Jaime Escalante

(1930 – 2010)

Jaime Alfonso Escalante-Gutierrez was a Bolivian educator known for teaching students calculus from 1974 to 1991 at Garfield High School, East Los Angeles, California. Escalante was the subject of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”

In 1974, Escalante began teaching at Garfield High School with the idea of focusing on students in whom he could instill the concept of “ganas” (a burning desire to succeed). He started with 12 students willing to take an algebra class.

Determined to change the status quo, Escalante had to persuade the first few students who would listen to him that they could control their futures with the right education. He felt it was important to “show them the money” by asking them where the high-paying jobs were. The money was and still is in the STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics), fields and the language for these fields is mathematics.

Shortly after Escalante came to Garfield High its accreditation became threatened. Instead of gearing classes to poorly performing students, in 1978, Escalante offered Advanced Placement Calculus. He hoped that it could provide the leverage to improve lower-level math courses. To this end, Escalante recruited fellow teacher Ben Jiménez and taught calculus to five students, two of whom passed the AP calculus test. The following year, the class size increased to nine students, seven of whom passed the AP test. By 1981, the class had increased to 15 students, 14 of whom passed.

The school administration opposed Escalante frequently during his first few years. He was threatened with dismissal by an assistant principal because he was coming in too early, leaving too late1, and failing to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay for his students' Advanced Placement tests. He had also earned the criticism of an administrator who disapproved of his requiring the students to answer a homework question before being allowed into the classroom. "He told me to just get them inside," Escalante reported, "but I said, there is no teaching, no learning going on".

The Escalante Methodology

Escalante never felt that his approach depended upon his personality. He felt that keys included being able to maintain open communication and to be able to listen to students. Among his most useful ploys/tactics using humor, peppering the lecture with lots of jokes, and using toys to illustrate points.

 

Escalante’s thematic approach was to turn the learning process into a game. He saw his role as that of a coach and the students as a team, working together.

Escalante greatly admired the discipline of athletic teams and their devotion to practice and drilling. He often used NBA stars such as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West as examples of successful self-discipline, outstanding performance, the will to win, persistence, and a commitment to the refinement of their skills. He reinforced this role-modeling by putting their posters on the walls of his classroom2.

 

Before class, his AP team had “warm ups” hand clapping and foot stomping to the accompaniment of the tune “We Will Rock You.”  The students had satin team jackets, caps, and tee-shirts. Their “practice schedule” was modelled on that of a sports team.  Escalante made the exams into an “opponent” to personalize and focus his students on the challenge ahead. His students chanted; “De-fense, De-fense,” and “Beat ETS” (Educational Testing Service), as they headed to the room for their Advance Placement Examinations.

Escalante used language including terms from sports to create a sense of action, comradery and completion among his students. The AP calculus exam was referred to as the “Olympics.” When a student failed a test they were sent to the “ICU” (intensive care unit) which was a designated less desirable section of the classroom. As this was a demotion that all the other students in the class would see, the offenders were highly motivated to work their way out of the ICU.

To soften the occasionally imposing terminology of math, Escalante invented “Escalentese;”

  • “Face Mask” – a mistake at the problem’s beginning

  • “Secret Agent” – a minus sign in front of an expression in parentheses

  • “Rifle Pass from Magic Johnson” – a straight line

  • “three-point shot” – a parabola

  • “Kareem’s Skyhook” – a parabola with a different coefficient

  • “Illegal Defense” – dividing by zero

This was all part of the effort to make math fun and present it as a team activity that represents a lively challenge.

 

Escalante’s course preparation was thorough and he demanded a lot from his students. His detractors expected that his students would be unable to perform at a high level due to the real problems of poverty, inequities and hopelessness. He felt that the students could rise to the occasion and that their performance would be profoundly impacted by the expectations of their parents and teachers.

In 1982, Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement Calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspicious because all of the students made exactly the same math error on problem #6. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the fourteen agreed to retake the test and all twelve did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed! 

In the 1980s, less than 2% of high school seniors sat for the AP Calculus exam. Of all Hispanics nationwide who sat for the exam 25%-30% came through Escalante’s program.

In 1988 a movie, Stand and Deliver, was released detailing the events of 1982. Escalante has described the film as "90% truth, 10% drama." He stated that several points were left out of the film:

  • It took him several years to achieve the kind of success shown in the film.

  • In no case was a student who didn't know multiplication tables or fractions taught calculus in a single year.

Escalante shared with them: "The key to my success with youngsters is a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike".

 

As the number of students enrolled in the program for calculus alone has grew to 140-200 students, the other advance placement programs at Garfield expanded sharply. In 1989 the school administered 450 AP tests in 16 different subjects up from Escalante’s first year, 1978 when only 10 tests were administered, none of which was for calculus.

 

At the height of Escalante's influence, Garfield graduates were entering the University of Southern California in such great numbers that they outnumbered all the other high schools in the working-class East Los Angeles region combined.

 

Over the next few years Escalante's calculus program continued to grow but tensions that surfaced when his career began at Garfield escalated. In his final years at Garfield, Escalante received threats and hate mail from various individuals.

 

By 1990, Escalante had lost the math department chairmanship. At this point Escalante's math enrichment program had grown to 400+ students. His class sizes had increased to over 50 students in some cases. This was far beyond the 35 student limit set by the teachers' union, which in turn increased criticism of Escalante's work.

In 1991, the number of Garfield students taking advanced placement examinations in math and other subjects jumped to 570. That same year, citing faculty politics and petty jealousies, Escalante left Garfield.

 

The Aftermath

 

Angelo Villavicencio:  In 1983, I was teaching at Griffith Junior High, which fed all its students to Garfield High. One day, one of my ex-students — a Garfield student named Sara Sanchez — came to see me after school. Sara talked to me about Jaime Escalante, whom everyone called “Kemo.” Sara said she wished I could meet Kemo, since she claimed that he and I taught in a similar way. I accepted Sara’s invitation, and she arranged for a meeting between us. When I went to see Mr. Escalante, we chatted for half an hour and — right on the spot — he told me that I had to come to Garfield and be part of his program.

 

I finally moved to Garfield in 1987. My involvement with Mr. Escalante and his program enabled me to see a world containing a wealth of educational possibilities which were accessible to all barrio kids.

 

Villavicencio felt that the most important factors that contributed to the success at Garfield were:

  • Academic flexibility with the curriculum;

  • Complete support from the administrators and staff;

  • A summer program in place to bring academic advancement;

  • And, most essential of all, educators who have the passion to teach, the required knowledge of the subject, and the caring and the commitment necessary to elevate their students to another level

  • With the proper administrative support, this kind of program could function well in any of the barrio or ghetto schools in this country.

  • It takes a team a long time to build up such a program, yet one administrator can demolish it in no time.

 

Villavicencio took the reins of the program after Escalante’s departure and taught the remaining 107 AP students in two classes for the next year. Sixty-seven of Villavicencio's students went on to take the AP exam and forty-seven passed.

 

Villavicencio had 110 calculus AP students in two classes. He requested the opening of a third class, so he could have smaller classes and so achieve better connections with the students. He was fortunate to be able to take over Mr. Escalante’s classroom, which had 65 desks. Hence, he was able to have 50+ students per class.

 

Henry Gradillas, the then-principal of Garfield High, played a crucial role in the success of Escalante’s program. The school district replaced him with Maria Tostado. Ms. Tostado denied Villavicencio's request for a third class room. She assured Villavicencio that she did not want any of Escalante’s legacy to remain at Garfield.

 

In June of 1992, Villavicencio left Garfield.

 

In just a few years, the number of AP calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams dropped by more than 80 percent.  In 2009, fifty-five students took the calculus exam and thirteen passed.

 

It is widely believed that Escalante’s time at Garfield was a “golden age” that has never been, and perhaps never could be, repeated.

“Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” – Archimedes  

Footnotes

  1. “The Jaime Escalante Math Program,” Jaime Escalante, Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 59, No 3 (Summer 1990) -  files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED345942.pdf

  2. http://www.endteacherabuse.org/Escalante.html

 

Sources

  1. “Angelo Villavicencio Interview | The Best Schools” - http://www.thebestschools.org/features/angelo-villavicencio-interview/

  2. “Class Struggle - The irksome myth about Garfield after Escalante” - http://voices.washingtonpost.com/classstruggle/2010/04/the_dangerous_myth_about_garfi.html

  3. “Jaime Escalante” - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaime_Escalante

  4. “New Evidence That Summer Programs Can Make a Difference for Poor Children”, Emma Brown - https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/new-evidence-that-summer-programs-can-make-a-difference-for-poor-children/2016/09/06/cfa4f52c-73cc-11e6-be4f-3f42f2e5a49e_story.html

  5. “The Jaime Escalante Math Program,” Jaime Escalante, Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 59, No 3 (Summer 1990) -  files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED345942.pdf

  6. “TEACHER STORY, Jaime Escalante, California - End Teacher Abuse” - http://www.endteacherabuse.org/Escalante.html

“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” – Harry Truman

 

 

Thirty plus years, the new reality…

Schools That Work

By David Leonhardt, New York Times, 11/4/16

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/06/opinion/sunday/schools-that-work.html

BOSTON - Alanna Clark still remembers the stress of third-grade reading time. When her class read books together aloud, Alanna would often become confused. She didn’t understand how her classmates could answer the teacher’s questions about the book so quickly. As they did, Alanna was still just trying to take in the words.

 

“It was frustrating, because I used to think, maybe I’m reading the wrong part,” she said. “But I wasn’t.”

 

Alanna had a reading disability, and she was falling behind. Her mother repeatedly asked the school for help, without success - and then began to fear that a pattern was repeating itself. Alanna’s sister, who was 12 years older, had also struggled in school. But schools kept promoting her, until she eventually made it to community college, where, unprepared, she flunked.

 

With this fear as a spur, Alanna’s mother entered her into the long-shot lotteries that allow Boston children to attend schools outside their neighborhood. Alanna won one of them, and today is a poised, soft-spoken 10th grader at a charter school called Match, housed in an old auto-parts store on Commonwealth Avenue.

 

Charter schools - public schools that operate outside the normal system - have become a quarrelsome subject, of course, alternately hailed as saviors and criticized as an overrated fad. Away from the fights, however, social scientists have quietly spent years analyzing the outcomes of students who attend charter schools.

 

The findings are stark. And while they occasionally pop up in media coverage and political debates about charter schools, they do not get nearly enough attention. The studies should be at the center of any discussion of educational reform, because they offer by far the clearest evidence about which parts of it are working and which are not.

 

The briefest summary is this: Many charter schools fail to live up to their promise, but one type has repeatedly shown impressive results.

 

Hannah Larkin, the principal at Match, refers to such schools as “high expectations, high support” schools. They devote more of their resources to classroom teaching and less to almost everything else. They keep students in class for more hours. They set high standards for students and try to instill confidence in them. They focus on giving teachers feedback about their craft and helping them get better.

 

“My mother has been teaching forever. My father has been teaching for 10 years,” Christopher Perez, a physics teacher at Match, told me. “They don’t get observed. I get observed every week and have a meeting about it every week.”

 

While visiting Match, I was struck that teachers hardly seemed to notice when I ducked into their rooms, midclass, to watch them. They are obviously used to having observers. They welcome it, as a way to improve.

 

The latest batch of evidence about this approach is among the most rigorous. Professors at M.I.T., Columbia, Michigan and Berkeley have tracked thousands of charter-school applicants, through high school and beyond, in Boston, where most charters fit the “high expectations, high support” model.

 

Crucially, the researchers took several steps to make sure the findings were real. They compared lottery winners with losers, controlling for the fact that families who applied for the lotteries were different from families who didn’t. They also counted as charter students all those who enrolled, including any who later left.

 

Before entering a charter

Black students who enroll in 6th grade at a Boston charter school have much lower math scores than their white counterparts. That’s why so much more of the yellow curve, which shows white students’ scores, is on the right half of the chart.

 

When you talk to the professors about their findings, you hear a degree of excitement that’s uncommon for academic researchers. “Relative to other things that social scientists and education policy people have tried to boost performance “ class sizes, tracking, new buildings “ these schools are producing spectacular gains, said Joshua Angrist, an M.I.T. professor.

 

Students who go to Boston’s charter schools learn reading and math better and faster than students elsewhere. They are more likely to take A.P. tests and to do well on them. Their SAT scores are higher than for similar students elsewhere - an average of 51 points higher on the math SAT. Many more students attend a four-year college, suggesting that the benefits don’t disappear over time.

 

…and after

When the black and white students finish 8th grade at a Boston charter school, their scores are very similar. By contrast, the black-white gap does not narrow at traditional schools.

 

The gains are large enough that some of Boston’s charters, despite enrolling mostly lower-income students, have test scores that resemble those of upper-middle-class public schools. The seventh graders at the Brooke Charter schools in East Boston and Roslindale fare as well on a state math test as students at the prestigious Boston Latin school, the country’s oldest public school and a school with an admissions exam.

 

A frequent criticism of charters is that they skim off the best students, but that’s not the case in Boston. Many groups that struggle academically “boys, African-Americans, Latinos, special-education students like Alanna - are among the biggest beneficiaries. On average, notes Parag Pathak, also of M.I.T., Boston’s charters eliminate between one-third and one-half of the white-black test-score gap in a single year.

 

When I spoke with Alanna, she told me she aspired to go to Johns Hopkins and become a surgeon. “Since people didn’t want to help me,” she said. I want to help others.”

 

Perhaps the most important thing about the Boston study, however, is that it fits a larger trend. Again and again, analyses of “high expectations, high support schools “ in Florida, Denver, New Orleans, New York, even Newark, despite other charter-school disappointments there “ have come to similar conclusions.

 

So why isn’t there a national consensus to create more of these schools?

 

Because the politics of education are messy [bolding added].

 

First, no school can cure poverty on its own. At Match, for example, only about 55 percent of students go on to graduate from a four-year college. That’s much higher than at most public schools, but I’ll confess I still find it a bit disappointing because it means some charter graduates still struggle. And when we journalists write about schools (or most anything else), we often emphasize the negative. We have paid more attention to controversies - like harsh suspension policies in some places - than to an overwhelming pattern of success.

 

Second, many people understandably worry that charters harm children who attend the rest of the public-school system. But there is good news here, too. Two recent analyses of multiple studies concluded that charters do not hurt outcomes at other schools “and may even help improve them, by creating competition.

 

Finally, no matter how successful charters may be, they undeniably make life uncomfortable for some people at traditional schools.

 

The best place to see this dynamic right now happens to be here in Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the state will vote on whether to allow charters to expand. Doing so would have enormous benefits: It would improve the lives of some of the 30,000 children who have lost lotteries and are now on waiting lists.

 

But it would also shrink traditional public schools, and many school boards and teachers unions around the state are fighting the ballot initiative. Elizabeth Warren, the state’s senior senator, opposes it, too. The critics argue that Massachusetts should instead focus on improving traditional public schools.

 

For anyone who sees some merit on both sides, I’d encourage listening to Susan Dynarski, one of the researchers who conducted the Boston study.

 

A University of Michigan professor (and Times contributor), Dynarski is a proudly progressive former union organizer. She told me that she had agonized over being on the opposite side of an issue as some of her friends and usual allies.

 

She wrote a Facebook post about why she hoped Massachusetts voters would approve the expansion. In the post, she acknowledged that some teachers would not want to work in charter schools. And if schools’ main function were to provide good jobs for adults, an expansion of charters might not make sense. Obviously, however, schools have another, larger mission.

 

“The gains to children in Massachusetts charters are enormous. They are larger than any I have seen in my career,” Dynarski wrote. “To me, it is immoral to deny children a better education because charters don’t meet some voters’ ideal of what a public school should be. Children don’t live in the long term. They need us to deliver now.”

For any questions, please contact David Trotman :

415-298-8979

1519 O'farrell St. San Francisco, CA 94115