Preface to It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
TheBestSchools.org is an independent commercial enterprise. We earn our income by guiding prospective students in their choice of schools and degree programs. We pay our way, and answer to no one but ourselves. Why, then, 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 in business to make money. 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.
Escalante has been a guiding light for us from our founding in 2011. Since that time, we’ve commissioned a retrospective article on Escalante, interviewed close associates of his (Henry Gradillas and Angelo Villavicencio), translated this work into Spanish, and perhaps most notably instituted an annual $20,000 prize in his honor (the Escalante-Gradillas Prize).
Still, all these efforts struck us as incomplete without a thorough, full-length book treatment of Escalante, and not just leading up to his widely reported triumphs of the late 1980s, but also detailing the largely unpublicized letdown that occurred soon thereafter. It Takes Ganas is that book. TheBestSchools.org is grateful to mathematician Bill Dembski and journalist Alex Thomas for taking on this project and bringing it to completion.
Who was Jaime Escalante? Escalante was the celebrated high-school math teacher who led a group of students from Garfield High School, in a tough neighborhood of East Los Angeles, to excel at such subjects as algebra and calculus.
His achievements in teaching math led to a group of his students’ passing the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in calculus in 1982 — for the first time in the history of the school! Over the next several years, the math program at Garfield expanded to the point where 85 students passed two different AP calculus tests in 1987, more than at tony Beverly Hills High School just 18 miles to the west.
Even with accomplishments like these under his belt, however, Escalante would probably not be so well known were it not for the successful 1988 Hollywood film, Stand and Deliver, directed by Ramon Menendez. Starring Edward James Olmos, this film chronicles the achievements of Escalante’s first group of AP calculus students in 1982. Here is a montage of scenes from the film:
Ironically, Escalante’s program did not survive much past the release of that film. The principal at Garfield High who had so unreservedly supported Escalante, Henry Gradillas, left right around that time to complete his doctoral work. He was replaced with another principal who effectively clipped Escalante’s wings, causing the math program he had so painstakingly developed to fall apart. The descent from greatness to mediocrity happened quickly. The tragedy is that it went largely unnoticed and unmourned.
What are we to make of all this? Certainly, we can readily identify several of the key qualities that Escalante brought to his task. Among them were the following:
- Passion (Escalante had what he called ganas — the burning desire to succeed — in spades, and communicated it to his students)
- High expectations (Escalante set the bar very high and brooked no excuses from his students)
- Putting in the time (he met outside of school, tutoring and helping students)
- Focus on results over process (he avoided useless paperwork and jumping through administrative hoops)
- Team-building (Escalante’s students functioned as a group; they taught each other; they developed esprit de corps)
Also essential to Escalante’s success was a supportive administration. The principal of Garfield High during the time of his greatest successes there was Henry Gradillas, a no-nonsense ex-Marine who supported him to the hilt. Gradillas not only gave Escalante permission to do what he did, but also gave him vital political cover from skeptical “downtown” administrators, as well as sometimes-jealous colleagues at Garfield itself.
Without Gradillas’s support, Escalante’s program probably could not have worked as well as it did, if at all. In any case, what is certain is that once Gradillas left, Escalante found himself in an exposed and ultimately untenable position, which was the proximate cause of the decline of the math program and his own ultimate departure from Garfield.
Jaime Escalante succeeded because of his unwavering determination (ganas again!) to achieve the goal of making his students excellent at mathematics. High expectations and no excuses. Sure, Garfield High was in a tough neighborhood. Sure, many of his kids came from single-parent homes and broken families. Sure, his kids’ families were poor. Sure, crime was rampant in the neighborhood.
But for Escalante, none of that mattered. He did not allow it to matter. And so, in the end, it did not matter to his kids, either. Victimization was, for Escalante, no excuse. This was not to deny that there were victims. But for him the focus was not on being a victim but on getting beyond victimhood.
Perhaps more than anything else, this is what Escalante’s ganas came down to: He believed in his kids. He believed in their intelligence — their intellectual virtue — and so, finally, did they. He believed they could do AP-level calculus, and so, finally, they did.
Escalante’s secret to inspired learning was an open secret. He did not look to the latest ideas or gadgets in math pedagogy. Escalante was a traditionalist. He was not a product of the late twentieth-century American educational establishment. He was from Bolivia! He held to a traditional philosophy of education — meaning a way of looking at human nature and the purpose of education — that was at odds with much of the reigning American educational philosophy of his day.
Escalante insisted on order, discipline, and accountability in his classroom. This stands in stark contrast to conditions in many inner-city schools today, where chaos too often reigns in the classroom; where teachers have to shout to be heard above the noise; where cursing and swearing to teachers’ faces is routine; where, too often, students suffer no consequences for bad behavior; and where students may not receive a failing grade, even when they do no work at all.
Under such conditions, is it any wonder that students do not learn, score badly on standardized tests, have no career prospects? That this appalling situation has been allowed to occur constitutes nothing less than racism — the “racism of low expectations” (to quote Escalante’s principal, Henry Gradillas).
Of course, the administrators and teachers who are responsible for these conditions view themselves as anything but racists. Nonetheless, these toxic conditions fester precisely because the adults in charge have bought into a certain worldview — a philosophy of human nature and hence of education — which when put into practice inevitably results in just such conditions.
It is a worldview that stands diametrically opposed to Jaime Escalante’s.
Now, there are reasons why this worldview has come to prevail. We can talk about “at-risk” environments, socio-economic factors, and family breakdown till we are blue in the face, but until we squarely face the reasons why this worldview prevails — allowing chaos to exist in our nation’s classrooms — we will never be in a position to replicate Escalante’s success.
The first step towards restoring sanity is to ask ourselves: What is education for? After all, how we accomplish a task depends greatly upon what it is we are trying to do. Therefore, it stands to reason that before we can effectively discuss how to improve education, especially for inner-city and other poor and minority kids, we need to be clear about what it is we want for them, and why we want it.
So, what is the purpose of education?
The traditional answer was: to lead the soul out (e-ducere) from its native state of darkness into the light of reason, moral virtue, and properly formed aesthetic taste. To do this is not an easy thing. Culture does not come naturally to the child; on the contrary, it is long and difficult to acquire. It requires dedication, hard work, and discipline.
Rousseau and his followers (above all, John Dewey) taught the opposite: the child is born virtuous and naturally curious about the world around it. The educator’s main duty is to promote this natural process of exploration by protecting the child from the corrupting influence of vicious institutions. The child knows best. The educator must simply provide a safe space within which the child may exercise its natural goodness, then get out of the way. The main thing is the child’s freedom.
These two competing visions of human nature and of education have been in contention from the eighteenth century until today. However, the traditional vision prevailed well past the middle of the twentieth century, when the radical new worldview of Rousseau and Dewey began to assert itself in our nation’s schools, colleges, and educational bureaucracies. By the 1990s, the victory of the radical new way of thinking was complete.
And today the results are there, for all to see. What, exactly, went wrong? Ideas matter, and bad ideas elicit bad consequences. Maybe the radical ideas of Rousseau and Dewey about human nature and education could have worked in a few, small, hot-house environments like the Chicago Lab School or Summerhill. But they could not help leading to a catastrophe when applied to public education policy on a broad scale.
Fortunately, failure sends a signal, especially when it is catastrophic. Reality has a way of getting through to us. Pessimism is thus never a viable long-term strategy. Indeed, the failure of the radical romantic worldview has been so total that many educators are now reacting against it and desiring change. This is encouraging!
In political terms, this desire for change gets manifested mostly in the call for competition, charter schools, vouchers, and the like. I do not think this is a sufficient condition for real change, but it is certainly a necessary one.
Nothing lasts forever. Even extremely bad and harmful ideas run their course eventually. It seems clear that today the pendulum has begun to swing back towards a more traditional view of human nature and of education — that is, towards sanity.
A hundred years from now, when historians look back on the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and try to reconstruct the details of how the swing back towards sanity in education came about, I believe they will discover its beginnings in an unusual place, far from the mainstream of American educational practice.
That place is Garfield High School in East Los Angeles during the 1980s.
The crucial experiment that was carried out there by Jaime Escalante provides a sort of existence proof of what can be done, provided there is the will — ganas — as well as the right (that is, the traditional) view of human nature and education.
The story of that remarkable moment in education history is what this book is all about.
James A. Barham
President and General Editor
The authors of It Takes Ganas
Bill Dembski worked as a research mathematician at the height of Jaime Escalante’s fame when, in the late 1980s, Escalante taught math in East L.A. Despite a varied career as a cross-disciplinary scholar and writer, Dembski never lost sight of Escalante’s towering achievement and always wanted to pay homage to it. That opportunity finally came with this book. Best known for his work on intelligent design, Dembski has shifted gears and now focuses on the connections between education, technology, and freedom.
Alex Thomas began his career as an advertising copywriter and radio producer in Dallas and Houston. Since then, he has worn a variety of hats including music producer, radio syndication executive, publisher, editor, and communications consultant. He has a special interest in the history of education and the role of education in American culture. Alex was educated at Houston Baptist University, Vanderbilt University, and University College, Oxford.