Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Education: On Jaime Escalante

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The passing yesterday of legendary high school mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante has prompted an outpouring of memories about his impact on students in East Los Angeles and later Sacramento. Most people were introduced to Escalante through the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, which dramatized how he had taught Advanced Placement Calculus at Garfield High School. In the wake of the movie, Escalante went on speaking tours, and I had the opportunity to see him speak at Stanford University.

There was a surprising low-level hostility in the audience at Stanford. A significant portion of students felt that Escalante had sold out by going to Sacramento to teach instead of continuing to teach in East Los Angeles, not knowing the school politics that had caused him and a supportive principal to leave Garfield. Escalante probably didn't win any of them over, as he focused on his recipe for success rather than his conflicts in the school district.

Walking away from that speech (and likely influenced by the movie), I was left with a two-point vision of why he had been so incredibly effective, with the first point different than Escalante would have stated. Exceptional teachers have to be able to express understanding of students, culturally and emotionally. A Bolivian like Escalante had the cultural and language skills to reach inner-city Hispanic students. It wouldn't have been impossible for someone of another background to do the same thing, but it would have been much more difficult, possibly prohibitively so. Every student may have the capacity to exceed expectations, but not everyone has the ability to motivate them to do so.

The second point has come to be uncontroversial, if not universally implemented. Expectations are incredibly important. If students are not faced with high expectations, they will not overachieve. Some may need more motivation and need to work much harder to reach for the high expectations, but every student has a better chance to succeed when they are expected to succeed. Almost without exception, this is a part of the formula at every school where students demonstrate high levels of academic achievements.

Jaime Escalante became a legend because he was the right person to reach young adults and set high expectations for a generation of students. The fact that even a legend wasn't allowed to continue working his magic said more about the educational system than about Escalante. (And the fact that he couldn't afford health care in his final days said more about the health care system.) Now, we have just memories of Escalante, and a movie to inspire us, rather than a passionate individual.

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