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Topic: "Escalante's Formula Not Always the Answer"
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Carol Fry Bohlin

Posts: 89
Registered: 12/3/04
"Escalante's Formula Not Always the Answer"
Posted: May 19, 1998 3:42 PM
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Here's an update on Jaime Escalante from yesterday's LA Times:

Los Angeles Times

"Escalante's Formula Not Always the Answer"
By AMY PYLE, Times Education Writer

SACRAMENTO--Take a seat and brace yourself: This is no ordinary classroom.

"What are you, some stupid kid?" the teacher blasts.

Then, to another student: "Look at me when I look at you."

"You break your chair," he barks at a third, "I'm going to break your neck."

Such harshness is highly unusual in education today, being just a whisper
away from the corporal punishment long banned in public schools.

But this is the doctrine of Jaime Escalante, the most famous high school
math teacher of modern times.

At Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, Escalante's calculus
revolution inspired the popular movie "Stand and Deliver," delivering a
message that Americans desperately want to believe: that reforming
education can be as simple as harnessing the power of one charismatic

But here at Sacramento's Hiram Johnson High School, where Escalante has
taught since 1991, that neat package appears to have fallen apart.

For reasons ranging from parental resistance to lack of administrative
support--and perhaps his own inability to connect with a very different
crop of students--Escalante, at 67, has been unable to work his magic

The school district converted a cavernous shop room into a classroom just
for him, with a one-way mirrored observation booth so visitors could watch
the legend at work. These days, however, the man who gained renown for
enrolling hundreds of students in calculus at Garfield is not even teaching
that subject.

The official reasons he has no calculus students sound logical enough: Only
six students enrolled in his advanced class, causing it to be dropped; and,
by that time, someone else was assigned to handle introductory calculus.

* * *

Letters from parents and administrators hint at a more troubling
undercurrent, though. They complain about Escalante's tactics, saying the
students shy away from letting him know they don't understand for fear of
public humiliation.

At least a third of his Algebra I students have dropped out since the start
of the year. That leaves 20 teenagers scattered around his huge classroom.
His classes at Garfield were packed with 60 students.

Even when he was still teaching calculus at Hiram Johnson, the program was
not growing at a great clip. Last year, only 11 students took the Advanced
Placement exam in the subject--the test that became the most tangible
measure of what his culture of high expectations achieved at Garfield.
There, more than 140 students took it during his last year.

Though Escalante was recruited here with great fanfare, there is no
continuing commitment to his success. The superintendent who wooed
him--Rudy Crew--has long since moved on to become New York City's schools
chief. Since then, Hiram Johnson High has gone through three other

During Escalante's recent annual evaluation, he fared badly, he said,
because of his unorthodox teaching methods, which center on a brief
introduction followed by a daily test. The reviewer wanted to know: Where
was his lesson plan?

Escalante uses no lesson plans, no teacher's guide, no textbooks, no
computers. He interweaves math tricks--quick ways to figure, unusual math
coincidences--with the lesson of the day, part of his quest to make the
subject more interesting.

He plays music during class, everything from opera to Weird Al Yankovic,
and has filled the classroom's ample wall space with advice both
mathematical and motivational. Wearing his trademark cake-cutter hat and
oversized glasses, he paces the room, popping math questions to students.

And he still could be the model for tough love, interspersing verbal
assaults with equally expansive praise: "You're the best there is. . . .
You are the smartest kid in the class. . . . You're going to ace the test."

* * *

On a recent Thursday morning, buried in his campus mail was a note from one
mother asking when she and her husband could come discuss their son's low
grade. The boy is one of eight students holding an F at mid-semester in
Algebra I, largely for not turning in homework.

Escalante concedes that he is a hard grader--giving few A's, many Cs. But
students can raise their grades by attending special Saturday clinics.

His response to the note is to chew the boy out at the start of class.

"You have to do the work!" he says.

"I do more work in here than I ever did before," the boy whines.

What Escalante pines for is the cultural leverage he had at Garfield, where
virtually all the students and their parents were Latino. At Hiram Johnson,
the student body is an amalgam of working-class white, Asian, black and

Escalante, Bolivian by birth, could guilt-trip the Garfield parents in
their native tongue and, he said, they were more inclined to do his
bidding. That gave him power over his students.

"The Latinos are more family-oriented, and you have to take advantage of
that, say, 'Look, I'm going to call your mom if you don't do this,' " he
said. "The group of students here will say, 'Call anybody you want. I don't
care!' "

That observation fits neatly into his view of the broad changes in public
education during his 23 years as a teacher. Students get little support or
pressure from home or society these days, and seem numbed by the violence
of rap music and video games, he complains.

"Some of the kids pick easy classes--they meet the challenge and they feel
great," he said. "We allow them to do that because we're so nice."

Ross Billingsley is hardly one of those kids. A sophomore already taking
Algebra II, Ross chose Escalante after watching a PBS series featuring the
veteran teacher. He describes Escalante as "the best math teacher I've ever

But even Ross plays three sports and holds an after-school
job--distractions from study that Escalante would never have tolerated at
Garfield. Even worse, the youth shows up late for class every day.

"I have trouble getting up and I have to fix my hair," said the lanky
teenager. "I mean, I'm never late to my job or anything."

Are there days when Escalante wants to call it quits? He clearly has more
prestigious alternatives. But he shrugs them off, getting agitated at any
suggestion that he might just retire.

"I fall in love with these kids," he said, gazing into a room of Algebra I
students--the same ones he had earlier called "the troublemakers."

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