Garfield. The assumption seems to be, and it shocks me coming from you, that low income kids just can't master the conceptual depths of calculus. But they did. He did NOT teach by rote. The cheating incident had nothing to do with rote teaching, but with kids panicking at the end of a long exam, and showing in the retest that they did not have to cheat to do well. Jaime's eaching was as deep, in some ways deeper, than what my son was getting in AP Calculus at about the same time at the Polytechnic School of Pasadena, a highly regarded private school on the other side of the socio-economic spectrum from Garfield. I spoke to the professors of the engineering, math and science departments at USC, Harvey Mudd and many of the UCs that recruited Jaime's kids, and they loved what they got. The conceptual understanding was there. Many have gone on to be engineers and college professors. You are such a good teacher and a smart person. Where in heaven's name did you get this cockeyed idea?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 1, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Jaime Escalante was a brilliant and motivating teacher. However, one of the greatest weaknesses of his example is that it obscures how many other parts of the school system had to fall into place for him (and his students) to achieve the success that they did.

1) curriculum change (not a teacher's call). In fact, the math program at Garfield was radically overhauled.

2) A supportive administrator, Principal Gradillas, who approved the teacher's program, ensures appropriate supplies and later, hires a number of equally motivated and talented math teachers to develop the program

3) a supportive community (students and families) that will sacrifice sports, jobs etc. in favor of 4-hour homework and summer school

4) Extensive networks of professionals at feeder middle schools who would ensure that students who wanted to participate in Garfield's math program had taken the foundation courses (this also required summer school attendance)

The true story of Garfield's success is not about one man making all the difference, but how much systemic change is needed for exceptional achievement to occur. By way of example, look at Escalante's record at Hiram Johnson HS. He never had more than 14 students in AP calculus and never exceeded a 75% pass rate. That's not shabby, but nothing like his tenure at Garfield. Why the vastly different results? Lack of support administratively and in the community. Even the best teacher can be effectively undermined when other parts of the system do not work to support his/her efforts.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | April 1, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

For 1voraciousreader---I was very pleased to see that Jaime got so much out of Pasadena City Community college, since I was living a few blocks from the school at the time. But my interest in community colleges goes much further back to my parents, both graduates of Long Beach City College, and my brother, who worked for the College of San Mateo for 25 years.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 1, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Nikki123's points are pretty good, especially about Gradillas. I looked at the Hiram Johnson situation closely and found three reasons why Jaime didnt set that place afire too---a succession of weak principals, a student body that was only one quarter Hispanic so he couldnt bully most of the parents the way he usually did, and the fact that he was by then famous, nearing retirement, had proved his point and didnt want to be the school goad that everyone hated anymore.
The curriculum change, however, WAS his call. He was the department chair and assigned himself a class at each level, so that he was sure of the quality of the teaching, he downgraded or pushed out teachers he thought couldnt hack it and used his outside contacts and money to start the summer school program that allowed him to accelerate lots of kids. None of that would have happened if he had not been there. Tho of course it wouldnt have happened even WITH him there if Gradillas had not said yes to everything he wanted.
I am interested in what you say about the feeder schools, but when I was hanging around there from 82 to 87 nobody, including Jaime and Henry, ever said they were a factor. What are yr sources on that?
As for parents, there was a core of families who had been there awhile, and stable, so at least they were not changing addresses every year like in some communities, but they were not middle class and not comfortable with the school environment and in many cases had to be muscled by Jaime to make sure their kids did their work and showed up in class. His big triumph was keeping a lot of kids from their homes, by insisting they do their homework in his class room from 3 to 6 each day.
You are absolutely right that it was not his brilliant teaching, but the system he set up, that made the difference. His partner Ben Jimenez was in the classroom just an average teacher, but he adopted the system and had results just as good as Jaime's on the AP.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 1, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I was a student of the great Escalante in '86 and '88 and just recenlty picked up your book about him. I was struck at all the individuals involved in setting up the program Escalante had in place by the time I arrived. It wasn't just that I got to study Calculus but the fact that that the program itself provided me with such a unique experience. From being part of a community of students devoted to studying these advanced courses, was allowed to attend courses at the Community College and eventual had a summer job secured for me by this program. Thank you so much for documenting that process I really had no idea.

I do agree that it is terribly tragic that my alma mater is now struggling. As corny as this may sound, maybe his passing should be taken as a call to action to the community to change the course Garfield is currently on.

Posted by: maganacuellar | April 1, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I,too, have been a long-time fan of Jaime Escalante, and was deeply affected by the movie, "Stand and Deliver"

An important note: even great teachers like Mr. Escalante are not made overnight. As your article points out,by the time Mr. Escalante had created his tremendous success with the calculus classes, he was middle-aged,had already taught a number of years, had gone back to school, learned a new language, and generally survived the fires of the immigration experience. The genius of this man was that he was able to harness all of these experiences and pour them into the students he so believed in.

I would hope that young teachers aspiring to be great teachers are not only taught
stories like Mr. Escalante's, but that they be given the tools and understanding to survive the education battles of the day.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | April 1, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Drawing attention to Brooklander's post, the collapsing of a school back to a previous degree of ineffectuality is an all too common phenomenon.

When a Jaime Escalante or Marva Collins or some lesser known but equally talented teacher produces a startling educational improvement it's inevitably against indifference if not active hostility. When they leave their improvement leaves with them.

The problem is that the structure of public education contains no incentives for professionals to excel at educating kids.

Teachers aren't rewarded for being great teachers and principals are rewarded for being great principals. The extent to which they can control their rate of pay and job security is a function of the achievement of tenure and the collecting of largely useless degrees. Under those circumstances the only reason to excel is because of internal motivations which are more often seen as disruptive and embarrassing by fellow professionals then worthy of study and emulation.

With all the hand-wringing about the need for great teachers there seems to be an utter disregard for what's needed to encourage the development of great teachers.

Posted by: allenm1 | April 2, 2010 5:03 AM | Report abuse

allenm1 has a point, but the post-Escalante collapse of Garfield is a myth. The calculus program is, to be sure, not as strong as it was when Escalante and Jimenez were there, but they still have more kids taking and passing that AP exam than the vast majority of other schools, and its overall AP program is stronger than it was in the Escalante years. Twenty five percent of seniors graduate having passed at least one AP test, almost twice the national average, and its AP participation rate is in the top 5 percent nationally. That is remarkable for a school of 4,200 students where 89 percent are low income.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 2, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse

@JayMatthews,

Garfield, at the time of the development of the math program, was a 3 yr high school. It is impossible to bring students from basic math to calculus in 3 yrs. Students had to take summer classes in high school and feeder middle schools (or junior high schools) changed their courses to align with Garfield's requirements.

Here's the link:

http://reason.com/archives/2002/07/01/stand-and-deliver-revisited/1

Posted by: Nikki1231 | April 2, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Nikki123--you are certainly right about that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 2, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

"He did NOT teach by rote. "

He said he did. The first time I heard that was in the film itself. Of course, the film also said that the kids didn't cheat.

I never said the teaching method was linked to the cheating. Why even suggest that I did?

And the whole point of my post was that teaching by rote isn't a bad thing, so why get so fussed?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 2, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

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