Chapter four of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
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. ELAC invited him instead to teach math to their Upward Bound students, some of whom had attended Garfield High six blocks away.
Jaime turned them down for the time being because he wanted to establish his own program. His students were not likely to excel in higher mathematics, but Jaime loved teaching them, loved seeing the light come on in the eyes of students who never expected to catch on. It was a sign of how much he loved his profession that after a grueling academic year at Garfield, including tutoring an hour before school and three hours afterward, plus hosting Saturday help sessions, he still wanted to teach summer school.
The Monday after Elsa Bolado informed him about the ETS accusation of cheating, Jaime attended a meeting to discuss what to do. At the meeting was Ralph Heiland, a physics teacher who was also the union representative at Garfield, two people from the district office, and as many of the accused students as they could round up. Henry Gradillas was at Brigham Young University in Utah for the summer working on his doctorate, so he was unable to attend.
Heiland passed around a copy of the letter from ETS. Raúl Arreola from the school district’s Mexican American Commission saw it as a clear case of racial discrimination. Eastern intellectuals couldn’t imagine poor inner city Latinos doing so well in advanced calculus and therefore assumed they had cheated. He knew of a recent case where two Anglo students accused of cheating had the charges dropped after their parents hired attorneys. (ETS said the attorneys never contacted them, but that they dropped the charges for lack of evidence.)
When one person at the meeting asked Escalante what he thought they should do, he said he needed time to gather the facts. Later that day he talked with Jesse López, another calculus student who had received the letter. He asked Jesse if there was any way students could have cheated. He said that there was no way because Mrs. Pruitt, the proctor, had been in the room watching the whole time.
After several days of trying to reach her, Escalante finally got through to Antonia A. Rosenbaum, who had signed the letter to the accused students. She had already fielded a call from Mr. Heiland and told Escalante the same thing she had told him: the students’ privacy rights meant she could only talk with the students directly. Jaime explained he was their calculus teacher and wanted to do what he could to clear up any doubt that they had cheated. He tried to explain that he had a certain way of teaching and that it shouldn’t be unusual for students who studied with the same teacher to work a problem the same way. Rosenbaum politely held her ground. She could not talk to him but only to the students. They would have to decide soon whether they wanted to retake the test.
Heiland and others strongly opposed a retest, saying it would be an admission of guilt. Furthermore the retest would be under far different conditions from the original test in May. That had been at the end of a school year after months of hard study and drills. Everything was fresh in their minds. Now it was the middle of the summer. They hadn’t studied in months. Like athletes or musicians who haven’t practiced in months, they were rusty. Moreover, the textbooks were in storage and out of reach. All they had to prepare for a retest was their notebooks and other materials in their possession.
The wife of Henry Gradillas called him in Utah and told him about the mess. Henry returned to Los Angeles as soon as he could, and he and Escalante continued to ask ETS for details about the supposed cheating. Together they pressed the theory that because Jaime gave such vivid examples and drilled with so much repetition, students would answer questions in a similar way. At the request of the testing service, Escalante answered three of the questions himself and sent his answers to ETS.
As recounted in Jay Mathews’ biography Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, answers to one question in particular were what raised the test graders’ suspicions. There were forty-five multiple choice questions and seven story problems (called “free response” by ETS) on the AP calculus exam. Problem six listed the costs per square meter for building the sides and base of a tank, then asked for the cost of the least expensive tank of a certain volume. Escalante’s class had had a key lesson in volumes from a substitute teacher while Jaime was sidelined with an attack of gallstones.
What had aroused the graders’ suspicions was that several test booklets had the same two unrelated mistakes. Graders would not know that the students were from the same school because booklets were shuffled and assigned at random to various graders, and all the identifying information about the student and the school was covered with a flap sealed by the student at the test site. When one grader noticed two booklets with similar mistakes, he took them to one of seven “table leaders” who supervised a team of graders. The leader reviewed the booklets then took them to the chief reader for AP calculus, who opened the sealed flap and for the first time learned the students had taken the test together in the same room.
Over the years, the ETS had developed a clear protocol for suspicious test booklets. About 1/10 of one percent of all exams were flagged for examination. These were subjected to an independent statistical analysis and, in the case of the AP calculus, to review by mathematicians. A three-member board then discussed the findings. They had to agree unanimously before a test booklet could be thrown out. In about seventy percent of cases, the booklets were cleared and results certified. Of the ones rejected, almost half were because of copying (plagiarism) and most of the rest were because the handwriting on the test did not match the signature of the student.
ETS found twelve of the eighteen Garfield tests had wrong answers to problem six that were the same to a very unlikely degree. Two more exams had other answers that were extremely similar. In some cases the likelihood of agreement was one in 10 million.
Escalante felt pressure not only from his students and the Garfield administration but from Hispanic activists and other civic leaders who were convinced that discrimination was behind the accusation of cheating. They wanted him to criticize the testing organization for racial bias. The local ETS representative, himself a Latino and East LA native, tried to explain to Jaime that the graders who originally flagged the exams had no idea the students were Hispanic.
“That’s bulls…. t!” Escalante barked. He insisted on seeing their test booklets. The official tried, as others had, to explain that they could only talk with the students and that the booklets were private. When the representative took a phone call, Escalante left the room, fuming. His students had been disgraced. He was hurt and furious, and barely knew where to direct his anger.
While Escalante and his colleagues in LA had been searching for answers, Antonia Rosenbaum at ETS kept telling them they would soon have to take a retest or have their scores disallowed. Finally, on August 24, she sent them word that a retest was scheduled for August 31. Escalante met with the accused students and told them he thought they should retake the test. It was the only way they could prove they knew the material. The group asked Jaime to leave the room. After a lively discussion, the students agreed to retake the test. Then they lined up at the telephone in the math office to tell Rosenbaum they would accept the offer.
Garfield Students are Vindicated
This was on Friday. The test was on Tuesday, four days away. They had no textbooks, no organized plan, and even some of their notebooks had been sent to New Jersey to try and prove their innocence. Before they had all finished their turn on the phone, someone started shouting the school mascot: “Bulldogs! Bulldogs! Bulldogs!” which then morphed into "Tuesday! Tuesday! Tuesday!" They would retake the AP calculus test and prove their detractors wrong!
At seven a.m. the next morning, Jaime opened his classroom and the students got to work. After several long hours of intense review, the teacher dispatched a group to bring back lunch from McDonald’s. Following the break they tried to work some more but found they were completely tapped out.
Two students had decided not to retake the exam. One was already in a summer program at Columbia and the other was in the army. The other twelve met Tuesday morning at 8:00. Mr. Gradillas scheduled the test in a science room with individual desks and air conditioning. The principal refused to send one of his own teachers to proctor the retest, so two women from the local ETS office were there as monitors. Mrs. Pruitt, who had proctored the original exam and was still stung by the charge that she had allowed cheating, was there but only as an observer. Escalante decided to stay home. There he waited nervously until Elsa Bolado called him around 12:30. She told him it was a hard test. “Don’t worry about it,” Escalante reassured her. "It’s over now.”
Two weeks later the results finally arrived: five 5’s, three 4’s, and four 3’s. Every student had passed the second test.
The first news of the Garfield AP calculus drama appeared in the September 29 issue of the weekly East Los Angeles Tribune. The front-page account emphasized an angry reaction from Garfield as well as hints of racism in the ETS action. On November 16, KNXT television in Los Angeles picked up the story reporting, “The incident suggests that the test givers harbor stereotypes about Hispanic performance levels: when the kids do well, people don’t believe it.” Advocacy groups started rumbling about a lawsuit against ETS. Others wanted to sue Garfield for not standing up for their students’ rights. ETS tried to explain that the questionable answers had been so similar for the original test, but were not similar in the retest. By now the whole matter was national news.
The AP calculus students were heroes and ETS was the villain. Escalante could fairly claim credit for a triumph that put Garfield on the map. In late 1982 and into the next year the national media descended on Garfield. Many of them wanted to speak to the stocky, balding teacher with the thick accent who seemed able to do the impossible with his students. What Jaime liked most about the notoriety was that it attracted students at the school to AP calculus. He used his media spotlight to sing the praises of higher math.
Henry Gradillas, himself a results-oriented man of action, appreciated Escalante more than ever after the testing crisis. In the wake of the media attention, he told Jaime that he could have carta blanca to do whatever he wanted as long as it helped his students to keep excelling. Escalante asked for more textbooks, a teaching assistant, and a new classroom. He said there was a big music room that was empty several periods a day. It was dirty and full of junk.
Gradillas moved a guitar class and a small choir to another space and granted Escalante his wish. An admirer of Escalante’s on the school board appropriated $25,000 to air condition the room as another incentive to prospective students. Gradillas explained that it would be a while before he could get maintenance workers to throw out the broken instruments, old band uniforms, and other trash. Escalante marshaled some help and a pickup truck, and moved everything out himself. It was three days before the band director noticed his uniforms were missing.
When Jaime learned that maintenance crews were too busy to paint his new space, he corralled some of his students to help him paint it. He brought spare stereo equipment from home and scrounged extra furniture and supplies from other classrooms. He created his own little world at Garfield in old Music Hall 1. There he stalked up and down the room, its floor tiered originally for band rehearsals and looking like a college lecture hall. He barked out instructions, encouragement, warnings, tossing off sports metaphors to help students remember math steps, handing out candy. “Face mask!” meant a mistake early in working the problem. "Marching band!" was a reminder to follow the usual steps to an easy answer. "Secret agent!" noted a minus sign outside parenthesis, which reversed all the signs inside.
Kimo was quick to criticize a student for failing to turn in homework and even quicker to send him out of the room for misbehaving or otherwise falling short of the standards he set. “Go to the beach” meant "Go tell your counselor to transfer you out of this class." Students, sometimes in shock and sometimes in tears, would leave class and go as ordered. The counselor would then return with the student and plead for another chance. It was all choreographed in advance and Escalante, reluctantly yet invariably, let the student back in. As hard as it was and as much as he drove them, as much as he taunted and hazed them, they wanted to be in his class. He had a team of winners.
There were forty-two students signed up for calculus in the fall of 1983. With a practiced air, Jaime assigned them nicknames, challenged them from the first day to do more and do better, kept in touch with their parents by phone, and worked with them every possible minute before and after school to fill their minds with the mysteries of mathematics. Thirty-three of them took the AP calculus test that spring and thirty passed. Escalante was fairly pleased, though he didn’t think the kids had tried as hard as the class of ’82.
Money for summer classes at Garfield remained a problem. But his conflict with the ETS had made him a celebrity in Los Angeles. One of his biggest fans was George Madrid, director of the Upward Bound program at East Los Angeles College, an east LA native and a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. He had tried before to convince Escalante to teach for him in the summer instead of at Occidental. In 1983 he had the enticements he needed. The Department of Health and Human Services awarded the college a grant every year to encourage minority students to study medicine. They’d never get to medical school if they didn’t know math, so some of that money could be diverted to Escalante’s program. ARCO, the locally-headquartered petroleum giant, donated another $10,000 to the effort. When the ELAC math department chairman read news of the donation in the press, he demanded it go to his own staff instead of a visiting high school program. But the donor insisted the gift was specifically for Escalante’s use. Escalante and his allies held firm and hung onto the money.
Escalante and a trusted younger colleague at Garfield whom Escalante had mentored, Ben Jiménez, developed a summer program to cram two calculus prerequisites, trigonometry and analytical geometry, into a single two-month crash course. They would also offer Saturday classes during the school year to students who had trouble keeping up. They hoped they could attract fifty students to their summer school; the first morning more than a hundred showed up. Jaime was elated. Madrid saw the response as a vindication of his faith in the program. Jaime had also pressured him to find after-school jobs for the summer students as an extra incentive to enroll. Madrid came up with work for eighty of them.
After the Garfield cheating story made national headlines in early 1983, Escalante had been invited by the White House to come to Washington to focus attention on education of the poor. Escalante declined the invitation, and declined again when President Reagan was scheduled to present a new federal study titled A Nation at Risk in California. George Madrid and others believed that if Jaime accepted the invitation it would give him influence in keeping federal money for the summer school flowing. Every year it seemed they were on the verge of losing their federal funding. To convince him, they persuaded some of his students to talk to him. If he wanted to improve education, here was his chance to talk about it with the president of the United States! Escalante agreed, and met President Ronald Reagan during a ceremony unveiling the study in the Pioneer High School gym.
Sure enough, when funding for the summer school seemed in jeopardy in 1984, Escalante wrote a letter recalling his and the president’s shared goals for “personal and national self-sufficiency and excellence through education and work.” The next year the dean of instruction, Kenneth L. Hunt, contacted the White House and got a two-year renewal of funding. When that ran out, other supporters cobbled together donations and grants to keep the summer program going. At one point ARCO increased its contribution to $40,000. At last Hunt and Madrid hit on the idea of calling Escalante’s summer school a non-credit remedial adult education course. Under funding guidelines, the community college network could then cover the cost itself. And so a new course was born: Transitional Mathematics, a "remedial" "college" course to prepare high school students for the AP calculus test.
Over the next several years, two related trends defined Jaime Escalante’s work at Garfield High. The first was a calculus program that grew from strength to strength on its way to ever greater national acclaim. The second was an expanding aura of resentment, jealousy, and exasperation from students, parents, colleagues, and administrators at the price of this success: a demanding, single minded, all-or-nothing focus on math that shoved everything else aside.
In 1984, Escalante doubled the number of students taking the AP calculus exam from 34 to 68. Ben Jiménez taught a section of calculus that year, the first year Jaime had allowed anyone else to teach the subject. Sixty-three of the 68 scored three or better, a 93 percent pass rate compared with a national average of 76 percent. Between his department chairmanship, lobbying the teachers of other math classes, and keeping an eye on promising students, after ten years at Garfield he had an excellent feeder system that brought promising students to his calculus program. He cajoled, bribed, begged, and argued to convince kids to enroll and then to stick with it when they began to feel the pressure of learning so much in a single year.
As was his M.O., when students wanted to give up, he refused to sign their transfer paper out of his class. When they needed time to study, he talked with parents to convince them they should let their children take time off from after school jobs. If his pupils wanted to take time-consuming courses like chemistry or computer science, he tried to talk them out of it or insisted they couldn’t do it. He made calculus an identity at Garfield. Members of the calculus class sometimes had their own jackets or t-shirts, held pep rallies, raised their own money for test fees with car washes and candy sales, hung out together before and after school, and sometimes ate together in their calculus classroom.
In the fall of 1986, there were 151 Garfield students enrolled in calculus. At the end of the school year, in May 1987, 129 Garfield students took the AP calculus exam and 66 passed with a grade of three or better. That year Garfield ranked fourth in the nation in the number of students taking the calculus exam. Twenty seven percent of the Mexican-American students in the country who passed AP calculus were students at Garfield High. It was a soaring, irrefutable seal of approval for Escalante’s severe but effective methods. It was the high water mark of his program.
Jaime’s star had been rising in the media world ever since he stood up to the ETS cheating accusations. Now in educational circles he was approaching celebrity status. Teachers, administrators, politicians, policy makers, and reporters all wanted his opinions on how to make education better. He spoke around the country, sat on panels, went to seminars, and gave interviews. He embodied the educational ideal: proof that hard work and determination could lift up even the poorest and most unlikely to snare their piece of the American dream.
A lot of his professional peers, however, were unimpressed. To them he was rude, selfish, and narcissistic; a grandstander who hogged scarce resources, poached students from other classes and activities, and had too high an opinion of himself. He earned extra money as math department chairman but wouldn’t attend the meetings or deal with the district office the way he was supposed to do. He made even more money teaching high school students at a community college in the summer, which had been at times gray area as far as allocation of funds.
He was treated like a rock star. He had an air-conditioned classroom when most other teachers did not. The principal and counselors showed favoritism by letting him cherry-pick his students, refuse to transfer them when they wanted out, and then send them away if they failed to follow his orders exactly. They knew parents complained about his browbeating and insistence that their children drop after-school jobs and other hobbies. When he was away speaking or consulting, the school had to hire substitutes, which meant less money for other educational initiatives. Escalante criticized other teachers’ classroom skills, their after-hours jobs, and their willingness to let students drop a class without challenging or arguing with them.
He seemed not to care what others thought of his black-and-white worldview and strong-arm tactics. When teachers complained that his work as department chair wasn’t getting done, he responded that it was a waste of time and that he wasn’t going to do it. When cheerleaders or band members or basketball players came to him saying they needed time for their activities he said, “Too bad.” If they wanted to be in calculus, they had to make sacrifices. For all the trouble he caused, the district found it difficult to reprimand Escalante because he brought in so much good publicity. Donors gave generously to keep his summer school going.
Meanwhile, two other Escalante admirers were about to send his star higher than ever. Ramón Menéndez was a recently graduated film school student in the summer of 1983 when he read about Escalante and the cheating scandal in the Los Angeles Times. After he shared the article with his friend and collaborator Tom Musca, the two decided there was a great movie in the story of poor Latinos who overcame the challenges of the barrio and institutional discrimination, and in the larger-than-life teacher who inspired them. Menéndez, a native of Cuba, contacted Escalante and pitched the idea of a biographical film. Jaime resisted at first, but the next year agreed to sell an option on the rights to his story for one dollar.
In the fall of 1984, the producer of the PBS series American Playhouse gave Menéndez and Musca $12,000 to develop their idea. The filmmakers spent two months in Escalante’s classes, discovering what the Los Angeles Times later called his “brilliant improvisational theater” where "Mr. Escalante hits the boys with a red pillow, requires the entire class to shout out answers" and "uses a rubber gorilla held upside down as a clue to a problem." They noted that the first day of class Kimo didn’t even mention math; he talked about basketball and the NBA stars whose posters were on his classroom wall.
American Playhouse approved a budget of $500,000 for a made-for-TV film. Menéndez and Musca figured their film would cost nearly three times as much. When ARCO, which had generously supported Escalante’s summer programs, offered $350,000 toward the project, the filmmakers decided to produce the project on their own, raising money along the way, and then finding a theatrical distributor once the production was finished.
Hollywood Comes to Garfield
It was a good time in Hollywood to pitch a film with Hispanic heroes. Edward James Olmos, who had recently won an Emmy for his role in the hit TV series Miami Vice, was signed to play Escalante. Lou Diamond Philips, fresh from his role as Ritchie Valens in the hit movie La Bamba, played a character that fused the stories of several actual students together. Andy Garcia, lately featured in The Untouchables, was cast as an ETS official.
The movie went into production in 1987, the same year Garfield had its best results ever in AP calculus. Olmos and Escalante soon became fast friends. The actor spent days watching Escalante in the classroom and recorded more than thirty hours of conversations. He thinned his hair and gained forty pounds to look and move more like his subject.
One question the screenwriters wanted to put to rest was whether the class of ’82 had actually cheated or not. They had all steadfastly insisted they were innocent. Escalante and Gradillas believed them unflinchingly. Mrs. Pruitt insisted there was no way they could have copied. And yet there was the evidence of the test booklets, the similar wrong answers that beat odds of 10 million to one.
Jay Mathews, who had written numerous stories about Escalante for The Washington Post and was at the time working on a biography of him, was asked to investigate. With the students’ permission he looked at the answers to the infamous question six in ten of the test booklets. Nine of the ten took the same wrong steps and got the same wrong answer (the tenth booklet had the correct answer). As agreed, Mathews sent all ten students copies of their answers and a copy of a detailed memo to him from the chairman of the ETS board of review explaining their decision.
Two of the students came forward and said they and some other students had copied the answer from a sheet someone passed around. Four others denied they had copied and three did not respond to questions from Mathews.
When reminded of a group letter to Escalante he had recently signed saying there was no copying, one of the two who admitted cheating said he signed it because he felt Mathews had coerced a statement from him; then he changed his story to say he had copied the incorrect answer from another student and shown it to others; then he changed his story again saying he had not cheated and was playing a joke to see if Mathews was working for ETS. The second student who admitted copying later said the issue was old and irrelevant and would not discuss it further.
Mathews concluded, “I decided simply to report what I had seen and heard, and hope it would be taken in context. I was convinced that, whatever occurred during that first 1982 examination in Room 411, it had ceased to have much meaning for what was happening at Garfield. What was important was that twelve students, obviously frightened and upset and handicapped by lack of preparation time and textbooks, had taken the retest and had passed…. They earned valid AP college credit and proved that they had had sufficient grasp of the material all along.”
During an interview in the fall of 2014, Angelo Villavicencio, a colleague and admirer of Escalante’s who eventually replaced him as the calculus teacher at Garfield High, insisted the class of ’82 had never cheated. “I was an AP calculus reader for the ETS for five years,” he said. "You see all kinds of crazy things. It may have been the right move to take a closer look at those booklets with similar wrong answers, but there’s an easy explanation.”
“Escalante gave very vivid, unforgettable examples to explain his concepts. Because his teaching style was so flamboyant, and because he used so much repetition, kids remembered what he said and repeated it back exactly the way he said it. Sometimes he made mistakes at the blackboard. We all make mistakes once in a while. Remember that Escalante had only been teaching AP calculus for a few years when this happened. He was still refining his approach. He always moved hard and fast – drilling, drilling, drilling. If he explained something the wrong way, it would stick with them.”
“It was during the time he was sick with gallstones that he went through this stuff on volumes. He was in pain, he was in and out of class. But he kept going and this is what he ended up with and this was incorrect. The students learned it, imprinted it, incorrectly, and they all learned it the same way.” But what about the long odds of the wrong answers being the same? What about the two students who admitted they cheated to Jay Mathews? Villavicencio was adamant: “The idea that they cheated is bulls…. t. They did not cheat."
In the end, the screenplay assumed the students were innocent and that the second test only underscored their truthfulness. Menéndez and Musca raised the money to finish the film themselves, with Musca producing and Menéndez directing. American Playhouse and Olmos Productions shared in the production credits. The picture was shot on location at Garfield, with some scenes filmed at nearby Roosevelt High. Warner Bros. bought the theatrical distribution rights. The premiere was set for March 11, 1988. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tom Musca commented, “I wonder what effect we will have on Jaime’s life.” By the morning of March 12, he had his answer.
2. Information about the aftermath of AP retest and Escalante’s techniques and attitudes during this time from author interviews with Henry Gradillas (11/9/14), Angelo Villavicencio (10/24/14) and (11/11/14), Chris Martinez (2/13/15), and Erika Camacho (4/17/15)
Back to passage
4. Jay Mathews’s review of test booklets from Escalante: The Best Teacher in America and from his reflections on the incident after a later unrelated cheating accusation in “Retest D.C. Classes That Had Dubious Exam Results in ’08,” Washington Post September 14, 2009
Back to passage