Sunday, September 04, 2011


My new email buddy Gary Rubinstein said something skeptical about Jaime Escalante, so I figured I'd check it out with Jay Mathews, author of Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (  Here's their email exchange, shared with their permission:


Gary wrote:


Escalante was not the hero that he is always portrayed as.  In reality, he team taught with another teacher and built his calculus program up over a number of years with the top students in his school.


Jay replies:


I suggest he read my book. That is not the way it happened. He created the AP calculus program there single-handedly. He taught the first few years by himself, and trained some teachers to handle some of the lower level courses, which he also taught to make sure the standards stayed up. He was the math department chair and exercised that power. Eventually he had what he considered the best of the younger teachers, Ben Jimenez, teach the second AP calculus class that opened, I believe, in 1984 when the publicity and the support from outsiders allowed the calculus program to grow too big for just Jaime. I think Jaime eventually had two sections of Calculus and Ben two sections. But they did not team teach. Each stayed in their own classrooms. Jaime was Ben's mentor, and Ben's success is proof that you did not have to be a classroom genius like Jaime to produce those great results. You just had to put in the time and be firm.

It is certainly true that Jaime was NOT a hero to many teachers at that school and in his department. He was very hard on people he did not think were working hard and taking their jobs seriously. As I reported at the time, eventually the math department teachers voted him out as department head. He then transferred to Hiram Johnson High in Sacramento where Rudy Crew--remember him in NYC?---was the district superintendent and wanted the famous Escalante to be sort of a show horse for his system. -- Jay

PS---His students were definitely not, at least not before they got to Jaime, the best students in the school. The book explains this in great detail. He found ordinary kids willing to put in the time, and proved that if you give such kids extra time and encouragement, they can produce great surprises. I once got the principal to let me see if Jaime had skimmed off all the designated gifted kids in the school. It turned ought that being designated gifted did not correlate at all with being in Jaime's calculus classes.

Have you read Escalante: The Best Teacher in America? You would like it. It reads just as well as Work Hard Be Nice, and is the story of a crazy funny teacher, but this time just one, and with a thick Bolivian accent.  Feel free to quote any of this that you want.


(I have indeed read Escalante – it's one of my all-time favorite books and one of the handful that I recommend on my web site:


Gary replies:


My points about Escalante were in reaction to the movie and not the book.  The teacher in 'Class Warfare' said it was her favorite movie and Wendy also refers to the movie and not the book.


As any author who has had his or her book adapted into a movie would say, the production company often alters the story to make it better suited to a Hollywood audience.  This is one reason that my first book about my TFA experience has never been made into a movie (another reason is that no studio is interested in a movie where the new teacher does not win over his first year class by the end of the year.)

In the movie, they portray Escalante, in his first year of teaching, as taking a class of random students (about 30 at first) and within a year or two getting them (at least the 15 that are left by the end) to pass the A.P. Calculus exam.  Mathews knows better than anyone, having written the book, that this Hollywood account is greatly exaggerated.  That was my point, and he proves it nicely.  The specifics about how misleading the movie was are not the big issue.  Surely his book is more accurate than my understanding which is, in turn, more accurate than the movie.


Escalante did not accomplish this as a new teacher, but as Mathews described, was the department chair, which takes many years to get to that position.  So Mathews's response actually proves my point that the movie was quite misleading.  Maybe my specifics were off, but my premise was sound.

I also seriously doubt "It turned out that being designated gifted did not correlate at all with being in Jaime's calculus classes," regardless of what the principal thinks or what Escalante said.

"But they did know Calculus, didn't they?" you might protest.  In all likelihood, no, and here's why.  The way the math curriculum has developed over the years, Calculus has become a hodge-podge of formulas and tricks for solving questions which students can easily learn to mimic and do well on the AP exam.  I can say this with authority because my own Calc teacher when I was in high school knew very little about the topic, yet I managed to get a 5 on the test despite not really 'knowing' it.  Twenty-four years later, a math major under my belt, and thirteen years of teaching math, and I'd say that I still don't 'know' Calculus.  Sure, I can get a 5 again on the AP exam, no problem.  But even as I've recently read three different histories of Calculus books, I still grapple with the essential paradox of how infinitesimals can be treated as zero when convenient, and not as zero when convenient.  So it is quite possible that Escalante's students 'knew' Calculus, but more likely they got a good amount of test prep for an exam.  Incidentally, kids in the suburbs also don't 'know' Calc.  They also just learn to jump through the hoops that we now call Calculus, so in that way Escalante at least gave his kids as good (or bad) of a knowledge of Calculus as everyone else.  Why what passes for Calculus, nowadays, is this holy grail of learning is beyond me.


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