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"Stand and Deliver" makes amazing success impossible to reproduce

Hollywood took a man's already incredible feat and sped it up by 8 years

Jaime Escalante became famous outside of Los Angeles high schools because of the 1988 film Stand and Deliver.  In the film, Escalante takes a group of Latino high school students who are barely passing basic math and helps them earn passing grades on the AP Calculus exam in the course of a year.  The film has been shown in teacher training programs throughout the nation, illustrating the –impossibly quick!—impact a single motivated teacher who enforces high standards can have on students. 

Unfortunately, Hollywood sprinkled quite a bit of its magic dust on Escalante’s story.  It took Escalante ten years of work, as well as feeder calculus classes to build his program.  His life story after the movie wasn’t too glamorous either.  Instead of embracing his educational philosophy, many educators rebelled against it, causing Escalante to resign from his East Los Angeles school and move to Sacramento.

Escalante was born in 1930 in Bolivia.  He moved to Pasadena, California, taking odd jobs like mopping floors as he worked towards his associate’s degree in math and physics.  After finishing his degree, he became a technician in a Pasadena electronics company. He did well at the company, but still was drawn to teaching. He enrolled in Cal State Los Angeles for his teaching credential.  In 1974, he took a job teaching at Garfield High in East Los Angeles. 

In his first year at the school, Escalante was assigned to teach the lowest level math.  He was underwhelmed by his textbook’s level—it taught at a fifth-grade level by Bolivian standards.  He called the electronics company he worked for and asked for his job back.

But Escalante persevered at the school.  In 1978, he taught his first calculus section, but only two of his students earned a passing score on the AP exam. Passing rates grew in the ensuing years, but it wasn’t until 1982, five years after he started teaching calculus, did the events described in the movie take place.

18 students enrolled in Escalante’s calculus section in 1982.  Escalante forced them to study before and after school, as well as on Saturdays. All 18 of these students took the test and passed it.  However, the Educational Testing Service believed many of the students had cheated because the answers on each of the tests followed similar patterns.  14 students were asked to take the test again.  Twelve agreed to do so and all twelve did well enough to reinstate their original scores. 

By 1990, Escalante’s math program had reached its peak. It involved over 400 students in math classes ranging from algebra to advanced calculus, with students with passing scores on the AP Exam nearly doubling each year. Escalante’s plan was to grow the program to over 1,000 students.

But Escalante didn’t make it.  He and his math enrichment teachers left Garfield in 1991. Escalante was tired of the politics and jealousy of other teachers and administrators at Garfield, many of who were jealous of Escalante’s movie-making success. The academically-focused principal depicted in the movie also left the school, replaced by a principal more interested in extracurriculars than in a rigorous academic program.   

After leaving Los Angeles, Escalante kept busy.  He went to another high school in Sacramento and shocked his followers by opposing bilingual education in California in 1998. After seven years in Sacramento, Escalante moved back to Bolivia to teach at the university.  He died in 2010.   

Escalante's legacy will live on in the movie. Hopefully, educators will familiarize themselves with the real-life Escalante, however; his story was impressive enough on its own.