Chapter 11 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
We have seen how parents, desperate for their children to get a good education, have found a variety of ways around the bloated, misguided, and myopic bureaucracy that controls so much of American public education. We have seen how visionary and dedicated educators have battled against this bureaucracy to craft alternatives to conventional public education, responding to the needs of the students and parents they serve. We have also considered various answers to the question of what the purpose of education should be because without knowing and agreeing on an objective, we can’t begin to agree on how to get there.
As we continue seeking the pathway to a reliable, responsible, accountable educational system, we can find encouragement in that Jaime Escalante left us specific steps we can follow – even before all the answers are nailed down – to an education model that immediately improves the status quo and sets the stage for continual future improvement.
Since the Department of Health, Education and Welfare was formed in 1953, the U.S. has spent something on the order of $1 trillion at the national level, plus untold dollars at the state and local levels, on education. Many of these dollars have been misspent chasing the latest fad, from whole language to open classrooms. Yet at the end of the day, Escalante’s legacy – simple, no-nonsense, and consistent – remains at the core of every successful educational program in the country.
Escalante’s methods may not be replicated exactly or called the same thing in different academic contexts, but they are still the starting point for most of what works in America (and elsewhere) today. As Mary Poplin points out, education is not rocket science. A lot of it is common sense: observing what works and what does not, then building on the one and discarding the other. But it takes desire for excellence – ganas – on the part of educators to buck the system or go around it in order to create an environment where students can then excel.
Features of Kimo’s Teaching Style
Let us circle back to the key features that define Kimo’s teaching style, and which we see replicated nationwide in the educational programs that work. These are the programs that parents are flocking to and successful educators are continuing to refine. The key features that these successful educational programs exhibit remind us of the unquenchable spirit and effervescence that were always part of the Escalante experience.
According to Escalante, his colleagues, and his students, high expectations are the sine qua non of successful teaching. Without it, nothing else matters. The assumption among policymakers at Garfield High had been that poor Latino students could not learn calculus. Their family lives were a disaster, middle school had not prepared them, their English was shaky, they had none of the “cultural capital” – books in the home, trips to the museum – that more fortunate children enjoyed. Low expectations led to low standards: a tenth-grade math curriculum at Garfield was, when Escalante started there, what he had taught to fifth-graders in Bolivia.
Escalante would have none of it. He was convinced that his pupils had as much potential as children anywhere else, and he set his standards accordingly. Other teachers as well as administrators, parents, and the students themselves thought he was crazy. Department chairs denied him textbooks, and angry parents complained about low grades, too much homework, and their children missing work or babysitting duties.
Escalante held fast despite the harsh reaction, and eventually proved to everyone that Garfield students could excel on a national level. His most valuable gift to students was not a knowledge of calculus, but proof that they were capable of so much more than the world would grant them. They were not low achievers; they were the best students in America. The sample of Escalante alumni listed in the previous chapter, along with thousands more of his pupils, is a testament to the value of Jaime’s approach.
A glance at the expectation level of educational institutions most admired for their results – charter schools, parochial schools, private schools, even military-style “tough love” academies – shows that regardless of their location, demographics, or any other variable, they all set the performance bar very high. Students are expected to excel academically and meet strict guidelines of appearance and behavior. To achieve high standards, the standards have to be there in the first place. Those who fall short get special help and proper attention, but they don’t get to make excuses or exempt themselves from the standards that apply to everyone else.
Well-meaning critics claimed that Escalante’s way was hard on the kids’ self-esteem. It was important for poor Mexican-American students to feel good about themselves, and high standards meant the likelihood of lower grades, exclusion from extra-curricular activities, diminished social life, and other consequences. Henry Gradillas wasn’t buying: “Yes, if you fail a kid or keep him out of football because of his bad grades, it’s hard on his self-esteem. But it’s a lot harder on his self-esteem a couple of years later when he can’t get a job and has to eat leftover pizza out of the Dumpster. Self-esteem is fed by rising to a challenge, not by being excused from it.”
More opposition to the school’s consistent high standards, notes Gradillas, came from members of the community who said calculus and higher math were “white” subjects and that Latinos faced the added challenge of a cultural divide. “Escalante reminded his kids that they had Inca and Mayan blood in their veins, and that those civilizations were advanced in math,” he explains. “He said the concept of zero originated with the Mayans. Criticizing math because it’s ‘white’ is an excuse not to participate in something because they’re afraid to fail.”
(Escalante and Gradillas also thought that students should discontinue English as a Second Language [ESL] and other targeted programs as soon as possible because they set those students apart and gave them another reason to fail. Gradillas believed two years of ESL was almost always enough, especially since many of the kids taking it were born in the United States.)
Though only a small percentage of Garfield students were in advanced math and even fewer were AP prospects, all of them benefited from consistent high standards that encouraged them to stretch beyond what they and others thought they could do. As Angelo Villavicencio, Escalante’s colleague who succeeded him as the AP calculus teacher at Garfield, puts it, “The number one reason for success” at Garfield was that “teachers, counselors, and administrators believed in students’ potential.”
A Safe, Encouraging Learning Environment
One of Escalante’s first steps at Garfield was painting his classroom and putting up inspiring posters with pictures of sports stars and slogans like “Calculus Need Not Be Made Easy; It Is Easy Already.” He played music in class. He got air-conditioning. He wore silly outfits – anything to make the learning experience as engaging and rewarding as possible.
However, the atmosphere in the classroom was only part of creating a safe, productive, inviting place to learn. When Escalante arrived, the principal had accommodated gangs at the school by giving each of them a place to gather and post their colors. After an accreditation crisis threatened Garfield with closure because of poor performance, that principal was transferred. His replacement painted over graffiti, removed gang symbols, banned non-students from campus, and locked latecomers out of their classrooms.
As dean of discipline and later as principal, Henry Gradillas had no patience with disruptive students. Previously, teachers had worked under conditions that made learning difficult at best, including students routinely talking and acting out in class, wearing provocative clothing, openly threatening each other and bragging about their gang affiliations, and scaring other students away from the cafeteria and restrooms that were marked as gang turf. All that changed overnight on Gradillas’s watch. “There’s something in children that craves order,” he noted.
Escalante and Gradillas demanded and got order in the classroom because they refused to accept anything less. Class clowns, troublemakers, and girls in low-cut tops were distractions Escalante dealt with quickly, decisively, and sometimes harshly. Gradillas backed him up. Students who repeatedly misbehaved or failed to do their homework were transferred out of his class. Discipline problems were assigned to other teachers and sometimes other schools. In return, other students were sometimes transferred to Garfield to make a fresh start or separate them from a gang.
When Escalante sent one disruptive student out the door, the boy insisted he needed a hall pass. “That’s your problem,” Escalante replied. We’ve seen how he once sent a girl to the principal for wearing improper clothing. She returned saying the (pre-Gradillas) principal agreed with her that it was within the school dress code. “Fine,” Escalante answered, “you can wear it, but you can’t wear it in my class.” He, not the principal or a dress code, would decide what was a distraction in his class and what was not.
When another math teacher despaired over the bad behavior of his students, Escalante offered to exchange classes with him for a couple of days. His opening remark as a visiting teacher was, “I am now the boss. Are you listening?” He then marched down the aisle and grabbed a car magazine away from one student. As described by Escalante biographer Jay Mathews, the teacher then declared, “You are all going to do what I say. If you don’t do what I say, you gonna fly [be sent out of class]! We got all kinds of places we can send you. You won’t like them. Any questions?” Three students were ejected before the rest of them stopped talking.
The next morning he gave a quiz and “gleefully distributed a fistful of D’s and F’s.” He said they were lucky to have the regular teacher they had. “I would flunk all you banditos,” Escalante exclaimed. “You’re wasting my time.” The other teacher had coddled his students because they were underprivileged. Escalante saw them as rude and lazy. They would be quiet, they would study, they would do their homework, or they would be gone. In two days the atmosphere of the classroom was completely transformed. Then and only then could the students have a chance to learn.
A Strong, Supportive Principal
Escalante could not have done what he did without the help of principal Henry Gradillas. His most productive years, and the ones that cemented his reputation, coincided with Gradillas’s tenure as principal from 1981 to 1987. When Escalante sent a student to the principal’s office for some infraction, Gradillas backed him up. If he had not, and if a student knew that Escalante’s warnings were only empty threats, Escalante’s authority would have been undercut and his efforts to hold high academic standards and maintain a productive learning environment in class would have been severely damaged.
Gradillas shielded Escalante from the criticism of other teachers who thought he was too intense and who accused him of claiming more than his share of students’ time and school resources. When he needed money for more advanced textbooks, Gradillas came through. When he had the chance to set up a summer program for Garfield math students at a local community college, Gradillas supported the project. When he justified the need for any resources he needed to drive his students to succeed, Gradillas made it happen.
When he suspended students for gang activity or fighting, Henry says, “I got lots of pushback saying this was life in the barrio.” But it was not, he insists, life for students on a path to academic success and a good career. A school that mirrors a dysfunctional community will also duplicate its failure.
Gradillas was a bold administrator who never avoided confrontation or opposition of the status quo if he thought it would help his school. In his book Standing and Delivering, co-written with Jerry Jesness, Gradillas makes a point that principals have to look beyond regulations and mandates, beyond what they think they are allowed to do to what they believe they ought to do.
“We cannot defy mandates, but we can work with them,” he writes. “If something is written into law or terms of a contract are bad, we should work to change them, but work within the legal guidelines. Still, mandates are not straightjackets. Educators who think that their hands are tied when given a mandate probably have not explored all their possibilities.
“… When educators get a mandate, they need to decide what’s best for the kids and then work from there … Whenever I was told that my hands were tied, I found ways to untie them.”
Gradillas tells of the time non-students were parking across from the school and turning up their radios to a distracting level. When he called the police they said there was nothing they could do because the kids were not breaking any law. Gradillas explained that his job description made him responsible for the learning environment of his students and that he had to stop the radios in order to fulfill his duties. The police agreed and forced the disruptive drivers to leave.
Whether facing down an angry parent or a stubborn school board, Gradillas maintained the same resolve and focus he had used in the Airborne infantry when training young soldiers to jump out of airplanes. He was a tireless advocate for his teachers, breaking down whatever administrative or bureaucratic barriers they faced to give them the tools and support they needed. Rather than concentrating on the tangle of impediments to his plans, he focused on results, then knocked down the obstacles to those results one by one.
Time to Learn
Aili Gardena, a Garfield graduate who retook the famous 1982 AP exam, believes the amount of time she spent learning math was the most important factor in her success. “We worked through lunch. We worked before school. Anybody who had marching band in the morning did that extra work another time. We worked sixth period when most seniors got off for the day. We studied over Christmas break and spring break. I’d be surprised if we had not done well after all this instruction.”
Garfield students entered high school poorly prepared for Escalante’s program. Most of them had little or no math fundamentals in elementary or middle school because educators didn’t think they were up to the challenge. As time went on they got further and further behind. By their tenth grade year, Escalante had to push them hard to make up enough lost ground to teach them AP calculus in the three years he had them.
Escalante’s demand for time required vast amounts of sacrifice from the students and their families. They had to give up many outside interests and much of their free time. This demand met resistance at every level and inspired many complaints against Escalante. Yet Escalante’s demand that students put in the time was necessary to achieve the objective of telescoping years of math instruction into the limited period he had to prepare his students for the calculus exam. Jaime waived off the criticism and moved ahead.
One way he helped his students learn a lot in a short amount of time was “double blocking,” enrolling them in two math classes in the same term. These students would take an advanced course while taking a basic prerequisite at the same time. Another effective tool was summer school. Jaime developed a summer program for his students and attracted corporate sponsors to pay for it. The Jaime Escalante Math Program is still thriving today. Coordinated through East Los Angeles College, it has a summer enrollment of over 4,000 students from 14 area high schools studying pre-algebra, algebra 1, and geometry.
A Strong and Appealing Team Spirit
Adolescents are desperate to belong. They want to be accepted into a special group. For some it is the band or the basketball team or the Boy Scouts that meets this powerful need. For others, especially those who don’t belong to a loving and nurturing family, acceptance may come from cliques, gangs, stoners, or other destructive groups. Jaime Escalante saw the power of team spirit and used it to recruit and keep promising students.
“Students loved being part of Escalante’s programs,” Henry Gradillas recalls. “We had a rule that you had to put paper covers on your textbooks. One day I saw some girls at school without covers on their algebra books. I asked why they hadn’t covered them. ‘Oh, Mr. Gradillas, we want everybody to know we’re taking algebra!’ they said. So I bought them clear plastic covers for those books.”
We’ve seen that Jaime invented a special vocabulary to make learning calculus fun and interesting, and to build a sense of exclusivity for his math insiders. Leaning over a student deep in thought, Jaime would shout, “Face mask! Face mask!” meaning the student made a mistake at the beginning of the problem and needed to go back, just as a face mask call at the beginning of a run in football brings the ball back. “Secret agent” was an easy-to-miss minus sign outside the parenthesis that reversed the values of numbers. “Give and go” for absolute values and “Red light” for factoring were others in a long list of code words that Escalante used and his students adopted.
Jaime had a hard time remembering names. His solution was to give students nicknames ranging from glamorous (Elizabeth Taylor) to less glamorous (Gordita or Little Fat Girl), all of which they took as symbols of acceptance. (Names like this were part of the Latino cultural tradition then and would likely be problematic in today’s politically correct environment.) The students in turn famously christened Jaime “Kimo,” as in Kimo Sabe, the nickname for the popular western hero the Lone Ranger coined by his sidekick, Tonto.
Escalante organized group activities including early morning and afternoon study sessions. He brought fast-food hamburgers and other treats to share and sometimes took students out for a meal. He handed out candy in class for right answers. Some years calculus students got special T-shirts or team jackets. They held pep rallies. They sponsored car washes and sold chocolate to raise money for textbooks and test fees.
Not only did this sense of community keep their spirits high under the duress of learning hard material, but it also made them more likely to make other sacrifices to stay on the team. Faced with the prospect of giving up band or an after school job to keep up with the calculus team, students decided to stay with the team.
Escalante’s results depended partly on his and Gradillas’s ability to finesse, avoid, bend, and sometimes ignore rules from higher authorities. Their objective was to teach their students. Anything that got in the way of that objective was an obstacle to be overcome. They did not kick problems upstairs for solutions, nor did they allow themselves to be hamstrung by apparent restrictions in their job descriptions or by otherwise malleable district regulations. “If you are in command, command!” Gradillas says. When Jaime needed to take action in order to pursue his objective in the classroom, he and his supporters assumed the authority to act on the spot.
Jaime’s success at Garfield depended also in part on his ability to address a problem immediately and aggressively. If students continued to misbehave, Escalante had them transferred to other classes. If students repeatedly refused to do homework, Jaime forced them to step up their game or else sent them to a place where their laziness would be rewarded (which was never his classroom).
Escalante’s success also came from holding extra, unauthorized study sessions before and after school, scrambling for textbooks and other resources not specifically designated to him, ignoring or getting rid of prerequisites for his courses so anyone interested could enroll, and teaching classes smaller or larger than were supposed to be allowed. In the absence of direct orders, Jaime took the steps he thought necessary and commandeered all the resources he could to achieve his objective of teaching calculus to kids from the barrio. Everything else was secondary.
Maintaining the Standard under Fire
Throughout his career Jaime Escalante faced opposition from colleagues, administrators, parents, and students. Early on they insisted that his goals were unrealistic and even damaging. Later they criticized his uncompromising attitude and lack of cooperation in the single-minded pursuit of his objectives. Jaime never wavered. He was convinced that poor Latino students were just as smart as anyone else, and that held to the same standards and given the same classroom opportunities as others, they could do just as well or better.
Eventually he was proved right, his story became a Hollywood movie, and the public celebrated him. What summaries of his story often omit are the years of intermittent progress against a bureaucracy that sometimes did not support him and even opposed his methods. Even so, he never gave up, never veered from his belief in his students and that what he was doing was right. He accepted opposition as part of the cost of doing business.
When it comes to unsympathetic administrators, “You can work with them and stand up to them,” notes Angelo Villavicencio, “but it helps to have an iron suit.”
Jaime Escalante’s astonishing academic success came more than anything else from these simple, low-tech principles. Any teacher or school anywhere can put them into practice. The fact that they do not simply reflects an unwillingness to take Escalante’s methods and requirements seriously. Not that there aren’t many, many students, teachers, and parents who recognize the problems in public education and want to make it better – there are.
Yet facing the massive monolith of government, exploiting a chink anywhere in its seemingly impenetrable wall of bureaucracy, and overcoming the inertia and buck-passing that have become so entrenched in public education – these are daunting tasks that often seem overwhelming and breed helplessness. Yes, there are encouraging outposts of success in charter schools and various other alternative approaches, but all in all the chances of breaking through and making a difference, especially in poor and neglected communities, too often appear remote.
Government is deep-rooted and immovable in its management of education, as well as everything else. We have looked here at the specifics of what made Escalante different from and better than most other teachers. Potential reformers are disheartened by the thought of going up against impossible odds. Now let’s dial our perspective back out to the big picture and see if there is a way to dismantle the monolith, or to outsmart it.
1. Henry Gradillas quotations from author interview (11/9/14)
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2. Angelo Villavicencio quotation from author interview (10/30/14)
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3. Henry Gradillas quotation from author interview
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4. Escalante quotations and descriptions from Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1988
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5. Gradillas quotation about the barrio from author interview
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6. Gradillas quotation about mandates from Standing and Delivering: What the Movie Didn’t Tell by Henry Gradillas and Jerry Jesness, Lanham (Md.): Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
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7. Aili Gardena quotation from author interview (10/30/14)
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8. East Los Angeles College figures at elac.edu
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9. Gradillas quotation about book covers from author interview
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10. Gradillas quotation about being in command from author interview
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11. Angelo Villavicencio quotation from author interview (10/26/14)
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