By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International
This week saw the passing of a giant in the teaching field—Jaime Escalante. Escalante was made famous, in part, by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews in the book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America. But more famous through the movie version of the book, Stand and Deliver, in 1988 featuring Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips.
For the uninitiated, Stand and Deliver is about an East LA teacher, Escalante, who was able to get his students to pass the Calculus AP course, against all odds, by working them hard and having them come in every Saturday morning to study. If my memory serves me well, every Escalante student passed the AP exam. And the College Board, my former employer, balked at the results, accused the students of cheating, and required them to re-take the exam because they couldn’t possibly have passed.
After all, they were poor Latino kids. How could they have passed AP Calculus?
They all passed the test again.
The story of legends.
I had the opportunity to see Escalante at a speaking session in Norfolk back in 1990. During my grad work at ODU, our class went to see him speak in front of a packed house at the Concert Hall. His English wasn’t great; he had a thick accent and was difficult to understand. But his message was clear—youth can prevail if given guidance and support. That’s what he did with mostly Latino youth who were counted out.
In all the news about declining test scores, low -performing youth, and a failing public school system, one truth is evident–our youth can meet the challenge. But we need to challenge them and help them understand that school is work and serves as a conduit to not only their future, but ours. And we need to teach them that the habits they make now, whether that be working hard or hardly working, will follow them throughout their lives. For students who do not understand that hard work matters, we need to show them that it does. They don’t see it at home; they don’t see it at school; they don’t see it in the community; and certainly not on TV.
We need to show them the world. We need to show, by example and by illustration, the connection between what happens in the school day and their community, family, and future. If we don’t, who will?
Jaime Escalante got this.
A quote from Stand and Deliver went as follows:
“There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. ‘Math’ is the great equalizer… When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; neither do I. You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is “ganas.” (Desire)
Escalante asked. And they met the challenge. Brilliantly.
How do we ramp this up for millions of students in our schools who have yet to find “ganas?” Beyond test scores, beyond grades, beyond graduation, and beyond college, we need ganas. We need to motivate these children and to tell them that, yes, this is a good world with great opportunities, but those opportunities are only open to those that want to take them. We can teach them that. Give them the skills to grab their brass ring.
And that’s what we do.
Thank you, Mr. Escalante, for teaching us that closed doors can be opened. That attitudes and perceptions can be changed. And that lives can be lived.
If you haven’t seen the movie or haven’t seen it in a long time, do so this weekend. You’ll feel better about life.