He was born in La Paz, Bolivia, on the last day of 1930 and would die 79 years later. The child of schoolteachers, he would grow up to teach math and physics in La Paz, till the political unrest led him and his family to emigrate to the States in 1963. Over the next few years, he would work as a busboy and cook while getting his associate degree at Pasadena College, then a bachelor's at Cal State. Typical immigrant story.
Only Jaime Escalante wasn't typical. With his teacher's certificate in hand, he got assigned to Garfield High in East Los Angeles. Uh oh. It was a school all too typical of East L.A., complete with low test scores and a high drop-out rate. Hopeless. Only young Escalante didn't know it. In 1978, he started teaching calculus to just five students. Within the next decade, by 1988, 443 students at Garfield would be taking the College Board's advanced test, and 266 would pass it. Hopeless, huh?
Something was definitely going on in Mr. Escalante's classes. In 1983, 18 students in his course took the College Board's advanced placement test in calculus. Seven of them got a 5 -- the highest score possible. The rest made "only" a 4. At Garfield High! That couldn't be. The company administering the test was suspicious; it asked 14 of the students to retake the test. A dozen did -- and their performance bore out the earlier test results.
Something was going on at Garfield, all right. What was going on, of course, was Jaime Escalante. He had this secret substance, this magic, he brought out in his kids. He called it ganas, which isn't easy to translate into English. The closest equivalent may be game, want, desire, drive, hunger. Whatever it is, he had it and his kids were going to have it, too. Recommended reading: "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America" by Jay Mathews. Or you may have seen the movie about Mr. Escalante released the same year, "Stand and Deliver."
You can imagine what happened after those test scores came out. Fame. Celebrity. Admiration. A book, a movie. But also envy, jealousy, spite. How dare Mr. Escalante's students do that well! Didn't they know they were supposed to be under-privileged? (As if anybody who's ever had a great teacher isn't privileged.)
All the forces of the status miserable quo at Garfield High decided to teach this immigrant a lesson. He was showing them up and had to be brought down to their level. The teachers' union was particularly outraged. He had broken the rules by opening his classes to all. He couldn't bear to turn any kids away. He would pack 50 or more into a classroom if he could, Ah, but the union contract limited class size to 35. Can't have that. Insubordination! He wasn't just teaching these unteachable kids. Even worse, he was teaching them to excel.
And so Jaime Escalante was run off for doing entirely too good a job, for giving his students big ideas. In short, for general uppitiness. It would have been bad enough if he'd only tried to educate these slum kids; that he should have succeeded was intolerable. Unforgivable. It's a common enough problem in what's called education. Successful teachers annoy the time-servers, the placeholders, the whole stultified bureaucracy.
Jaime Escalante was a different kind of teacher at Garfield. He didn't care about how things had always been (miserably) done. He rocked the sinking boat, and refused to let it go down. As he used to tell his students: "I'll make a deal with you. I'll teach you math, and that's your language. You're going to go to college and sit in the first row, not in the back, because you're going to know more than anybody!"
Now that's ganas.
Everybody wanted to know Jaime Escalante's secret, his magic formula, his special trick, his teaching technique. So it could be patented, franchised, made a national model. It's a typical misapprehension. Because the secret of his success, and his students', was Jaime Escalante. And there is no assembly line that can turn out Jaime Escalantes like so many widgets.
Every great teacher is unique, as anyone lucky enough to have had one can testify. They can be studied, like the teachers in the KIPP schools that have been so effective across the country. But they can't be produced cookie-cutter fashion. They have to be educated themselves first.
Ever see a master class in violin taught by someone who notes every nuance of the student's performance and then gently explains how it can be improved? Ever see a great teacher address hundreds of attentive students in a cavernous hall as if he were talking personally to each one? That's not something you can churn out like so many circuit boards, or fries at McDonald's. It's more than skill, it's more than just going down a checklist, it's art.
The moral of the story: Education doesn't take place en masse, automatically. It occurs within each of us. Or as Euclid once told a young princeling who was complaining about how hard his homework was, there is no royal road to geometry. Nor is there a royal road to becoming educated, even if the schools get millions, even billions, in federal funds. Education requires more than money, more than a system. It requires ganas. And teachers who can instill it.
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