When Jaime Escalante died of cancer on March 30, 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. 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 Jaime Escalante always did. As a result, he was able to teach children who had nothing and who had been “taught” they could do nothing that they were capable of great things. He showed the world that with a good teacher poor and minority children can accomplish wonders. After all, children live up or don’t to expectations of important adults in their lives.
Escalante’s expectations seemed especially farfetched at first because he wasn’t simply saying he wanted his students to be able to take standard high school math classes and get good grades. His goal, AP calculus, was an elite college preparatory course considered by many to be the most difficult class a student could take in high school. 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 students willing to do the work flew in the face of most conventional wisdom about testing, tracking, and predicting student success in a challenging course. But his students’ stellar performance on the national standardized AP tests proved his own judgment correct. His simple formula for student success was a good teacher committed to working hard to teach and students committed to working hard to learn—and he demonstrated that student commitment and ability could be developed through the encouragement and reinforcement students received from the hardworking and committed teacher.
Escalante’s demonstration of the power a single teacher can have to motivate and push students to extraordinary success changed the way many educators viewed student ability and learning. The fact that great teachers like Escalante can teach poor and minority students to soar academically has recently been confirmed in a groundbreaking longitudinal study by Tennessee scholars June Rivers and William Sanders which found the effectiveness of the teacher is the single most important factor in student learning—far overshadowing all other classroom variables, including the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the students.
Many of Escalante’s classroom techniques became models too, like encouraging the class to tackle the material together like a team taking on an opponent (the AP test), 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 follow in Escalante’s footprints. 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 was not an end in and of itself. It gave students the right preparation to take similarly challenging courses in other subjects and was a gateway to college admissions and other future aspirations that didn’t need to be limited to children from “elite” backgrounds.
There’s still so much work to be done to lift the ceiling so many insecure adults place on children’s aspirations. The most recent data show White students are more than twice as likely as Hispanic students 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 goal of continuing to open up these classes a priority, and its Blueprint for Reform in education specifically supports states’ efforts to improve access to AP tests for low-income students. This is a key part of Jaime 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 stand up and speak up to get the right teachers in the classroom for all our children.