It is with great sadness, heavy heart, and moist eyes that I pass on the news to you that Jaime Escalante died today in Reno, Nevada while undergoing cancer treatment. Escalante has been one of my heroes since my days covering education in Los Angeles at the LA Daily News in the early 1990s. He was 79.
Jaime Escalante cared about kids. Not about teachers’ unions or partisan politics or educrat ass-covering or racial grievance-mongering. The Bolivian-born physics and math teacher demanded excellence and hard work, raised standards and expectations, and defied critics and naysayers by teaching algebra and calculus to East L.A. high school students whom the government school system had abandoned and written off. Escalante’s amazing results were made famous by education reporter Jay Matthews’ book, Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, and the biopic, Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos. He and his students were baselessly accused of cheating. Jealous colleagues undermined him at every step. Success always breeds such ill will. Success without apology breeds even deeper-seated destructive tendencies.
Just as minority students who excel in the inner cities are subjected to “Crab in the Bucket” syndrome, Escalante’s opponents did their best to bring him down and he endured retribution for his achievements, as Reason Magazine reported several years ago:
Death of a Dynasty
Escalante’s open admission policy, a major reason for his success, also paved the way for his departure. Calculus grew so popular at Garfield that classes grew beyond the 35-student limit set by the union contract. Some had more than 50 students. Escalante would have preferred to keep the classes below the limit had he been able to do so without either denying calculus to willing students or using teachers who were not up to his high standards. Neither was possible, and the teachers union complained about Garfield’s class sizes. Rather than compromise, Escalante moved on.
Other problems had been brewing as well. After Stand and Deliver was released, Escalante became an overnight celebrity. Teachers and other interested observers asked to sit in on his classes, and he received visits from political leaders and celebrities, including President George H.W. Bush and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This attention aroused feelings of jealousy. In his last few years at Garfield, Escalante even received threats and hate mail. In 1990 he lost the math department chairmanship, the position that had enabled him to direct the pipeline.
A number of people at Garfield still have unkind words for the school’s most famous instructor. One administrator tells me Escalante wanted too much power. Some teachers complained that he was creating two math departments, one for his students and another for everyone else. When Escalante quit his job at Garfield, John Perez, a vice president of the teachers union, said, “Jaime didn’t get along with some of the teachers at his school. He pretty much was a loner.”
After being pushed out and moving on to another program, Escalante finally retired to Bolivia, but returned to the U.S. often to visit his children. In a recent interview with the L.A. Times from his sickbed, he summed up his philosophy:
“Determination. Plus discipline. Plus hard work. That is the path.”
Escalante’s death comes at a time when California education faddists are once again threatening a new front in the old Math Wars and clamoring to lower already degraded academic standards (see my work on the crap known as Everyday Math). We need more of the real deal Jaime Escalantes now more than ever. Instead, far too many teachers have abandoned their roles as imparters of knowledge for the lazy hackery of social justice activists.
In an age of dumbed-down schools and victimhood indoctrination, the fierce, demanding, no-excuses doctrine of Jaime Escalante will be sorely missed and never forgotten. R.I.P.