By sheer coincidence, we came across a book written about Jaime Escalante, the truly phenomenal teacher from Bolivia who enabled students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to master calculus and become shining examples of excellence in learning. His life’s story is incredibly impressive and was a joy to read: Escalante; The Best Teacher in America.
Without reviewing his life in too much detail, it is prudent to remind ourselves that there have been giants in many professions and there are but a few who have experienced Jaime Escalante’s level of success. He was born in Bolivia and taught physics and mathematics there and developed the formula for his life-long creed:
Determination + Discipline + Hard Work = Success
In 1963, he immigrated to the United States and it took about ten years before he attained his teaching credentials, while working several other jobs during those years to sustain himself and his family. In 1974, he began teaching at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles where he was dismayed by the lack of preparation in his students, considering they were in high school. They barely understood fifth grade math. These students were not motivated at all. There were gangs and drug problems at this school. But Escalante doggedly continued by teaching basics, sticking to his principles and over some time, he not only gained the respect of his students, he inspired them. It took about five years before he could teach his first calculus class with only five students, two of which passed the Advanced Placement (A.P.) exam.
The A.P. exam was a test of college-level math skills that was reportedly only taken by 3 percent of seniors preparing to enter college. Escalante considered these tests to be essential for his students to obtain skills they needed later on, to apply for and get high-paying jobs. It would force the students to learn analytical and problem-solving techniques they could apply throughout their professional life.
He was right; many of his students continued their educations at such reputed institutions as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, UCLA and later became successful attorneys, dentists, research engineers, program managers, and administrators, among other such elevated professional positions. Where are they now?
In 1982, his calculus class had grown in size and 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service considered these scores suspect and failed the students accusing them of cheating. After some debate and negotiations, it was agreed that 14 of these students, could take this exam again and 12 of them passed the next test. This received attention in the national media and Escalante became known nationwide. A book was written about him and in 1988, it resulted in the movie “Stand and Deliver” featuring the events in 1982. Escalante received many awards for his achievements, such as the National Teachers Hall of Fame, the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Education (presented to him by President Ronald Reagan) and several honorary doctoral degrees from a variety of educational institutions.
Of course, like many other successful persons, Escalante had his detractors. There were some administrators at Garfield High School who felt that he pushed his students too hard and they did not like his teaching methods, calling them simply too unorthodox. As a result of these spats, in 1991, he moved to Sacramento and continued to be the excellent teacher he had been and taught algebra and calculus until 1998 with equal success. Today, Escalante at age 76 is retired and lives in his native Bolivia but comes to the United States to visit with friends and his son’s family.
Escalante is a great example from the past, however every year teachers like Escalante who are an inspiration to their profession are recognized by the National Teachers Hall of Fame, USA Today, etc. Unfortunately, these unsung Heroes don’t seem to get as much front-page attention as topics such as No Child Left Behind or poor student testing results. Last week USA Today recognized the determination, discipline and hard work that some of today’s teachers have employed to inspire and educate their students. We here at “Back to Common Sense’ highly recommend Escalante’s book or the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or read the profiles of USA Today’s All Star teachers to fully appreciate the efforts of those that choose to educate America’s youth with similar dedication. Please stay tuned for other educational articles.
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