A close look at what the controversial subject of Stand and Deliver can still teach about teaching
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- Readers also like: Henry Gradillas Interview and Angelo Villavicencio Intervew.
Part I – The Legacy
“Don’t call it a ‘Golden Age!’” Henry Gradillas declares with conviction. “That’s the way it should have been all along.”
To call the 1980s the Golden Age of East LA’s Garfield High, he insists, implies that the school offered more during those years than students had a right to expect. Henry believes they were only getting the education they were entitled to.
He should know. Gradillas, still teaching at age 80 and passionate as ever about education, was principal there from 1981 until 1987 during a time of academic progress and achievement that has never been equaled. Accusations of cheating at the school on the 1982 Educational Testing Service advanced placement calculus test made national headlines. Defenders claimed the ETS was merely prejudiced, unwilling to believe that Mexican-American kids whose parents were laborers and hotel maids could have scored so well on an exam aimed at high-achieving Anglos. When every student who retook the test passed a second time, a legend was born.
The 1988 film Stand and Deliver told the story of these students and their unorthodox calculus teacher, Jaime Escalante. The actor who portrayed Escalante, Edward James Olmos (right), received an Oscar nomination for his role in the film and made the teacher an international celebrity.
The movie also introduced millions to the philosophy of a focused, passionate, sometimes controversial teacher who, against impossible odds, led teenagers from the barrios of East LA to triumph in one of the most demanding calculus tests in the country year after year. Escalante, assisted by teachers Angelo Villavicencio and Ben Jimenez and supported by principal Gradillas, masterminded the program that educators have held up as a shining example of excellence ever since.
The students in Jaime Escalante’s math department were not your typical calculus eggheads. Seventy percent of the children were poor and 95 percent were black or Hispanic. Many of their parents were undocumented aliens who spoke little or no English and had never finished high school themselves. And yet Escalante became one of the most famous and most admired teachers of his time by inspiring and cajoling students to excel regardless of their poor preparation in junior high; difficult home situations; inadequate study habits; drugs, gangs, and other daunting obstacles. A passing Advanced Placement (AP) grade put them in an elite group of top performers, typically opening the door to prestigious colleges and earning college credit.
Building a Fast Track
Though Escalante started teaching at Garfield in 1974, it took four years to lay the groundwork, get the textbooks, and establish the curriculum before he reached his goal of offering AP calculus. He believed higher mathematics was the key to a good job, a promising student’s ticket out of the barrio and into a successful career. Southern California was full of aerospace companies, aircraft makers, computer, and engineering, and manufacturing businesses eager to hire qualified young Latinos. AP calculus was the supreme test of a high school student’s achievement and potential.
Escalante (left) knew he had kids who were up to the challenge. But between the basic consumer math most Garfield students learned and a mastery of calculus was a minefield of geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and mathematical analysis. Students arrived at Garfield entering the tenth grade (it was a three-year high school) without any of the fundamentals required to tackle higher math. Jaime and his colleagues had three years to teach five or six years’ worth of material to reach the level of the AP test questions. And these were kids who barely knew how to add and subtract. Understanding the absolute value of x—much less the second derivative of f—was a long way off.
Jaime recruited students for his classes the way coaches recruited for sports. He got word of kids who seemed to have an aptitude for numbers and lobbied them to join him. Finally, in 1978 he persuaded 14 students to take his inaugural calculus class and sit for the AP calculus exam the following spring. He scrounged copies of old AP test questions and prepared handouts from other sources. He started his 8:00 am class at 7:30 every morning, then tutored students after school. One after another the students fell by the wayside, unwilling or unable to maintain Escalante’s brutal pace, determined to keep up with sports and other extra-curricular activities that meant more to them than the mysteries of algebra. Five made it to the end of the academic year and took the test. Two passed.
The next year nine students made it all the way through the year; six passed the test. In 1981, 15 took the test and 14 passed, including one with a 5, the highest possible score. In 1982, the year of the famous retest, 18 Garfield students took the math test and for the first time everyone passed. In 1987, the year of peak participation in Escalante’s fast-track program, 127 Garfield students took the AP calculus test, more students than at Beverly Hills High and more than all but four high schools in the entire country. Eighty-five Garfield students passed, meaning 27 percent of all Mexican-American students in America who passed the AP calculus test that year were students in Escalante’s program.
Jaime and his team shepherded hundreds of students through calculus and other higher math courses at Garfield in numbers unequalled before or since. Many of them took and passed Advanced Placement tests. Some made it through the best colleges in America and went on to high-profile careers in teaching, science, engineering and other fields. At one point almost half the teachers at Garfield were school alumni.
Among the many bright careers launched by the Escalante program are:
- Daniel Castro (right), who earned a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering at MIT, then added a law degree from UC Berkeley; today, he is an attorney specializing in patent law and intellectual property.
- Jorge Samayoa, the first Garfield graduate ever accepted by MIT; two of his brothers went to Harvard.
- Olga Reyes, who went on to get a master’s degree in civil engineering and is now a nationwide authority on bridge design and construction.
- Victor Mendez, a graduate of Cal State LA, who has led major product development projects at California Edison (a student of Villavicencio’s at Don Lugo High after he left Garfield).
- Erika Camacho (left), now a mathematics professor at Arizona State University.
- Anthony Garcia, who received a degree in sports medicine from Cal Poly Pomona and is now a professional trainer.
- Ben Rodriguez, who won an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Escalante kept him in class by failing him so he couldn’t play on the football team.
- Christopher Martinez, today an attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
- Leticia Rodriguez (right), the basis for the character Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver, earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering and became an electronics design engineer for Xerox and Honeywell.
MIT professor Amar Bose, inventor of the popular speakers, became a great admirer of Escalante’s students. One year in the 1990s, 14 of them were attending Harvard, Yale, or MIT at the same time. Bose helped pay for Escalante to spend Thanksgiving with them in Massachusetts. Professor Bose also had a standing offer to any Escalante graduate of admission to MIT all expenses paid.
Even students who didn’t pass the AP calculus exam benefited from their time in Jaime’s program. In 1997 Wayne Bishop, an admissions advisor at Cal State LA observed, “We got literally hundreds [of Garfield applicants] who had scored two or less on the AP calculus test or had never even taken it but had worked hard at their prealgebra, algebra, and geometry so they could take Jaime Escalante’s calculus class but fell short of their goal. They were still better off, much better off, for having made that effort….their well-honed study skills allowed them to succeed in unprecedented numbers.”
Yet in spite of universal praise for his results, Escalante’s methods were not widely adapted. After his principal and key supporter, Henry Gradillas (left), departed Garfield at the end of the 1987 school year the program lost some of its momentum. Following Escalante’s move to another high school in 1991 the calculus dynasty he had built was never the same. The aggressive curriculum that prepared Garfield students for the AP test was modified to be less rigorous. Administration interest and support moved on to other things. At its peak, Escalante’s program produced 85 passing grades. Nine years later, five years after Escalante left Garfield, 11 students passed AP calculus.
Readers also like: The Henry Gradillas Interview
In a 2002 article, Jerry Jesness, who later collaborated with Gradillas on a book, wrote of Escalante’s legacy at Garfield, “By 1996, the dynasty was not even a minor fiefdom.” Reporting Escalante’s death from cancer in 2010, the Los Angeles Times observed, “Without him, Garfield’s calculus program withered.” Angelo Villavicencio—“Mr. V.” to his students—who took over Escalante’s calculus classes after he left Garfield and still teaches in California today, said in a 2014 interview, “The program fell apart” once Escalante transferred to another school.
What happened? Why was such an outstanding program allowed to decline?
Readers also like: The Angelo Villavicencio Interview
When asked why Garfield’s nationally renowned calculus program was abandoned after he and Escalante left, Angelo Villavicencio (right) stares thoughtfully into his coffee cup. “I have no idea,” he says quietly at last, shaking his head. Then he adds, “There were some narrow-minded people there. They were jealous of his success.”
It Takes Ganas
Jaime Escalante focused on results. His pupils had been told all their lives that they weren’t good enough. Because they were poor Latinos, no one expected them to excel at advanced mathematics. Escalante believed that anyone with ganas, a Spanish term meaning “drive” or “desire,” could grasp math principles and use them as the key to a well-paying career. He was dedicated to doing whatever it took to make that happen.
Such focus and dedication made Escalante plenty of enemies. Parents resented the high standards that produced low grades for their children. They resented the long hours that took students away from after-school jobs and family duties. Some teachers were jealous of the extra resources he attracted from corporate sponsors who wanted to support his program, especially after the movie made him a pop celebrity. Faculty colleagues and union officials complained that his extra hours and large class sizes set unhealthy precedents for other teachers and violated existing work agreements. Some of them resented the fact that after the film came out he was gone much of the time on speaking trips, leaving others scrambling to cover his classes.
Escalante’s own personality magnified these points of contention. He was blunt in criticizing other teachers’ performance. Elected chairman of the math department in 1981, he steadfastly ignored the administrative duties he wasn’t interested in; he failed to answer calls and letters from district headquarters; he almost never came to department meetings. He was quick to tattle on colleagues when he caught them skipping out early on Friday or doing work for their second job in the teacher’s lounge. “He wasn’t a team player,” Henry Gradillas admits.
Yet Gradillas strongly agreed with Escalante’s approach of high standards, long hours, and relentless consistency as the way to transform students’ belief in their own abilities and potential. Gradillas himself was an East LA native who knew all about what he calls “the discrimination of low expectations.” He wanted any Garfield students with the ganas to make it through the higher math curriculum and go on to college to have the chance to do so.
Gradillas fended off angry parents, unhappy administrators, concerned union officials, and resentful teachers so Escalante could carry out his plans. He also made sure Escalante had whatever resources and equipment he needed. When Jaime ramped up his summer program he asked the school to air-condition his classroom. To the other teachers’ consternation, he got his wish. When the janitor griped about Escalante’s early hours, Gradillas gave the teacher a key of his own.
Down the Drain
The beginning of the end of the glory days came in 1987 when Gradillas took a leave of absence from Garfield (left) to complete his doctoral dissertation, “Characteristics of Capable Teachers.”
“I wanted to show the kids you’re never too old to learn,” he says about his decision. His replacement at Garfield was Maria Tostado. “Mrs. Tostado had a different approach from mine,” he says. “Not good or bad, just different.”
Others who were there for the transition describe it in less complimentary terms. Angelo Villavicencio came to Garfield the year Henry Gradillas left and taught calculus alongside Escalante. In his view, Tostado “did not want any Escalante legacy at Garfield and brought in her own team of teachers she believed were better. She tried her best to get rid of any Escalante legacy, and she succeeded.”
Lucy Romero, a faculty member at Garfield for more than 30 years, remembers Tostado as a “very, very insecure person” who “wanted to make her mark” as a principal. Three years into Tostado’s tenure, the faculty petitioned the district unsuccessfully to have her removed. She left after nine years on the job.
Gradillas and Tostado were certainly different in how they dealt with Jaime Escalante. Gradillas, an ex-instructor and officer in the elite Airborne infantry, protected Escalante from his critics because Gradillas believed the results were worth the effort on his part. Tostado, an ex-nun, evidently had little patience for Escalante’s unorthodox style and no desire to shield him at her own expense.
In 1990, Escalante was replaced as chairman of the math department by Ben Jimenez, a young teacher he had trained and who taught advanced math using Jaime’s techniques. Escalante was stung by the slight, and by the role of the teacher’s union in engineering the outcome. The change took away his power to assign teachers and students in a way that kept the math pipeline filled with promising young calculus hopefuls.
That year he decided to move to another school, then changed his mind in order to continue developing a summer program he had started at nearby East Lost Angeles College (ELAC; right). When changes in administration policy kept him from teaching the courses he wanted in summer school at Garfield, Jaime had arranged to teach his summer classes at the ELAC campus. Under sponsorship of the National Science Foundation and ARCO, the program had grown to 1,000 students a year from schools all across the district studying math, science, English, and teacher training in the Escalante method.
But at the end of the next academic term, in the spring of 1991, Jaime Escalante left Garfield High after 17 years. “Faculty politics and petty jealousies” were the reasons cited in the Los Angeles Times announcement of his resignation, even though publicly Principal Tostado had called him “an undisputed leader of his profession…a master.”
Ben Jimenez left at the same time, and Angelo Villavicencio took Escalante’s place. A year later Mr. V. followed his mentor out the door. “I saw the writing on the wall and said, ‘I’m not going to last,’” he says of those days. He was identified with the Escalante regime, and, he says, the new principal’s attitude was, “My team is better than Escalante’s team.” Tostado declined his request to add a third class of calculus in order to reduce class size, and in fact threatened to make matters worse by taking away the large classroom Mr. V. had inherited. She shied away from supporting Escalante’s strict standards in the face of continuing complaints from parents and district officials. Don Mrocsak, a counselor at Garfield from 1967 to 1994, remembers that “expectations fell off” during that time. “There was no more push.” Concludes Mr. V., “It took four or five years for the whole thing to go down the drain.”
Officials in Sacramento were “elated” to welcome the famous Jaime Escalante to Hiram Johnson High. They turned a shop room into his calculus classroom – air-conditioned at Jaime’s insistence (sponsors paid for it) – with observation mirrors to accommodate visitors from around the country who wanted to see their new star in action. The special treatment got him off to a bad start with his colleagues, as did the attention his arrival generated in the press. Some of them were jealous of him before the first day of class.
As he did at Garfield, Escalante began by teaching lower-level math courses. His third year he taught beginning calculus; his fifth, he started teaching advanced calculus. Yet during 10 years at Hiram Johnson, Escalante never approached the success he’d had at Garfield. When he moved to Sacramento in the fall of 1991 Jaime was 60 years old; he was 65 when he taught his first class of advanced calculus there. It is a challenging season of life to begin something from scratch.
But the main reason his program never gained the momentum it had at Garfield was that the administration and parents in Sacramento failed to back him up when it came to maintaining the standards necessary for results. Teachers and parents allowed students to drop his courses. They took exception to his heavy-handed classroom technique that included badgering and barking at students, giving them sometimes unflattering nicknames, and demanding long homework assignments. As Don Mrocsak recalls, “The families in Sacramento were less pliable.” At Garfield, threatening to call a parent was often all Escalante had to do to make a student toe the line. He had a rapport with the Latino families there that he lost among the Asian, Anglo, Latino, and African-American mix at Hiram Johnson. Now the response to his threat might well be, “Call anybody you want!” Without the family support he had counted on before, Escalante lost a lot of the leverage he had used to keep students in class when they wanted to give up.
By 1995, Escalante had reestablished his early morning and lunchtime help sessions, and was prepping 30 or so students for the AP calculus exam. But two years later the calculus program at Hiram Johnson was fading fast. In 1997, only 11 students took the AP test. The next year only seven pupils signed up for advanced calculus and the class was deleted from the curriculum. Another teacher already had the beginning course, so that year Escalante taught no calculus at all. A third of his algebra students dropped during the school term, leaving twenty young teens rattling around in his giant showcase classroom by the spring of 1998. Three years later, Jaime Escalante retired and moved back to his native Bolivia.
A Class by Itself
After a rocky period when Garfield came close to closing or becoming a charter academy, the school today is on the upswing. Though it has never repeated the calculus results of the Escalante era, Garfield has its strong defenders. Counselor Don Mrocsak notes, “Escalante was the catalyst for AP and more teachers got on the bandwagon.” Jay Mathews, Escalante’s biographer, points out that Garfield today has a healthy participation in Advanced Placement programs. In 2014 the students there took 650 AP tests in 10 subjects. Sixty-six students sat for the calculus test (47 took the AB level test, 19 took the harder BC test) and 34 passed (23, the AB; 11, the BC). In the California Academic Decathlon, open to all public and private schools in the state, Garfield has placed in the top 20 each year for the past five years.
Still, the triumph of the Escalante years was in a class by itself. What made those historic results possible? What would it take for other schools to duplicate that success today?
Part II – Why It Worked
Jaime Escalante’s unorthodox teaching style and wacky classroom persona are front and center in any discussion of his legacy. Yet a closer look at his example tells us that style alone, or a teacher’s passion for education alone, will not produce the results that made Escalante and his students famous. Along with Jaime’s rare level of dedication and ability to inspire and motivate his pupils, other components were equally essential. In exploring the history of Escalante’s tenure at Garfield and talking with people who were there, a handful of policies and practices emerge consistently as the keys to Jaime’s legendary achievement.
1. High expectations
According to Jaime Escalante, his colleagues, and his students, this is the sine qua non of successful teaching. Without it, nothing else matters. The assumption among policymakers at Garfield High had been that poor Latino students could not learn calculus. Their family lives were a disaster, middle school had not prepared them, their English was shaky, they had none of the “cultural capital”—books in the home, trips to the museum—that more fortunate kids enjoyed. Low expectations led to low standards: the tenth-grade math curriculum at Garfield was what Escalante had taught to fifth-graders in Bolivia.
But Escalante would have none of it. He was convinced that his pupils had as much potential as children anywhere else and set his standards accordingly. Other teachers opposed him along with administrators, parents, and the students themselves. Department chairs denied him textbooks, and angry parents complained about low grades, too much homework, and their children missing work or babysitting duties. Escalante held fast despite the harsh reaction, and eventually proved to everyone that Garfield students could excel on a national level. His most valuable gift to students wasn’t a knowledge of calculus but proof that the world was wrong about them. They were not low achievers, they were the best students in America.
A glance at the expectation level of educational institutions most admired for their results—charter schools, parochial schools, private schools, even military-style “tough love” academies—shows that regardless of their location, demographics, or any other variable, they all set the performance bar very high. Students are expected to excel academically and meet strict guidelines of grooming and behavior. To achieve high standards, the standards have to be there in the first place. Those who fall short get special help and attention, but not an exception.
Well-meaning critics claimed that Escalante’s way was hard on the kids’ self-esteem. It was important for poor Mexican-American students to feel good about themselves, and high standards meant the likelihood of lower grades, exclusion from extra-curricular activities, and other consequences. Henry Gradillas’s lively response to that notion: “Yes, if you fail a kid or keep him out of football because of his bad grades it’s hard on his self-esteem. But it’s a lot harder on his self-esteem a couple of years later when he can’t get a job and has to eat leftover pizza out of the dumpster. Self-esteem is fed by rising to a challenge, not by being excused from it.”
More opposition to the school’s consistent standards, notes Gradillas, came from members of the community who said calculus and higher math were “white” subjects and that Latinos faced the added challenge of a cultural divide. “Escalante reminded his kids that they had Inca and Mayan blood in their veins, and that those civilizations were advanced in math,” he explains. “He said the concept of zero originated with the Mayans. Criticizing math because it’s ‘white’ is an excuse not to participate in something because they’re afraid to fail.”
(Escalante and Gradillas also thought that students should discontinue ESL and other targeted programs as soon as possible because they set those students apart and gave them another reason to fail. Gradillas believed two years of ESL were almost always enough, especially since many of the kids taking it were born in the US.)
Though only a small percentage of Garfield students were in advanced math and even fewer were AP prospects, all of them benefitted from consistent high standards that encouraged them to stretch beyond what they and others thought they could do. As Mr. V. puts it, “The number one reason for success” at Garfield was that “teachers, counselors, and administrators believed in students’ potential.”
2. A safe, encouraging learning environment
One of Escalante’s first steps at Garfield was painting his classroom and putting up inspiring posters with pictures of sports stars and slogans like “Calculus Need Not Be Made Easy; It Is Easy Already.” He played music in class. He got air-conditioning. He wore silly outfits—anything to make the learning experience as rewarding and appealing as possible.
But the atmosphere in the classroom was only part of creating a safe, productive, inviting place to learn. When Escalante arrived, the principal had accommodated gangs at the school by giving each of them a place to gather and post their colors. After an accreditation crisis threatened Garfield with closure because of poor performance, that principal was transferred. His replacement painted over graffiti, removed gang symbols, banned non-students from campus, and locked latecomers out of their classrooms.
As dean of discipline and later as principal, Henry Gradillas had no patience with disruptive students. Previously, teachers had worked under conditions that made learning difficult at best, including students routinely talking and acting out in class, wearing provocative clothing, openly threatening each other and bragging about their gang affiliations, and scaring other students away from the cafeteria and restrooms that were marked as gang turf. All that changed overnight on Gradillas’s watch. “There’s something in children that craves order,” he believes.
Escalante and Gradillas demanded, and got, order in the classroom because they refused to accept anything less. Class clowns, troublemakers, and girls in low-cut tops were distractions Escalante dealt with quickly, decisively, and sometimes harshly. Gradillas backed him up. Students who repeatedly misbehaved or failed to do their homework were transferred out of his class. Discipline problems were assigned to other teachers, sometimes other schools. (In return, other students were sometimes transferred to Garfield to make a fresh start or separate them from a gang.)
When Escalante sent one disruptive student out the door, the boy insisted he needed a hall pass. “That’s your problem,” Escalante replied. He once sent a girl to the principal for wearing improper clothing. She returned saying the (pre-Gradillas) principal agreed with her that it was within the school dress code. “Fine,” Escalante answered, “you can wear it, but you can’t wear it in my class.” He, not the principal or a dress code, would decide what was a distraction in his class and what was not.
When another math teacher despaired over the bad behavior of his students, Escalante offered to exchange classes with him for a couple of days. His opening remark as a visiting teacher was, “I am now the boss. Are you listening?” He then marched down the aisle and grabbed a car magazine away from one student. As described by Escalante biographer Jay Mathews, the teacher then declared, “You are all going to do what I say. If you don’t do what I say, you gonna fly [be sent out of class]! We got all kinds of places we can send you. You won’t like them. Any questions?” Three students were ejected before the rest of them stopped talking.
The next morning he gave a quiz and “gleefully distributed a fistful of D’s and F’s.” He said they were lucky to have the regular teacher they had. “I would flunk all you banditos,” Escalante exclaimed. “You’re wasting my time.”
The other teacher had coddled his students because they were underprivileged. Escalante saw them as rude and lazy. They would be quiet, they would study, they would do their homework—or they would be gone. In two days, the atmosphere of the classroom was completely transformed. Then and only then could the students have a chance to learn.
Escalante could not have done what he did without the help of principal Henry Gradillas. His most productive years, and the ones that cemented his reputation, coincided with Gradillas’s tenure as principal from 1981 to 1987. When Escalante sent a student to the principal’s office for some infraction, Gradillas backed him up. If he hadn’t, and if a student knew that Escalante’s warnings were only empty threats, Escalante’s authority would have been undercut and his efforts to hold high academic standards and maintain a learning environment in class would have been severely damaged.
Gradillas shielded Escalante from the criticism of other teachers who thought he was too intense, and who accused him of claiming more than his share of students’ time and school resources. When he needed money for more advanced textbooks, Gradillas came through. When he had the chance to set up a summer program for Garfield math students at a local community college, Gradillas supported the project. When he justified the need for any resources he needed to drive his students to succeed, Gradillas made it happen.
When he suspended students for gang activity or fighting, Henry says, “I got lots of pushback saying this was life in the barrio.” But it was not, he insists, life for students on a path to academic success and a good career. A school that mirrors a dysfunctional community will also duplicate its failure.
Gradillas was a bold administrator who never avoided confrontation or opposition of the status quo if he thought it would help his school. In his book Standing and Delivering, co-written with Jerry Jesness, Gradillas makes a point that principals have to look beyond regulations and mandates, beyond what they think they are allowed to do to what they believe they ought to do.
“We cannot defy mandates, but we can work with them,” he writes. “If something is written into law or the terms of a contract are bad, we should work to change them, but work within the legal guidelines. Still, mandates are not straitjackets. Educators who think that their hands are tied when given a mandate probably have not explored all their possibilities… When educators get a mandate, they need to decide what’s best for the kids and then work from there… Whenever I was told that my hands were tied, I found ways to untie them.” (p. 116)
Gradillas tells of the time non-students were parking across from the school and turning up their radios to a distracting level. When he called the police they said there was nothing they could do because the kids weren’t breaking any law. Gradillas explained that his job description made him responsible for the learning environment of his students and that he had to stop the radios in order to fulfill his duties. The police agreed and forced the disruptive drivers to leave.
Whether facing down an angry parent or a stubborn school board, Gradillas maintained the same resolve and focus he’d used in the Airborne infantry training young soldiers to jump out of airplanes. He was a tireless advocate of his teachers who broke down whatever administrative or bureaucratic barriers they faced to give them the tools and support they needed. Rather than concentrating on the tangle of impediments to his plans, he focused on results, then knocked down the obstacles to those results one by one.
Aili Gardena, a Garfield graduate who retook the famous 1982 AP exam and whose story was folded into the character of Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver, believes the amount of time she spent learning math was the most important factor in her success. “We worked through lunch. We worked before school. Anybody who had marching band in the morning did that extra work another time. We worked sixth period when most seniors got off for the day. We studied over Christmas break and spring break. I’d be surprised if we had not done well after all this instruction.”
Garfield students entered high school poorly prepared for Escalante’s program. Most of them had little or no math fundamentals in elementary school because educators didn’t think they were up to the challenge. As time went on they got further and further behind. By their tenth grade year Escalante had to push them hard to make up enough lost ground to teach them AP calculus in the three years he had them.
Escalante’s demand for time required vast amounts of sacrifice from the students and their families. They had to give up virtually all outside interests and free time. This demand met resistance at every level and was the cause of many of the complaints against Escalante. But it was necessary to achieve the objective of telescoping years of math instruction into the limited period he had to prepare his kids for the calculus exam. Jaime waived off the criticism and impediments and moved ahead.
One way he helped them learn a lot in a short amount of time was “double blocking,” enrolling them in two math classes in the same term. These students would take an advanced course while taking a basic prerequisite at the same time. Another effective tool was summer school. Jaime developed a summer program for his students and attracted corporate sponsors to pay for it. (The Escalante program is still thriving today at East Lost Angeles College, with a summer enrollment of over 4,000 from all across the city.)
Adolescents are desperate to belong. They want to be accepted into a special group. For some, it’s the band or the basketball team or the Boy Scouts that meets this powerful need. For others, especially those who don’t belong to a loving and nurturing family, acceptance may come from social cliques, gangs, alcohol or drug abusers, or other destructive groups. Jaime Escalante saw the power of team spirit and used it to recruit and keep promising students.
“Students loved being part of Escalante’s programs,” Henry Gradillas recalls. “We had a rule that you had to put paper covers on your textbooks. One day I saw some girls as school without covers on their algebra books. I asked why they hadn’t covered them. ‘Oh, Mr. Gradillas, we want everybody to know we’re taking algebra!’ they said. So I bought them clear plastic covers for those books.”
Jaime invented a special vocabulary to make learning calculus fun and interesting, and to build a sense of exclusivity for his math insiders. Leaning over a student deep in thought, Jaime would shout, “Face mask! Face mask!” meaning the student made a mistake at the beginning of the problem and needed to go back, just as a face mask call at the beginning of a run in football brings the ball back. “Secret agent” was an easy-to-miss minus sign outside the parenthesis that reversed the values of numbers. “Give and go” for absolute values and “Red light” for factoring were others in a long list of code words that Escalante used and his students picked up.
Jaime had a hard time remembering names. His solution was to give students nicknames ranging from glamorous (“Elizabeth Taylor”) to slightly insulting (“Gordita,” or “Little Fat Girl”), all of which they took as symbols of acceptance. The students in turn christened Jaime “Kimo,” as in Kimo Sabe, the nickname for the popular western hero the Lone Ranger coined by his sidekick, Tonto.
Escalante organized group activities including early morning and afternoon study sessions. He brought fast-food hamburgers and other treats to share and sometimes took students out for a meal. He handed out candy in class for right answers. Some years, calculus students got special T-shirts or team jackets. They held pep rallies. They sponsored car washes and sold chocolate to raise money for textbooks and test fees.
Not only did this sense of community keep their spirits high under the duress of learning hard material, it made them more likely to make other sacrifices to stay on the team. Faced with the prospect of giving up band or an after-school job to keep up with the calculus team, students decided to stay with the team.
Best of all, as with any team, the members inspired and encouraged each other to keep going even when they felt like giving up because they didn’t want to let the others down or be left behind.
Escalante’s results depended partly on his and Gradillas’s ability to finesse, avoid, bend, and sometimes ignore rules from higher authorities. Their objective was to teach their students. Anything that got in the way of that objective was an obstacle to be overcome. They didn’t kick problems upstairs for solutions, and didn’t limit themselves to evident restrictions in their job descriptions or district regulations. “If you are in command, command!” Gradillas says. When Jaime needed to take action in order to pursue his objective in the classroom, he and his supporters assumed the authority to act on the spot.
Jaime’s success at Garfield depended in part on his ability to address a problem immediately and aggressively. If a student kept misbehaving, Escalante had him transferred to another class. If a student repeatedly refused to do homework, Jaime sent him away.
Escalante’s success also came from holding extra, unauthorized study sessions before and after school, scrambling for textbooks and other resources not specifically designated to him, ignoring or getting rid of prerequisites for his courses so anyone interested could enroll, and teaching classes smaller or larger than were supposed to be allowed. In the absence of direct orders, Jaime took the steps he thought necessary and commandeered all the resources he could to achieve his objective of teaching kids calculus. Everything else was secondary.
Throughout his career Jaime Escalante faced opposition from colleagues, administrators, parents, and students. Early on, they insisted that his goals were unrealistic and even damaging. Later, they criticized his uncompromising attitude and lack of cooperation in the single-minded pursuit of his objectives. Jaime never wavered. He was convinced that poor Latino students were just as smart as anyone else, and that held to the same standards and given the same classroom opportunities as other kids they could do just as well or better.
Eventually he proved he was right, his story became a Hollywood movie, and the public adored him. What summaries of his story often omit is the years of intermittent progress against a bureaucracy that sometimes did not support him and even opposed his methods. But he never gave up, never wavered in his belief in his students and that what he was doing was right. He accepted criticism as part of the cost of doing business.
When it comes to unsympathetic administrators, “You can work with them and stand up to them,” notes Angelo Villavicencio, “but it helps to have an iron suit.”
Jaime Escalante’s astonishing academic success came more than anything else from these simple, low-tech components. Any school anywhere can put them into practice.
Why don’t they?
Part III – Why It Fails
Duplicating Jaime Escalante’s template for high achievement in public schools today is simple, but not easy.
“The push for academic excellence,” says Henry Gradillas, “will always be subject to certain criticisms.” Characteristically, Angelo Villavicencio puts it more directly: “As long as the fate of education is dictated by bureaucrats and politicians, the success of Stand and Deliver will be hard to repeat.”
According to Escalante’s former students, colleagues, and admirers, here are the main reasons why public schools today are unlikely to embrace Escalante’s proven formula for high academic performance.
When asked why low-performing schools don’t adopt Escalante’s methods, biographer Jay Mathews is quick to respond that the primary cause is “a DEEP and false assumption that low-income kids are not up to it.” As high expectations are the essential first step to excellence in education, low expectations are at the root of the failure in American schools today, especially in poor and minority districts.
This failure often results from the best of intentions. Teachers and administrators are painfully aware of these children’s shortcomings and social handicaps. They want them to feel comfortable and secure. They don’t want to be accused of discrimination by trying to force unfamiliar standards of performance and behavior on underprivileged students. They don’t want to crush a child’s already-fragile self-esteem.
What Escalante demonstrated throughout his career was that low expectations reinforce low self-esteem; high expectations produce high self-esteem. A child who meets a hard-won goal is empowered, successful, confident. Old assumptions and self-imposed limitations give way to new self-confidence and an expectation of achievement. As noted earlier, even children who don’t make it all the way to the top of the academic ladder benefit from striving outside their comfort level. When Jaime insisted that his kids could meet high standards, showed them the path, and gave them unflagging encouragement, they did just as well as their upper-class counterparts. The lives and careers of Escalante’s students in the years after Garfield prove the lifelong value of his methods.
After Stand and Deliver was released, Gaston Caperton, then president of the College Board which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), said of Escalante, “Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed.”
Henry Gradillas remembers that Jaime was “always talking of the low expectations many had of our students mainly based on ethnic shortcomings, poverty, and little or no parental involvement with the school.
“The racism of low expectations is most damaging in the lower grades,” Gradillas continues. “That’s where the result of low expectations is most acute. Later, the problem is poor preparation. Kids can’t learn because they haven’t been prepared.”
At yet when Escalante retired from teaching in 2001, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Poverty and parents’ educational achievement are viewed as the best predictors of academic performance.” Jaime, his supporters would argue, proved otherwise. But the notion that poor or minority children require separate, lower standards has been enshrined in American public education.
Standards of behavior were as important to Escalante’s methods as standards of academic achievement. Students can’t be expected to learn and teachers can’t be expected to teach in a rowdy classroom with no respect for authority or where students feel intimidated or threatened. Escalante insisted on quiet obedience. He sent disruptive kids to the principal. If they still failed to behave after a visit to Mr. Gradillas, they were suspended. Further misbehavior drew a transfer to another school or possible expulsion. Too often, parents of undisciplined students were unsupportive of the principal until they learned that their AFDC checks required their children to be in school. An interruption in payments was usually all it took to enlist their help.
As with poor academic performance, today’s administrators excuse bad behavior because it’s part of the community’s culture. Escalante would argue that those policies set students on a pathway to failure, and that a school’s responsibility is to reform bad behavior, not reinforce it.
A teacher in the Chicago public schools reports that recent changes in administrative policy mean that she cannot discipline a child for throwing something in class. This comes on top of policies that allow students to shout “F–––– you!” to her face without consequences. Escalante and his colleagues would say that under these conditions learning is not only impossible and school a waste of time, the situation is dangerous for the teacher and other students.
According to the teacher, the reasoning behind the new policy is that too many African-American boys were being suspended for throwing things and that this behavior is part of their culture. Jaime and his team at Garfield would likely insist that excusing African-American boys from disrespectful and dangerous conduct because they’re African-American boys is discrimination at its worst. The responsibility of a school is to equip students to make their way in the world to the best of their ability. A student who goes through high school believing it’s all right to swear and throw objects in class is not likely to do well at his first job interview. If the world tells him he’s exempt from respectable behavior because of his skin color or violent culture, he has been cheated and deceived by the educational establishment that is supposedly looking out for his best interests. Henry Gradillas would mark him as a young man with a future in dumpster diving.
When Escalante first announced his plans to leave Garfield, a teacher with 37 years of experience wrote to the Los Angeles Times that he was sad to see Escalante go, especially since the reported reason was bureaucratic squabbling and lack of support. It was unfathomable to him that administrators could allow policy matters and personal feelings to get in the way of holding onto a legendary teacher. “You have to understand that most administrators want to move up the ranks,” he wrote, “and hesitate to take risks to support teachers. The system protects them….My guess is that 15 percent of all administrators in LA are innovative, skillful, completely supportive of teachers and 85 percent are inept, mediocre, and afraid they won’t move up the chain of command.”
Jaime Escalante was willing to take on the bureaucracy. Today, America’s educational establishment is bigger than ever, especially at the national level, and few teachers have the time, energy, or ganas to oppose it. According to Escalante’s successors, today’s bureaucratic objectives are even more at odds with the goals Jaime pursued. As Henry Gradillias says, “Educators see the benefits of high standards, but most of them care less about supporting them than they do about keeping parents and administrators off their backs. They decide that stopping the complaints is more important than holding onto the standards. They’re looking out for their careers, too. They don’t want to be the squeaky wheel.”
Angelo Villavicencio notes that administrators sometimes have “little or no teaching experience” and don’t understand what teachers need in order to achieve their best in the classroom, yet they’re the ones in charge of rules and policies that dictate what teachers do. “Politicians and bureaucrats come and go,” he says, “setting policies and making noise in an effort to justify their salaries. But it doesn’t help the kids.”
High-level policy decisions may focus on money, race, unions, technology, and a host of other issues that overshadow the classroom fundamentals Escalante and his peers built their reputations on. The further from the classroom decisions are made, the less effective they tend to be and the more teachers chafe at being told what to do by boards and committees who’ve never met them and never met their students.
Teachers on Testing
To many of Escalante’s colleagues and successors, the poster child for educational bureaucracy run amok is national standards testing. In discussing prospects for repeating Escalante’s success today, teachers had more to say about this than any other topic. Asked what change would it take to match Escalante’s track record today, a faculty member with more than 30 years’ experience in California schools immediately exclaimed, “Get rid of Common Core testing!”
Lucy Romero, who began as an intern at Garfield during the Escalante years and teaches biology at its School for Advanced Studies today, says national standards don’t accurately measure a student’s ability or a school’s progress. “Classes are uneven from year to year. Some are exceptional, some are not as good. Yet there’s unrelenting pressure to keep going higher. The success of the school is based on a number. Students know a lot about a little.”
Angelo Villavicencio believes that standardized test results are especially misleading in poor and minority schools where expectations have always been low. “How can [the system] claim core standards are needed without having a foundation first? How can students understand without structure?…Testing has taken away the beauty of teaching math, taken away how wonderful the subject can be.”
Molly Slack, a seasoned middle school drama teacher on the outskirts of Houston, heartily agrees. “Standardized testing will be the downfall of this country,” she declares, adding that children have different abilities and different learning styles that standardized tests don’t take into account. “The testing craze takes so much time that teachers never have time to think about how to bring their personal strengths to the job.”
In Standing and Delivering, Henry Gradillas writes that when he was principal at Garfield, the district administration pressured him to accept low test scores and high dropout rates because his students couldn’t be expected to do any better. Now the pressure is to score high on tests to conform to federal No Child Left Behind requirements.
“In this age of data-driven education, positive statistics are the Holy Grail,” he writes. “Our top priority [at Garfield in the ‘80s] was not to produce positive statistics, but rather to give our kids the best education that we could offer them. The higher test scores and lower dropout rates were fortunate by-products of improved education.”
Today’s teachers are pressured to teach to the test, whether or not their students learn the material as a result. Gradillas continues, “Too often important content is left untaught because standardized tests do not include it.” To hit their numbers, some states seem to be watering down their exams. “Even though scores on state tests keep rising,” Gradillias writes, “SAT and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are stagnant, and colleges are complaining about the academic skills of the kids the high schools send them.”
Catherine Holsen, who teaches ESL to foreign graduate students at Vanderbilt University, strongly agrees. “Teaching to the test does not teach the subject,” she says. “Students can pass a standardized test and still have a very poor understanding of the material. Teaching to pass the test and teaching to learn and appreciate the subject are two different things.”
Parents don’t like standardized tests either. According to a PDK/Gallup Poll published in the Wall Street Journal in November 2014, 60 percent of Americans oppose national Common Core standards and 68 percent of public school parents oppose them. So why does the political and educational establishment keep pushing these tests if a majority doesn’t want them? Why commit so many resources to a system teachers say hurts students and schools more than it helps? Some would suggest it’s one more manifestation of the Federal government imposing its will at the local level. Common Core now feeds a $2.5 billion per year testing market and is a powerful instrument of top-down Congressional control. Therefore, it’s likely to be a fixture on the national educational scene for the indefinite future.
Early in his career at Garfield, Jaime Escalante had to sponsor car washes and candy sales to pay for textbooks, worksheets, and testing fees. After he became a celebrity, corporate sponsors including Coca-Cola and the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education gladly funded his programs. Still, Escalante scrambled for scarce resources at Garfield like everyone else and in the process made adversaries of teachers who thought he kept taking more than his share. Yet everything he asked for was directly and specifically related to improving his students’ performance. His supporters will point out that he never requested a dollar without a specific, student-oriented need in mind, and never used the lack of money as an excuse to veer from his path to excellence.
Rather than starting with a request for funds, Escalante started with proof that what he was doing worked and merited investment. After he demonstrated a need for advanced textbooks, administrators ferreted out a few dollars here and there to pay for them. After his students excelled year after year at the Ivy Leagues, Amar Bose paid the way for his future scholars. After his summer program began turning out math students ready for advanced college work, ARCO supported it because it put new engineering recruits in their employment pipeline.
The ARCO sponsorship highlights a difference in approaches to money between Escalante and the bureaucracy. ARCO had been donating $100,000 a year to Escalante for his summer school at Garfield. The administration decided it was unfair to others to let Escalante control all this extra money, and insisted it be granted to the school for the administration to hand out as it wished. When Jaime explained the new policy to his benefactor, ARCO replied that they weren’t supporting the school, they were supporting his summer math enrichment program. If they couldn’t donate to him directly, they wouldn’t donate at all. Unwilling to let so generous a gift slip away, Escalante moved his summer program to the East Los Angeles College campus. ELAC was willing to accept the contribution on Escalante’s behalf and pass it all through to him. In contrast, the administration at Garfield was willing to walk away from the gift rather than lose control of it.
Instead of being a means to an end, money has become an end in itself in the world of education. Policies are sometimes tailored more to financial considerations than to the welfare of students. For example, as Henry Gradillas and Angelo Villavicencio both note, principals today are afraid to suspend or expel a student not only because they don’t want to face a parent’s wrath or accusations of racism, but because it costs the school money. An absence reduces the school’s government grant for that day. It’s also the reason behind some policies that keep students in ESL or other special learning classes longer than they need to be. Gradillas and Mr. V. insist that students who are able should be encouraged to catch up with their peers as quickly as possible. Yet transitioning out of those special classes means another cut in the school’s government support. To the extent educators put the amount of money they control over the welfare of their students, they fail the students, families, and taxpayers they’re supposed to serve.
If money were the big problem in American public education, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent since Jaime Escalante started teaching 40 years ago would have long since solved it. Rather, the problem is that the waste and lack of focus in today’s education system mean that no matter how much money goes into it, it’s never enough. The more money there is, the more is wasted.
According to a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2013, “The United States routinely trails its rival countries in performance on international exams despite being among the heaviest spenders on education.” That year the US was number one worldwide in spending per student and number thirty-one in math literacy for 15-year-olds.
Another study ranked the US tenth in math test scores, behind Finland, Canada, Germany, and South Korea—all of which spent less on education. South Korea spent less than half as much per student as the average of all US schools.
Angelo Villavicencio reminisced recently about watching American astronauts land on the moon in 1969. “I was selling real estate in Nicaragua,” he recalls, “ and saw Americans walking on the moon. All done with American technology. They were ahead of everybody! Now, despite spending billions on education, we have to import scientists and engineers from overseas.” He could also add that today the only country ever to send men to the moon can’t even send them to its space station in earth orbit. With no more space shuttle and no replacement on the near horizon, America has to rely on hitching a ride with the Russians.
The final impediment to Escalante-style learning is something schools today can’t control: the increase in households headed by a single parent, usually the mother, who is stretched to the breaking point with little time for nurturing her children. Students from these homes often come to school poorly prepared, and the parent may not support the administration in maintaining the standards they set.
Drama teacher Molly Slack says, “Most successful kids come from two-parent families that have dinner together every night and enforce discipline.” In 1980, 75 percent of American children lived in a married two-parent household. By 2013, the percentage had slipped to 64 percent. Single-parent children are far more likely to be poor than others, and more likely to struggle with schoolwork. These families turn to schools for services that they used to manage on their own. Millions of schoolchildren now get two free meals a day on campus. Millions remain at the end of the school day in aftercare. Gradually, the responsibility for raising children in America today is shifting away from parents toward schools. Counselor Don Mrocsak notes that at some point along the way, “the school became the parent figure.”
But schools are not designed or equipped to replace parents in raising their children. These extra responsibilities mean teachers and administrators have to divide their time and resources between traditional learning programs and social services. Schools can do a lot to prepare children for success in life but they can’t do it all. As our cultural texture grows more complex, schools will have to partner even more closely with social services, law enforcement, churches, and—most important—parents and other family caregivers to equip children for success. We as a society have to decide how much responsibility to delegate to schools for raising our children, then give them the resources to fulfill it.
In any other field—business, manufacturing, medicine, marketing—the people in charge, seeing such a shining example of success, would scramble to copy it. But today’s educational mainstream shows no tendency to embrace Escalante’s approach. There are no doubt other pathways to solving the problems of 21st century public education. Yet time and again Escalante’s simple recipe for educational excellence proves its worth.
The dissatisfaction of parents with today’s public schools has opened the door to a host of alternative programs promising better results. Their tools? High expectations, a positive learning environment, local control for teachers and principals, and more time in the classroom—the same ingredients Escalante championed at Garfield a generation ago.
One example is the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which operates more than 160 public schools across the country as charter schools. Their fundamental approach comes directly from Escalante. As their website explains, “Our work at KIPP is built on the most basic of beliefs: that all students will learn and achieve.” To do that, KIPP “must create classrooms and schools that not only deliver rigorous academics but also help students develop their character.” These are almost identical to Escalante’s first two ingredients for success. Similarities continue on down the line.
KIPP maintains strict rules of conduct not only in class but in the hallways. Students regularly study long hours, including some weekends. They have to stretch for high academic standards. Parents or guardians have to play their part.
As with Escalante, the results speak for themselves. In 2013, 65 percent of KIPP eighth graders ended the year above grade level in math according to their Measure of Academic Progress exams. Eighty-nine percent of them outperformed their local school districts peers.
The trend holds steady in higher grades. In 2013, 81 percent of KIPP seniors outperformed local district seniors in math. For English the figure was 100 percent. Forty-four percent of the first KIPP graduates have earned four-year college degrees. The national average for low-income students is eight percent.
Critics have accused KIPP and other alternative schools of cherry-picking their students. Yet system-wide 95 percent of KIPP students are black or Latino, 88 percent qualify for free or reduced meals, 15 percent are English learners, and 10 percent are special needs.
Jaime Escalante would be pleased.
Understanding the legacy of Jaime Escalante won’t solve the problem of education in America today. Yet this little slice of American history is a worthy addition to the conversation. Yes, Escalante’s methods worked wonders in their day, but how effectively can we transfer them to our 21st century culture? Parents and administrators wouldn’t stand for Jaime’s taunts and badgering. The legal landscape is different and far more treacherous. There are daunting new top-down Federal requirements that reflect the government’s heavier hand in local issues. Technology has plunged its two-edged sword deep into the classroom, with interactive whiteboards on one side and sexting on the other.
American public education needs help. Everybody agrees on that. But where do we go from here? Has the definition of success in public education changed? Has the role of educators in our culture shifted? Do we even want Escalante’s level of achievement enough to pay the price he and his students paid? If we could wave our magic wand and reinstate his policies today, would we do it? How have the values Escalante and his methods enshrined changed since the 1980s, and how will they change again in the future?
“We do not need to invent new rules,” Henry Gradillas concludes. History tells us that the old rules worked very well indeed. History also teaches us that while we can learn from the past, we cannot depend on it. We can’t sit still; we can only move forward or slide back. And what we need first of all as we forge ahead is to keep a steady eye on the most basic fundamentals of success, back where all agendas and objectives come together.
According to the motto and tradition of Garfield High, that means “a clear head, a true heart, and a strong arm.”
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