Jay Mathews writes about Stand and Deliver inspiration Jaime Escalante.

This mural contains pictures of Edward James Olmos with his arm around fiery educator Jaime Escalante, whom he played in the movie Stand and Deliver. Jay Mathews' biography of Escalante is worth reading.

This mural contains pictures of Edward James Olmos with his arm around fiery educator Jaime Escalante, whom he played in the movie Stand and Deliver. Jay Mathews' biography of Escalante is worth reading.

 Aidan’s school year ends in less than a week.

He’s fighting fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and a cold to push through until next Wednesday, when he finishes his last exam.

Last night he asked Dunreith and me to look at an essay he wrote about former Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s 1956 denunciation of Joseph Stalin and his murderous regime.

Today, he has the first part of his semester test for math.

I wrote last month about Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews’ book about the KIPP program.  While I have enormous respect for what founders Dave Levinand Mike Feinberg have done since first teaching under the Teach for America program in the 90s, Mathews’ tone about KIPP was so exuberantly positive and glowing that the book read more like an advertisement for the program rather than a serious examination of it.

Mathews writes a far more probing and thoughtful look at renowned educator Jaime Escalante, whom actor Edward James Olmos played in the feel-good movie, Stand and Deliver, in Escalante: The Best Teacher in America

The book tells the journey of the Bolivian-born Escalante, a trained engineer and arrived in the United States without speaking a word of English.  He labored for years to learn the language and to earn a teaching credential before landing a job of Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in 1974. 

Once there, he was a compelling figure.

Part theater, part fatherly pep talk, Escalante’s math lessons sought to teach and to inspire his students, many of whom were Mexican-American, to believe that they could learn anything, and, in fact, that math was part of their Mayan heritage.  

Linda Asato, a former student of Escalante’s, once told me that he would spend as much as half of the class encouraging, cajoling and urging his students to think of themselves as capable of doing whatever they sought to accomplish.

Mathews also describes how Escalante would pounce like a tiger on materials and equipment whenever he heard that a teacher was leaving Garfield.    Many of his colleagues, especially women, and students withered under his bombastic barbs and often abrasive personality, and faulted principal Henry Gradillas for tolerating what some considered to be abusive behavior.  

Five years after he started at Garfield, Escalante taught his first Advanced Placement Calculus class, the first that had been offered at the school.

Two of the first five students who took this class passed the AP exam that can lead to college credit being granted and that is considered nationally 

The program started to grow and, with it, external scrutiny of the program did, too.  In 1982, the year that is covered in Stand and Deliver, all of the 18 students who took the class passed the exam.  This caused Educational Testing Service to question whether some of the students had cheated and the service telling students they had to retake the exam to get credit.  

Twelve out of the 14 students who did so passed again.  

Mathews covers this section in extensive detail.   A couple of the students appear to say that they did cheat, but then later retract their statements. 

Mathews ends the book by showing how the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and exams in Calculus and other disciplines throughout the school continued to grow in the following years.

In that way, his message stuck.

 Unfortunately, though, the program has not maintained its high level of achievement since Escalante departed about 20 years ago.  In some ways, this speaks to the need for a broader and more systematic approach such as that advocated and adopted by Levin and Feinberg. 

While that may may be true,to me Escalante is a more engaging and critical look at a gifted and driven educator who challenged students’ sense of their limits and pushed them to heights they had not believed possible.


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