Jaime Escalante, the Bolivian-born high school mathematics teacher who developed a nationally-recognized advanced placement mathematics program at one of Los Angeles’ poorest inner city schools, has died of complications resulting from cancer. He was 79 years old.
Escalante’s story inspired the hit 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver” starring Edward James Olmos. Olmos was nominated for a Best Actor Academy award for his portrayal of Escalante. From NPR:
Escalante would later say that Stand and Deliver was 90 percent truth, 10 percent drama. His biggest complaint was that the movie left the impression that his students, most of whom were struggling with multiplication tables, mastered calculus overnight.
Fact is, Escalante’s kids ate, slept and lived mathematics. They arrived an hour before school and stayed two, three hours after school. Escalante drilled them on Saturdays and made summer school mandatory. Some parents hated it, and they let Escalante know it.
Escalante’s remarkable success at Garfield High got lots of attention, not all of it good. In 1982, all 18 of his advanced math students passed the calculus AP (advanced placement) test, a college-level exam. The test maker accused the students of cheating, though, and Escalante accused the test maker of racism. The students retook the test and passed again with pretty high scores.
By 1991, 600 Garfield students were taking advanced placement exams, not just in math, but in other subjects, which was unheard of at the time. That year, though, Escalante resigned, in part because he was tired of the run-ins with fellow teachers who viewed him as a prima donna.
Years later, it pained Escalante to hear parents complain that Garfield’s math curriculum had been dumbed down. Still, he had fond memories of Garfield High and said he wanted to be “remembered as a teacher, picturing that potential everywhere.”
Escalante’s story is proof that better teachers, not bigger government, is the key to an educational system that encourages students to excel. Yet even Escalante eventually tired of run-ins with faculty, school administrators, and the teachers union, all of whom continually dogged him for dominating the AP program at Garfield. In bureaucracies, outstanding performance is usually punished, because it threatens the security of those who are only average. God bless Jaime Escalante – we need more teachers like him.