He yesterday died at age 79. He is perhaps most famous American math teacher, via Jay Mathews' book which led to the movie Stand And Deliver. Barrio kids in Los Angeles succeed in calculus. In 2002, Reason Magazine looked back at Escalante's career.
Escalante tells me the film was 90 percent truth and 10 percent drama -- but what a difference 10 percent can make. Stand and Deliver shows a group of poorly prepared, undisciplined young people who were initially struggling with fractions yet managed to move from basic math to calculus in just a year.
The reality was far different. It took 10 years to bring Escalante's program to peak success. He didn't even teach his first calculus course until he had been at Garfield for several years. His basic math students from his early years were not the same students who later passed the A.P. calculus test.
This Hollywood message had a pernicious effect on teacher training. The lessons of Escalante's patience and hard work in building his program, especially his attention to the classes that fed into calculus, were largely ignored in the faculty workshops and college education classes that routinely showed Stand and Deliver to their students.
To the pedagogues, how Escalante succeeded mattered less than the mere fact that he succeeded. They were happy to cheer Escalante the icon; they were less interested in learning from Escalante the teacher. They were like physicians getting excited about a colleague who can cure cancer without wanting to know how to replicate the cure.
I once toured our high school with Jerry Hauser, at that time Teach For America's Chief Operating Officer. He saw our charter school's calculus teacher in action: Chris Dupuis. Jerry said that was the best math teacher he'd ever seen.
Chris is great. He also has a math department built up over 10 years, first by Ann Sagan, a remarkable woman who was a full-time volunteer in our school for its first 8 years, and now by Chris, with some standout algebra, geometry, and trig teachers who "set the table" for AP Calc, and a devoted team of tutors.
We love the individual success story. Not so much the more complex story of an excellent department. For example, I haven't heard anyone trumpeting merit pay for excellent teacher departments.
Yet part of the Escalante legacy was his building a math department (and ultimately having it, to his great dismay, unwound into the usual crappy morass).
The Pipeline. Unlike the students in the movie, the real Garfield students required years of solid preparation before they could take calculus. This created a problem for Escalante. Garfield was a three-year high school, and the junior high schools that fed it offered only basic math. Even if the entering sophomores took advanced math every year, there was not enough time in their schedules to take geometry, algebra II, math analysis, trigonometry, and calculus.
So Escalante established a program at East Los Angeles College where students could take these classes in intensive seven-week summer sessions. Escalante and Gradillas were also instrumental in getting the feeder schools to offer algebra in the eighth and ninth grades.
Inside Garfield, Escalante worked to ratchet up standards in the classes that fed into calculus. He taught some of the feeder classes himself, assigning others to handpicked teachers with whom he coordinated and reviewed lesson plans. By the time he left, there were nine Garfield teachers working in his math enrichment program and several teachers from other East L.A. high schools working in the summer program at the college.