April 1, 2010
Famed mathematics instructor Jaime Escalante, who was touted as the finest teacher in America in the 1980s, has died.
Born Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutierrez in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1930, Escalante galvanized the teaching of advanced placement mathematics to low-income, inner-city students. His belief that success comes through hard work—and his students' achievements—led to making of the film "Stand and Deliver" (1988), starring Edward James Olmos.
Escalante began his teaching career in the U.S. in 1974, at the gang-ridden, chaotic Garfield High School in Los Angeles. There he encouraged mathematics students to work on mathematics lessons during and after school—and to attend Saturday and summer programs in calculus. He rejected the standard clichés of academic excellence, insisting that, regardless of GPA, he would let anybody who made the effort tackle the Advanced Placement (AP) exam.
In 1982, 18 of his students passed the AP calculus test. Although there was controversy surrounding the results, re-examination confirmed the initial success rate. In 1987, Garfield students took 129 AP calculus exams, which represented more than a quarter of all Mexican American students who passed AP calculus in the U.S.
Jay Matthews wrote in The Washington Post, "Once Mr. Escalante became a national celebrity, rubbing shoulders with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron on his own PBS series on careers for students who applied themselves in school, he faced resentment from other Garfield teachers. He was quick to tell Principal Henry Gradillas about colleagues selling real estate in the teachers' lounge or calling in sick to get a head start on their weekend. He was painfully blunt about the flaws in the teaching methods of other teachers in the math department, which he chaired."
Lured to a Sacramento school in 1991, Escalante ended his career quietly, making sure that students passed the AP test, without trying to revolutionize the school. He divided his time between California and Bolivia, where he complained that several schools had not compensated him for the rights to name the schools after him.
Jay Matthews is Education columnist for The Washington Post and author of Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (1988).
Source: The Washington Post (March 31, 2010)