Mathematics Q&A

Still Standing

By Jerry Jesness — December 21, 2005 5 min read
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Nearly two decades after the movie Stand and Deliver catapulted the math teacher into the pantheon of education stardom, Jaime Escalante is no longer at East Los Angeles’ Garfield High School, the setting for the film. Nor is he prepping students for the AP calculus exam, as he did there so successfully with low-income, underprepared Hispanics that Educational Testing Service officials accused them of cheating until they repeated their high scores. The 75-year-old, who immigrated to the United States speaking no English in 1963, is now in semiretirement in his native Bolivia. He still teaches part time at a private university there and remains involved with American organizations that promote education, but Escalante can’t see coming back to teach in the United States until officials here get serious about supporting public education.

To visit his son and accept an award from the Center for Youth Citizenship, Escalante recently appeared in Sacramento, California, where he was reunited with his former principal and students as well as actor Edward James Olmos, who portrayed him on the big screen. Teacher Magazine got the chance to talk to the man who’s been called “the Best Teacher in America” about what’s wrong with American schools and how they can be fixed.

Q. After leaving Garfield in 1991, you went to Hiram W. Johnson High School in Sacramento, where you taught for seven years. How long did you stay in the United States after retiring?

A. It was only one year. This is what happened. I had a grant from the National Science Foundation. I had this problem with UTLA [the United Teachers Los Angeles union]. I had no choice; I had to leave [Garfield]. My wife picked Sacramento. I had about $35,000 left [from the grant], and I brought that money [to Johnson High] to continue my program. We did the AP calculus for one year. Next, we applied again for the grant. The Clinton administration cut [it] completely. And when we asked, “Why are you cutting this kind of program that had such tremendous success at Garfield High School when we could do the same kind of thing here at Johnson High School?” they said, “We’re not interested in that.”

Q. Which program was that?

A. The one I had at Garfield High, the math enrichment program, the one that created so many good students. Clinton cut it completely. That’s the reason we went back to Bolivia.

Q. You taught there for 12 years before you came to the U.S. How would you compare teaching in Bolivia with what you experienced in California?

A. First of all, we don’t have gangs. You don’t have discipline problems. The kids follow directions. And they don’t have [textbooks]. You have to copy everything from the chalkboard, whatever the teacher is telling you. This country gives [out] new books, and soon the books are full of graffiti. In Bolivia, the kids appreciate education. They want to be something. Over here, education is, for some students, a punishment. Over there, it’s a privilege.

Q. What do you think of the No Child Left Behind law that has fostered so many state tests?

A. If the test is going to be like we used to do—to see how this kid’s doing ... at the beginning of the school year ... and then at the end of the semester—I do agree with that. But the other thing ... you have to do is analyze the things in the curriculum. You have to emphasize the basics. Like, for instance, a kid knows fractions, knows arithmetic, I guarantee this kid’s going to have success in algebra.

After funding cuts ended his longstanding math enrichment program, Escalante returned to his native Bolivia, where he teaches and supports American educational causes from afar.

Q. Do you think it’s good for the schools to be judged by the results of the state tests?

A. I would say yes. You have to go according to the curriculum, especially in the achievement tests. It’s a good gauge. If the kids go through that, you know you’re teaching. If the kids don’t do well, you’re wasting time. That kind of test [is] going to make [an] evaluation of the kinds of schools we have.

Q. Do you think that the average American school is better or worse than when you were teaching?

A. Worse. The only thing we do in the classroom today is follow the textbook. ... You don’t know if that textbook could apply to [the] kind of environment or to the kind of students you have, like we had at Garfield High School. Probably whoever wrote that book [used there] made a great book for Beverly Hills, but maybe it’s not a good book for any minority school.

Q. Have you considered coming back to the United States to work either as a teacher or in some other capacity in education?

A. I would like to if I had the backup I had at Garfield High—if I had the green light.

Q. If you were teaching in the United States today, would you teach the same way as you did?

A. No, I would have to go according to the digital era. The time I was teaching at Garfield, we had the computers, ... but we didn’t have the graphing calculators. Now we have to take advantage of this new technology, ... so I would be changing not my style but the approach I have used, and the advanced technology.

Q. The film Stand and Deliver brought your accomplishments to national attention. How did that change your life?

A. It did not change it at all. I’m still the humble guy. I still believe in education. I still believe in my kids.

Q. Do you think that the movie, with its condensation of time that showed 10 years of progress occurring in one year, gave a false model of success to the American public?

A. No. In the first place, the movie is 90 percent right in the kind of place and the kind of students we had. But 10 percent of the movie is drama. Like, at Garfield, we didn’t have a kid who was going to throw the desk like Lou Diamond [Phillips] did [in the movie]. When we had [principal Henry] Gradillas, the discipline started showing up, and the kids had respect, and we advertised hard work, so I didn’t have that kind of problem.

Q. Do you feel that your success in Garfield is replicable at other hard-to-serve schools?

A. You know, it’s kind of difficult to change the personality of the people. You have to have a teacher who has the right personality. The dynasty we had at Garfield, I don’t think you’re going to be able to repeat that. The time was right. Henry Gradillas came at the right moment. When I had my program going, I was looking for help, and I got the help. With [another principal], I wouldn’t. He walked into my room and said, “What kind of math is this?” He was more oriented in trying to clean the school of the gangs.

Q. What should schools be doing for students that most aren’t?

A. At any school, the first thing that you have to do is, like in Garfield, is to show [and] teach respect, hard work, and discipline, and today, they are not doing that.

Q. How do you feel about the award you received?

A. It’s great to be recognized. I’m really grateful to see my students and Mr. Gradillas after so many years. Memories of Garfield came to mind. America gave me the opportunity. I took advantage of that, and today my kids stand and deliver.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Still Standing


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