Student Achievement Commentary

What Jaime Escalante Taught Us That Hollywood Left Out

By Heather Kirn Lanier — April 20, 2010 6 min read

“Ganas. That’s all you need … ganas,” says the whispering Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver,” the 1988 film that famously depicts Jaime Escalante and his 18 inner-city math students who leap from fractions to calculus in just two years. “You can’t teach logarithms to illiterates,” the uptight math department head says, but Olmos’ Escalante touts ganas, the desire to succeed, as the single ingredient to his Los Angeles barrio kids’ success.

But the real-life tale of Jaime Escalante and his unprecedented Advanced Placement calculus program shows that it takes a bit more than ganas to obliterate the achievement gap between poor kids and rich. Based on his actions, Escalante knew this.

As educators, students, and citizens alike mourn the loss of the beloved math teacher, who died March 30, outpourings of support and sadness understandably veer toward the film: “Loved that movie,” wrote a teacher-friend of mine. But Escalante reportedly told Reason magazine in 2002 that the film was “90 percent truth and 10 percent drama.” Ah, how crucial that 10 percent is. In a time when American policymakers are arguing left and right about how to salvage the nation’s many failing schools, it’s worth honoring both Escalante and American students by examining the real strategies used in transforming an underperforming department into a dazzling decade-long flagship.

Escalante’s results were indeed astounding. When he first entered Garfield High School in 1974, he bore witness to a school threatened with losing its accreditation. By 1987, Garfield was attracting national attention for its impressive new numbers: Eighty-five of Escalante’s kids passed the college-level AP calculus exam. Those students—kids from barrios, kids not necessarily expected to graduate from high school—went on to universities like MIT, Princeton, and the University of California, Berkeley.

The film implies that Escalante entered in 1981, taught basic math to rogue students, and then recruited those same students for AP calculus the very next year, with nearly all of them passing the exam. Lou Diamond Phillips plays Angel, the archetypal delinquent who greets Escalante by flashing an “F*** You” tattoo, but eventually earns a top score on the exam.

Serious reform like Escalante's cannot be accomplished single-handedly in one isolated classroom; it requires change throughout a department and even in neighboring schools."

In real life, though, Escalante didn’t teach the calculus course until his fifth year. In his first attempt, five students completed the course and two passed the AP test. A critic might write “just five students” or “only two,” though anyone familiar with both the difficulty of the exam and the extent of math deficiencies in an underperforming school recognizes this as a laudable feat.

Still, it took Escalante eight years to build the math program that achieved what “Stand and Deliver” shows: a class of 18 who pass with flying colors. During this time, he convinced the principal, Henry Gradillas, to raise the school’s math requirements; he designed a pipeline of courses to prepare Garfield’s students for AP calculus; he became department head and hand-selected top teachers for his feeder courses; he and Gradillas even influenced the area junior high schools to offer algebra. In other words, to achieve his AP students’ success, he transformed the school’s math department. Escalante himself emphasized in interviews that no student went the way of the film’s Angel: from basic math in one year to AP calculus in the next.

The film also implies that the administration acted as a vaguely dissenting fly buzzing around but never landing on Escalante’s relentless methods. The department head huffs at his efforts; the principal, in a tight suit, is clumsy and out of touch. According to Jerry Jesness, in the Reason article, “Stand and Deliver Revisited,” while the real-life Escalante’s first principal resisted his efforts, the support of Henry Gradillas was a keystone to Escalante’s success. “Gradillas … worked to create a more serious academic environment at Garfield,” writes Jesness. “It is probably no coincidence that AP calculus scores at Garfield peaked in 1987, Gradillas’ last year there.” When Gradillas left Garfield, Escalante stayed just a few more years, and the rest of his hand-picked enrichment teachers fled shortly after.

All of this is not to mitigate Escalante’s amazing achievements. But in these details are important lessons that Hollywood’s version has erased. Namely, serious reform in education like Escalante’s cannot be accomplished single-handedly in one isolated classroom; it requires change throughout a department and even in neighboring schools. It requires support from administrators. And it requires years of steadily raising expectations and relentlessly charging students to reach those expectations.

Jesness argued that 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.” The film perpetuates even more-damaging myths, however. Like several high-grossing teacher films before and after it (“Lean on Me,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Freedom Writers”), “Stand and Deliver” implies that reform can and should occur in one year, that teachers can do it alone, and that the only missing key to failing students and failing schools is this “touch of a master,” as Jesness calls it.

Maybe none of this would matter much if these beliefs didn’t infiltrate our education policies. In March, President Barack Obama lauded a Rhode Island superintendent for firing the principal and every single teacher of Central Falls High School. But the president didn’t mention (and reportedly hadn’t known) that the school’s reading scores had gone up 21 percent; its math scores, 3 percent. The school’s fifth principal in six years had been making progress. Kathy May, one of the fired teachers, told CNN: “I’m disheartened. … After 20 years, I can see some progress beginning to be made, and I’m sad that we’re not going to be around to follow that through.”

In the west Baltimore high school where I began my career as a Teach For America teacher, new principals were shuffled in and out almost every year. The revolving door was a district- orchestrated charade, an action that suggested reform for Baltimore schools’ dismal performance, but only kept our school in a constant state of disruption. Meanwhile, Teach For America had armed me with Escalante’s brave ideology—expect the best from every kid—and I was supposed to do the English teacher’s version of what I’d seen in the film.

When my semester-long course failed to achieve that goal, I at first considered myself a failure. But one of the most passionate, energetic teachers I’d seen, Mr. Smith—a veteran who walked our violent hallways with a pep in his step and showed every student who passed him his newest motivational phrase—always told me, “It takes at least four years to turn a school around.”

Given the time it took Escalante to remake Garfield High School’s math program, I think he would agree. As the nation’s policymakers design programs like the Race to the Top initiative that encourage superintendents with underperforming schools to enact the same kinds of mass teacher firings that Central Falls High has suffered, let us not look for scapegoats to blame or superheroes to fix them. Instead, let us remember what Jaime Escalante’s life taught: To transform a deteriorating school into a beacon of learning, it takes not only ganas, but vision, patience, and the hard work and persistence of many.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as What Jaime Escalante Taught Us That Hollywood Left Out


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