One of the most memorable quotes from the film “Stand and Deliver
” came when Jaime Escalante, the math teacher struggling to inspire his poor Latino students to learn advanced math, tried to explain to his doubters that the students were capable of far more than what was expected of them. “It's not that they're stupid,” he said, “It's just they don't know anything.”
That 1988 film has been used for nearly two decades in colleges and universities around the United States to inspire teachers and students alike to raise expectations and demand greater performance from teachers and students. But the true story of Escalante’s heroic efforts and the district’s less than heroic failures deserve greater attention; the lessons learned from this story can be applied directly to Denver Public Schools
Escalante’s character was played by Edward James Olmos. While Olmos’ acting is truly inspired, his interpretation of the real Jaime Escalante makes it appear that he was a Chicano, which he was not. Escalante was not a US citizen; he was an immigrant. Born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on December 31, 1930, he decided to immigrate to the United States in 1964, traveling first to Puerto Rico, where he studied Science and Math at the University of Puerto Rico. He didn’t even speak English when he arrived in California, nor was he a credentialed teacher. But he set goals for himself, enrolled in Pasadena City College to earn a degree in biology, and later at California State to study Calculus. Escalante left a day job in a computer business to fulfill his dream of teaching. He accepted a position teaching math at James A Garfield High School
, in East LA.
What Escalante discovered was so disheartening, he seriously considered quitting. He even asked for his old job back, before changing his mind and deciding to persevere. Escalante refused to believe that his students, who were primarily disadvantaged Latino kids from the barrio, were too stupid to learn higher math. His principal at the time did not share his educational theory, or his optimism about his students’ potential. As a result, Escalante had to fight with the administration, pushing to be allowed to teach algebra, calculus, and eventually Advanced Placement (AP) math. He was even threatened with firing for going to work too early and leaving too late.
Luckily, a new principal took over Garfield High. Henry Gradillas agreed with Escalante and supported his crusade, and overhauled the curricula at Garfield. With the administrative roadblocks removed, Escalante was able to achieve his goals. In 1979, two of his students passed the Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus Exam. In 1981, fourteen students passed the exam. In 1982, eighteen students passed the exam. By 1987 that number had grown to 73 and by 1988, a film was made about him.
This much is commonly known, because it is depicted in the film. But few know how the district failed Escalante, the students, and the community afterward.
Escalante’s determination had created enemies within the school and the district. He received threats and hate mail, and my 1990 had lost the position of Math Department Chair. In 1991, 570 students passed AP tests in the school. He achieved this in a school that is 99% Hispanic and 89% receiving Free Lunch—an indication of widespread poverty among the students.
Sadly, despite his successes and fame, and due to his increasing dissatisfaction with the politics within the system, Escalante left Garfield to teach in the Sacramento school system.
The decline of Garfield’s math program was immediate and precipitous; within a couple of years, the number of students passing A.P. calculus had decreased by more than 80%.
In 2001, Escalante returned to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he teaches part time at a local university.
A quick glance at Garfield’s standardized test scores
today is disheartening. While the state average for 9th grade Algebra II is 65% in 2009, Garfield’s score was 20%. The state average for tenth grade Algebra was 37% in 2009, while Garfield’s score was a miserable 6%. While the Summative Mathematics score for High Schools across the state was 71%, for Garfield, it was 34%.
The lesson that politicians would have us take from the story is that student success depends greatly upon the dedication and perseverance of heroic teachers. But this is a misleading conclusion. The truth of the matter is that Escalante, who had grown up in Bolivia, had never been exposed to the notion that higher education was a “white value”, or a concept foreign to “Hispanics”. Having grown up surrounded by Hispanic teachers, doctors, engineers, and politicians, Escalante simply could not accept what President George W. Bush would later describe in his pamphlet, Renewing America’s Purpose
, as the “soft bigotry of low expectations”:
“Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less –the soft bigotry of low expectations. Some say that schools can’t be expected to teach, because there are too many broken families, too many immigrants, too much diversity. I say that pigment and poverty need not determine performance. That myth is disproved by good schools every day.”
So, yes, it is wonderful that Escalante held his students up to “rigorous standards”, but Escalante, by himself, could not have achieved the miraculous results that made him famous, and in fact nearly did not do so. It was the arrival of the new principal, Henry Gradillas, which empowered Escalante and allowed him to expand his program and increase expectations.
For while a dedicated and inspiring teacher is often capable of overcoming the incredulity of parents and students, it is the administration and politicians within the district who quite often place the insurmountable roadblocks that flummox most teachers. And as we examine the horrendous performance of schools within the Denver Public School system, it would behoove us to consider if even Jaime Escalante would be able to Stand and Deliver within this failing system.