When Jaime Escalante died, we lost a pioneering teacher who changed people’s ideas of what children are capable of learning. Many people know about Escalante’s work from the popular movie “Stand and Deliver,” which depicted his success teaching Advanced Placement (AP) calculus classes to students at East Los Angeles’s Garfield High School. The Bolivian-born teacher died at 79 of cancer on March 30.
Today, the beliefs that all children can learn and every child deserves a quality education have become familiar language in goals set by the Department of Education and school boards across the country. But when Escalante genuinely believed this about the children he was teaching in the late 1970s and early 1980s, people thought he was naïve and crazy.
The students at Garfield High were exactly the kind of children other education and policy experts predicted would be left behind. They were largely from poor Mexican-American families, and the majority of their parents had not finished grade school.
When Escalante arrived at Garfield, the school was known for low test scores and a high dropout rate. Most people looked at the students’ backgrounds, their school, and their environment and simply didn’t have high expectations for them. But Escalante always did. As a result, he showed impoverished children who had been “taught” they could do nothing that they could accomplish great things. He showed the world that with a good teacher, poor and minority children can accomplish wonders.
Escalante’s expectations seemed especially farfetched at first. The class he taught, AP calculus, was an elite college preparatory course considered by many to be the most difficult class high schools take. Even many affluent public schools still didn’t offer it, and the public and private schools that did often required students to take entrance exams or satisfy other prerequisites to prove they could handle it. Escalante’s idea that he could offer it at Garfield and make it available to any willing student flew in the face of most conventional wisdom about testing, tracking, and predicting student success in a challenging course.
His students’ stellar performance on national standardized AP tests proved his own judgment correct. His formula for student success was simple: You need a good teacher committed to working hard to educate and students committed to working hard to learn. He demonstrated that student commitment and ability could be developed through the encouragement and reinforcement students received from the committed teacher.
Escalante’s demonstration of the power a single teacher can have to motivate students to extraordinary success changed the way many educators viewed student ability. Many of Escalante’s classroom techniques became implemented in other schools, like encouraging the class to tackle the material together like a team taking on an opponent, and putting in extra time so students could keep working after school and on weekends when necessary. Today, many of the most successful charter schools and other urban classrooms across the country embrace Escalante’s approach. His commitment to opening up the most challenging classes to more children also revolutionized placement policies in many schools. Escalante understood that success in AP calculus wasn’t the only goal. It was a gateway to college admissions and other future aspirations.
There’s still so much work to be done to lift the ceiling many insecure adults place on children’s aspirations. The most recent data show white students are more than twice as likely as Latinos to be enrolled in AP science or AP math, and about three times as likely as black or American Indian students to be enrolled in AP science or AP math. The Obama administration is making the expansion of these classes a priority, especially for low-income students. This is a key part of Escalante’s legacy.
But his most enduring lesson is that all children can learn and excel–as long as they have the right teacher. And we must all speak up to get the right teachers in the classroom for all our children.
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