It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante's Secret to Inspired Learning

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Great teachers are typically unknown beyond the immediate circle of their students, colleagues, and families. That was not the case with Jaime Escalante. Escalante taught calculus with outstanding success at Garfield High, in a tough Hispanic neighborhood of East Lost Angeles. Escalante’s success was portrayed in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, for which Edward James Olmos, who played Escalante, received an Oscar nomination. At its height, Escalante’s program at Garfield saw 85 students pass the Advanced Placement calculus test, more than at any but a handful of high schools across the nation.

Most people these days, if they remember Escalante, immediately think of Stand and Deliver. That film ended on a high note, celebrating Escalante’s achievements and fame. But few people know what happened thereafter. Escalante’s brilliant math program at Garfield High did not survive his departure in 1991. Within a few years, math scores at the school had settled back into the realm of low expectations where they had stood before his arrival there.

So what happened? It Takes Ganas reviews how Escalante achieved his unprecedented success -- indeed, a success that to this day remains unmatched. But it also recounts the largely untold story of the forces of entropy and inertia that quickly returned Garfield High back to the status quo. Most importantly, this book asks -- and answers -- what it would take to replicate Escalante’s success. The answer turns out to be surprisingly straightforward, though not easy. The key is an unwavering desire to do what needs to get done on the part of teachers, administrators, students, parents, and everyone involved. In other words, Ganas.

Foreword by Henry Gradillas

There comes a time in most everyone’s life when we would like to go full throttle and give it the best possible shot we can, no matter what stands in the way or what obstacles others might throw in our path. As a U.S. Ranger, airborne-qualified, military officer, I felt that I had given all I could — my best — in the training I gave to young army recruits. All of the rigorous tasks that my trainees had to successfully accomplish were geared to one main goal: survival on the battlefield. I faced my challenge, and found that my determination and strong desire to produce the best-trained soldiers brought about enormous positive results. At one time, my trainees received a commendation for being the most aggressive soldiers and for receiving the highest rifle marksmanship scores ever attained at the recruiting camp. Read More….

Preface by James Barham

Why did TheBestSchools.org take on a project like this to promote the legacy of Jaime Escalante (1930–2010)? The editors at TheBestSchools.org are not just engaged in a commercial enterprise. We love education. We see education as central to preserving civilization, ensuring human freedom, and advancing the welfare of the planet. So, even though our practical knowledge about how the educational world works helps us to make a living, we also want to make a positive impact on education as such … Read More….

Chapter 1: Renegade

Jaime Escalante was an incredibly effective teacher. Yet this very effectiveness came at a cost: wherever he went, he created waves. For many of the educators who worked with Escalante, that wasn’t a problem. Escalante’s students achieved such remarkable success that fellow teachers and administrators were often willing to cut him slack. The new principal at Garfield High, however, thought otherwise. She ran a tight ship, and she wasn’t about to let anything rock her boat … Read More….

Chapter 2: I Will Succeed

Jamie Escalante did not look like anybody’s idea of a celebrity. Because he could never remember his students’ real names, he made up nicknames for them. One of his favorites, Corcho, would have been a good fit for Jaime himself. He was built like a corcho – cork. Solid and chunky with big hands, a burly neck, and short legs. One observer said he looked like the school mascot: a bulldog. His dark features were framed by oversized glasses that emphasized the roundness of his face … Read More….

Chapter 3: Kimo

An undercurrent of racial tension ran through the culture of the city. Identity politics affected every policy decision, every allocation of resources. In the 1920’s, Los Angeles had been one of the first big cities in America to adapt specific residential covenants excluding African-Americans from owning houses in 95 percent of the city’s neighborhoods. Yet the city was also the site of a historic legal ruling in Mendez v. Westminster and the California Board of Education … Read More….

Chapter 4: Star Rising

The summer that the Educational Testing Service questioned the AP calculus scores of Garfield students, Escalante was teaching in the Upward Bound program at Occidental College in the Eagle Rock neighborhood. This was a federally funded effort to prepare poor high school students for college-level courses. Escalante had approached Cal State, the University of Southern California, and East Los Angeles College (ELAC) hoping to set up a summer school for his own students since the Garfield campus had no money for the classes he wanted … Read More….

Chapter 5: Don’t Give Up

"’Deliver’ Receives High Marks," declared Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson, introducing her review of Stand and Deliver. “Talent like [Escalante’s] is a miracle,” she added. “Pride is contagious. It has infected Garfield High, where Escalante still holds his standards high and dares kids to follow.”

Already well-known in educational circles, Jaime Escalante became a national celebrity overnight. It was an unusual subject for a Hollywood hit. As director Ramón Menéndez explained to New York Times film critic Aljean Harmetz, it had been a tough sell to distributors. “Try to describe a film about kids taking a math test.” … Read More….

Chapter 6: Teaching from the Top-Down

For Escalante, inspiring and equipping students to excel depended on taking charge of the teaching environment: schedule, curriculum, teaching technique, discipline, testing, everything. Ever analyzing what he sensed around him both as teacher and department head, and with the support of principal Henry Gradillas, Escalante constantly fine-tuned his teaching approach to make the most of the time available. He could re-explain something a different way, add another help session, or move on to a new topic … Read More….

Chapter 7: The Testing Juggernaut

A test made Jaime Escalante famous. As a teacher he focused on preparing his students for a particular high-stakes exam he believed was the ticket to a better career and a better life for everyone who passed it. As chairman of the math department at Garfield High, he structured courses and assigned students throughout the school in a way that fed the most promising kids into his AP calculus program.

Tests are a familiar and necessary tool for evaluating what students know, but as the educational landscape has been transformed over the last twenty years, testing has become a contentious point of policy … Read More….

Chapter 8: Adapting to New Challenges

Though it was only a generation ago that Jaime Escalante made headlines, he lived and taught in a world far different from the one educators face today. Teachers who see the value of Escalante’s example now have to apply his ideas in situations he never imagined. But as we have seen before, no matter what stands in the way of a great education, the teachers who are brave enough, energetic enough, and imaginative enough to apply Escalante’s methods are the most likely to break through … Read More….

Chapter 9: Turn Back the Wheel

In any other field, practices as successful as Escalante’s would be universally praised and widely copied. Instead, Escalante was driven from his job and his celebrated methods summarily supplanted with the old status quo, which had proven itself a complete failure. When questioned about the decision to discard Escalante’s methods, the new school principal declared that her system was fine: “We don’t need any help.” Garfield High dismantled a spectacular and historic program and replaced it with a dud … Read More….

Chapter 10: The Point of Education

Imagine you learned that you were going to die soon and had to find a new home for your children. Imagine further that you had two choices. Your first choice was a wealthy family where your kids would have plenty of money and every material thing they wanted but where their happiness was of no real concern. They would live a regimented life doing what someone else directed them to do. Your second choice was a family of modest means who would love your children, spend lots of time with them, encourage them, and do all they could to make them happy … Read More….

Chapter 11: If We Know What Works

We have seen how parents, desperate for their children to get a good education, have found a variety of ways around the bloated, misguided, and myopic bureaucracy that controls so much of American public education. We have seen how visionary and dedicated educators have battled against this bureaucracy to craft alternatives to conventional public education, responding to the needs of the students and parents they serve … Read More….

Chapter 12: Changing the Unchangeable

Escalante battled educational red tape throughout his career at Garfield. He realized that bureaucratic forces, too often ill-informed and isolated from the classroom, were immovable. Consequently, there was no point in wasting time and resources railing against them. The better course was to execute an end run around them. In today’s age, when educational bureaucracies and special interests are more powerful and deeply rooted than ever, Escalante’s legacy inspires a radical response … Read More….

Chapter 13: You Can Do Anything

Escalante’s historic success at inner-city Garfield High shows that high intellectual achievement is not reserved for the select few but open to the masses. Even so, a malaise infects American education. Whenever critics try to articulate problems with education as a first step toward solving them, there is always some reason why the situation is and must stay the way it is. Cultural forces are blamed for preventing people from attaining their full potential … Read More….

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