Chapter 13 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
Escalante’s historic success at inner-city Garfield High shows that high intellectual achievement is not reserved for the select few but open to the masses. Even so, a malaise infects American education. Whenever critics try to articulate problems with education as a first step toward solving them, there is always some reason why the situation is and must stay the way it is. Cultural forces are blamed for preventing people from attaining their full potential. The system is stacked against underprivileged people and must be changed. Money flows to one coffer when it should flow to another.
Systemic flaws thus condemn people to be poorly educated and live way below their potential. If only the system as a whole could be fundamentally changed, everything would be better. But systems, especially large ones, operate in the face of massive inertia, and getting large-scale change in these cases typically never happens. Escalante taught us instead to invest our time and energy in building something positive rather than battling fruitlessly against an entrenched opposition. He did his best work by creating a functional workspace within a dysfunctional system, adapting to the system rather than changing it.
But the malaise infecting American education runs still deeper. Would-be reformers who see the key to improving American education as transforming the system typically don’t have a very high view of human intellectual potential. Even if the system could be revamped, the improvement in education that many reformers seek and anticipate would be unimpressive: it would constitute a small incremental change and not a massive breakthrough such as Escalante achieved. Currently, in at-risk neighborhoods, high school seniors are lucky to be reading at a sixth grade level. Presumably, then, success would be to have twelfth graders reading at a twelfth grade level. But how impressive is that? Given our dumbed-down standards, why shouldn’t sixth graders instead be reading at what now is regarded as a twelfth grade level?
Lessons from Escalante
Jaime Escalante’s life, work, and legacy provided two crucial lessons for all subsequent educators who would replicate his results. First, every one of us can do a lot more than we think we can; second, we can do a lot more than other people think we can. These were messages he drilled into his students every day, along with math formulas and warnings about staying out of trouble. Without someone like Escalante to spur us to unanticipated heights, we have little chance of reaching our true potential. Conversely, we can achieve unbelievable things if someone like Escalante is there to unleash all that untapped brain power.
A few decades back, it was common to hear that people use only ten percent of their mental faculties. The science behind that number may not be too precise but whatever the percentage, Escalante confirms this claim in two ways. On the one hand, people without the right teachers and incentives tend to display little of what we might call “intellectual horsepower.” On the other hand, the same people with a teacher like Escalante can attain remarkable heights of intellectual achievement.
What then prevents teachers like Escalante from thriving, multiplying, and showing American education the way forward? This is not the first time our look at the Escalante legacy has brought us to this question. If Escalante was such a standout success, why doesn’t the world rush to copy him? What is the key to academic achievement for the masses?
The answer begins by realizing that education, like everything else in life, is path dependent. If we want to get to point B and we are currently at point A, we need to chart a feasible path from point A to point B and then take it. A big part of the problem in modern public education (a problem that also infects private education) is that we have no clear conception of point B. As we saw in a previous chapter, we, as a nation, don’t agree on what the goal of education is or should be. Part of the brilliance of Escalante was wisely choosing a point B that was at once easily identified and also extremely challenging.
Not only is everything in life path dependent, but value in life is determined by difficulty or hardship – how hard it is to achieve the object of striving. The director of admissions at Harvard confirmed this insight when she said that the best predictors of long-term success for Harvard graduates were a blue-collar family background and unimpressive SAT scores. The harder and more imaginatively these students had to work, the better their lives turned out. There is no merit in doing the easy thing. It is the hard thing that commands respect, that engenders self-confidence and true self-esteem. It was by helping his students to accomplish something inherently difficult that Escalante distinguished not only his students but also himself.
A convenient feature about the difficulty or hardness of a task is that it tends to act transitively: if C is harder than B and B is harder than A, then C is harder than A. Thus, if a student starting at point A can master C and knows that C is more difficult than B, the student can be confident that he or she can also master B. Once a student masters extremely difficult material, that student is filled with confidence that he or she can understand and accomplish practically anything. In choosing calculus as the subject to master, Escalante tackled one of the toughest areas of study in high school. In getting his students to master it, he showed them that they could master practically anything.
Escalante’s choice of calculus might not have been strictly speaking necessary. Some other subject might have served equally well as a litmus test for students to attain the highest level of academic achievement in high school. AP chemistry or physics are challenging enough that they might have taken that role. But mathematics is the universal language of science. In that sense, the appeal of calculus extends beyond that of particular natural sciences. It’s perhaps worth noting in this connection that the inventor of calculus, Isaac Newton, is universally regarded as the greatest scientist of all time, and so to learn calculus is to get into the mind of Newton.
Of course, it’s also the case that some subjects are inherently unchallenging and thus unsuitable as a litmus test for high academic achievement at the high school level. Henry Gradillas, Escalante’s principal at Garfield, thus tried to discourage students from taking what he described as “Mickey Mouse courses,” saying, for example, that his young daughter could bake the cookies high school girls learned to bake in home economics class. Such courses require no real mental effort, either because the subject is inherently undemanding or because teachers allow students to fake their way through them.
Escalante clearly identified the starting point A and carefully selected the landing point B. But even more significant than his choice of landing point, Escalante showed how to get there. It is not enough to realize one is at point A and espy point B on the horizon. We need a feasible path from A to B. In other words, we must have a clearly defined step-by-step way, with each step readily doable, to get from point A to point B. How do we know when a path is feasible? By putting people on the path and showing that they can indeed get to B from A. This is what Escalante did, providing what engineers call a proof of concept. He didn’t just put forward a goal, but he also showed, in practical terms, how to attain it.
This proof of concept is crucial. There are libraries full of books and buildings full of reports about the problems of education in America today. There are histories, studies, analyses, opinions, policies, and conclusions running into the millions of pages. What’s in overwhelmingly short supply are demonstrated, actionable solutions. Escalante didn’t spend time analyzing data or fighting the system. He set up his own demonstration program and showed beyond any doubt that his methods worked far better than the alternatives. His most important contribution to American education was that rather than analyzing or complaining or posturing, he gave us a blueprint for effective action. Regarding what to do about education in America today, Jaime Escalante solved the problem in the 1980’s.
It is impossible to overemphasize how important Escalante’s proof of concept was. It should be a game-changer for American education. For all the talk about the U.S. falling behind in STEM (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), Escalante showed us how we could fill all the STEM jobs we could ever hope to fill with homegrown graduates.
To do that would answer the question posed by Angelo Villavicencio about why there aren’t enough Americans today to support the technological foundation the country depends on. “When Americans landed on the moon, I was selling real estate in Nicaragua,” he says. “America didn’t have any trouble getting home-grown scientists and engineers then. With one of the biggest and most expensive school systems in the world, why do we have to get our scientists and engineers from India and Asia today?”
Why indeed? Why has Escalante been ignored? Why, for all the soothing noises made about his accomplishments, do we see few if any Escalantes now? Indeed, why did the principal who replaced Henry Gradillas short circuit Escalante’s math program and drive him elsewhere? The answer is quite simple: few administrators and teachers are willing to pay the price.
Escalante’s approach requires an instructional intensity that most educators are unable or unwilling to provide. It requires competent teachers who are totally committed to achieving the desired outcome. It requires committed administrators who will loyally back their teachers. It requires students who won’t bail when the going gets tough. It requires keeping parents from mutinying when their overprotected children get stressed out because of hard work.
The problem with instructional intensity is that it is not easy for anyone involved. It requires a discipline that is painful, especially when students have never experienced instructional intensity before. Yet, as we have seen, every popular and successful educational program available today is challenging and requires extraordinary sacrifice from everyone involved: students, parents, teachers, and administrators. The solutions to the problems that bedevil American education are right in front of us in the shape of a stocky middle-aged Bolivian with a comb-over. Yet because his way is difficult, we brush it aside time and again for something easier yet ultimately inferior.
Athletics provides an insightful analogy to the principle of instructional intensity. To build a championship team in any sport requires that everyone, from coaches on down, displays a rigor and determination and knowledge of the game that lesser teams lack. The harder they work, the more committed they are, the more carefully they study the game, the more often they win. Interestingly, young people from impoverished and underprivileged backgrounds are known to rise out of their circumstances by excelling at sports. They have experienced instructional intensity in athletics.
What these athletically successful students typically don’t realize is that this same instructional intensity is precisely what they need to thrive academically. It is also noteworthy that Escalante peppered his instruction liberally with sports metaphors and always had posters of his favorite athletic stars on his classroom walls. They were a constant reminder of the rewards of hard work. He himself had once been a star handball player. It’s easy to imagine him applying the lessons of the court to the discipline of the classroom.
Which is more important? Instructional intensity on the athletic field or instructional intensity in the classroom? World renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson answered this question beautifully: “One of the things that really began to happen in a big way in the 1960’s, that hadn’t been going on before, is that we began to really idolize sports stars and entertainers — lifestyles of the rich and famous. And those things became much more important to us than the scientist and the doctor and the professor and people who utilize intellect in order to achieve things. This is not to say that no one in sports or entertainment is intellectual, but that’s not the aspect of their lives that’s emphasized.”
Carson continued: “Consequently, you’ve got so many of these young boys running around — for instance, in the inner city — thinking that they’re going to be the next Michael Jordan, or the next Michael Jackson, or somebody. If you can do that, and people are paying you millions and millions of dollars, [you think,] ‘Why do I need to bother with algebra, grammar, all this stuff? I don’t need to do that. I can buy and sell any school that I want.’
“But what they don’t realize is only seven in one million will make it as a starter in the NBA. One in ten thousand will have a successful career in entertainment. So, your odds are not very good. Less than one percent of people who go to college on an athletic scholarship end up playing professional sports — and if you do end up playing, your average career span is three and a half years. So, we need to reorient people in terms of what real success is all about.”
Ben Carson’s point is that instructional intensity in sports is highly unlikely to result in a professional sports career whereas instructional intensity in academics is highly likely to result in the knowledge and skills needed for a productive, satisfying, and gainful career. To be sure, we may miss out on the glory of being a rock star, but at least we’ll have a fulfilling life. Leaving aside the tiny minority who make it as professional athletes or entertainers, the alternative to never experiencing instructional intensity in the classroom is a life of dependency and frustration, lacking the skills to navigate a tough and competitive world.
Not only is instructional intensity crucial to both academics and sports, but so is team spirit. We typically think of academics as an isolated, individual activity in which students hole up in a corner with a book or laptop and get to work. But we are social beings and effective learning happens in a social setting. Henry Gradillas referred to establishing a “learning culture” at Garfield. Instructional intensity is hard to maintain if students are not encouraging and prodding their fellow students. An essential feature of Escalante’s proof of concept was his calculus students working as and feeling part of a team. They had matching t-shirts. They ate meals together. They had their own group cheers and inside jokes. They put up banners in the classroom. They studied together and helped each other navigate and master the alien world of calculus.
We’ve said that success in life is path dependent, namely, finding and taking a path from point A to point B. But how do we know when we have actually arrived at point B? For Escalante, point B was proficiency at first-year college calculus. To verify that this proficiency had in fact been attained, it was necessary to test it; hence the advanced placement exam. By passing the calculus AP test, students demonstrated that they had in fact reached point B (which we could even call point C from our example above, since it was so much more challenging than anything else most of them had tried to do). To be sure, exams can be abused and teachers can teach to the test, but if the test is broad enough to cover the full range of achievement that it queries, the test can demonstrate competence. That is what Escalante’s students proved, not just on the AP exam but also later in life with their successful careers.
Escalante, the great teacher, gave us the key to great teaching. In particular, he detailed the necessary and sufficient conditions for all American students – not just the privileged elite – to thrive at the highest levels of academic achievement. On the other hand, the unremitting string of failures to replicate Escalante’s success reveals an unwillingness to take his methods and requirements seriously. It is a human weakness to try to take the easy way out. But there is no easy way to learn well, especially if you’ve been part of an educational system that has made a virtue out of avoiding instructional intensity. Thus Escalante shows us not only how to succeed by following his footsteps but also why we fail to follow in them.
Can such a big, seemingly complicated question as how to reinvigorate America’s schools boil down to an answer as simple as “instructional intensity”? The phrase encapsulates everything Jaime Escalante did to produce the historic results at Garfield in the 1980’s. The encouraging point here is that instructional intensity does not depend on which political party is in power, what the budget is, how test scores are analyzed, who is elected to the school board, or any of the other variables that command so much of the discussion in American education today.
Breaking through the Inertia
What it does depend on is people who are willing to defer gratification, play the long game, take the long view and refuse the easy-way-out shortcut. As Mary Poplin observes, even in underperforming schools there are dedicated teachers working diligently every day and making a huge difference in their students’ lives. We as a nation have to find those teachers and lift them up. We have to nurture and train more teachers in the Escalante mold and give them the freedom and incentives to succeed. If we refuse to do this, promising teachers will burn themselves out and look elsewhere to make a living. Escalante himself almost left teaching several times because the obstacles facing him seemed insurmountable.
This is not a call to have all teachers play Bolivian folk music in class, or buy everybody hamburgers, or give everybody silly nicknames. The solution is not in cloning Jaime Escalante, but rather in instilling and nurturing his passion for teaching and learning. All good teachers will find their own way of delivering instructional intensity based on their personalities, experience, and interests. Each in their own way, these educators will teach students not only what is in their textbooks but, far more importantly, what they are capable of: the life-altering lesson that they can do more than they ever thought possible. All children – regardless of race, income, disability, and all the other ways we concoct to separate and label them – need the same hope and the same assurance that they can do better than their best. That is the legacy of Jaime Escalante.
He leaves us with the realization that giving American school children the best education is possible. Failure to deliver that education is because we as a nation of parents, educators, and policy makers are not willing to take his example seriously and won’t go to the trouble necessary to follow where he has led.
His life and career show us that yes, there is a simple formula for success, though we lack the resolve to carry it out, but it is worth the trouble to adopt his methods and it is not too late to do so. Whatever it takes to break through the inertia, ineptitude, short-sightedness, and roadblocks in order to educate our children well is worth the effort. Escalante worked sixty-hour weeks and more, crossed swords with his professional peers, sacrificed time he would otherwise have spent with his family, and devoted everything to the goal of better instruction.
Great teachers would have a better chance of success in replicating Escalante’s outcome, and would not have to work such punishing hours or sacrifice so heavily, if there were more of them. Thaddeus Lott in Houston, Eva Moskovitz in New York, KIPP schools and others have made a start. Great teaching begins and ends with great teachers. Find them, recruit them, train them, then get out of the way and let them practice their craft.
The example of Finland is instructive here. Its government made a conscious decision to stop doing what was known not to work and to completely rebuild the system from the top down and the ground up. They quit trying to fix a broken system and started over. They awarded their best and brightest college students with three years of teacher training, a guaranteed career path, and professional-level wages. The results proved phenomenal. The plan worked. Yes, the United States is far bigger and more diverse, but what Finland did can be adapted, if not on a national scale, then on a local scale.
Escalante also leaves us with the essential lesson that great education means no excuses. As Henry Gradillas told his students, “I’m sorry you have problems, but I don’t care.” Race, poverty, poor English, family crises – everybody can find an excuse for failure, for giving up. Anyone can be identified as the victim of some injustice. But as soon as we focus on victimhood, we turn victimhood into a job, and our job is no longer learning. Bewailing victimization does not overturn victimization. To overturn victimization, we need to get on with our education, turning ourselves into the type of people who can’t be victimized.
Hearing the complaint that rich capitalists had all the power, Gradillas replied, “All the more reason for us to become rich capitalists.” Hearing the complaint that disciplining a boy is bad for his self-esteem, Gradillas asked what will it do for his self-esteem later when he can’t get a job without a high school diploma and goes dumpster diving for food. If we let students who come to us for an education use victimhood as an excuse for bad behavior in school, Gradillas, Escalante, and like-minded educators would say we are cheating them out of a chance to succeed.
“No excuses” extends not only to students but to teachers, parents, administrators, and lawmakers. Any of us can always hide behind an excuse; we are all victims of something. If we insist on wearing that label, we have very little chance of succeeding in life. To be sure, some well-known television personalities have made a profession out of victimization, playing a blame game, finding victimizers to attack and claiming victims to defend. And no doubt, there are real victimizers and real victims in the world who need their champions. But when it comes to education, the real champions, like Escalante, are those who refocus people away from victimhood and toward the productive work they need to do to become educated and succeed in life.
Escalante’s life example proves that a great public school education is possible in America today. It can be done, and ordinary people with extraordinary drive and dedication can do it. All their lives, Jaime’s students limited themselves because they heard they weren’t cut out to be scholars. Kimo refused to give life to that lie. If students were poor, they could raise money for supplies and testing fees by washing cars and selling candy. If they had to work after school they could study on Saturday, and he would be there to help them. If they had another disadvantage, they could rise above whatever it was.
Educators and stakeholders who want a better future for American education and are willing to do whatever it takes to get there will face impediments, disappointments, setbacks, sacrifices, hard choices, and difficult situations. Nevertheless, if they’ve got ganas – the burning drive, desire, and determination that fueled Escalante – nothing can stop them. We have all heard that the entrenched educational establishment is too big and too ossified to take on. Kimo refused to believe that lie and proved it to be a lie. And so must we.
Jaime Escalante arrived in Los Angeles unable to speak English and without any teaching credentials that the American educational establishment would accept. After twenty years he was a household name, with a movie about his triumphs in the classroom and his own television show. Moreover, he had proved to a generation of poor Latino students that they could compete with the best students in the country. Why were they able to compete with the best students in America? Because, by studying at Escalante’s feet, they had become the best students in America!
1. Angelo Villavicencio quotation from author interview (11/11/14)
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2. Ben Carson quotations from thebestschools.org/magazine/ben-carson-interview-on-education
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3. Henry Gradillas quotation from author interview (11/9/14)
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