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Jaime Escalante died yesterday. He was 79, and had been suffering from bladder cancer. Even if you don't recognize the name, you've probably heard of him. The inner-city math teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver, Escalante was, as one education blogger put it, "a reformer before it was cool to be one."
In 1974, Escalante, a Bolivian immigrant, was hired as a teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. His salary was only $13,000, which he supplemented by teaching night school. Frustrated by the remedial math in which he was expected to instruct his primarily poor, Mexican-American students, he started an Advanced Placement calculus program. Over the next few years, he led 16 students to passing scores on the notoriously difficult AP exam, which at the time was taken by only about 3 percent of American high school students. He coached his students before school, after school, and on weekends, and was so relentless that he even showed up to teach the day after suffering a heart attack.
Escalante's work received national attention in 1982, when 14 of his Garfield students were accused of cheating after receiving high scores on the AP test. Amid accusations of discrimination, the students took the test again to prove themselves. Their story was memorialized in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, and Edward James Olmos's Oscar-nominated performance as Jaime made Escalante the most famous teacher in America.
Escalante's conviction that all students, no matter their background, can learn when given the opportunity, is so commonly echoed today, in everything from Teach for America's mission statement to political speeches, that it's easy to forget that almost nobody was saying anything of the kind a few decades ago. At the D.C. public high school where I used to teach, every single 11th and 12th grader takes at least one AP exam, something that would have been inconceivable before Jaime Escalante's students made headlines. A telling example: I once tried to show Stand and Deliver to my students, who were also largely Latino, only to be met by groans—they had seen it too many times. "We know, we know," they protested. "We can pass the AP exam!"
In many ways, American public education remains inexcusably poor, and the racial and economic achievement gap persists. But millions of teachers and students owe a great debt to Jaime Escalante. He challenged long-held assumptions about who can learn what, and defied the low-expectations of his colleagues, his students' families, and even the students themselves. The fact that his students mastered such rigorous content is remarkable, but is also more a testament to his extraordinary skill as an educator than anything else. The way in which he changed the system was in his decision to teach AP Calculus at all.