Escalante's Formula Not Always The Answer

SERIES: PUBLIC EDUCATION: California’s Perilous Slide. Second of 3 parts

SACRAMENTO—Take a seat and brace yourself: This is no ordinary classroom.

“What are you, some stupid kid?” the teacher blasts.

Then, to another student: “Look at me when I look at you.”

“You break your chair,” he barks at a third, “I’m going to break your neck.”

Such harshness is highly unusual in education today, being just a whisper away from the corporal punishment long banned in public schools.

But this is the doctrine of Jaime Escalante, the most famous high school math teacher of modern times.

At Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, Escalante’s calculus revolution inspired the popular movie “Stand and Deliver,” delivering a message that Americans desperately want to believe: that reforming education can be as simple as harnessing the power of one charismatic individual.

But here at Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High School, where Escalante has taught since 1991, that neat package appears to have fallen apart.

For reasons ranging from parental resistance to lack of administrative support–and perhaps his own inability to connect with a very different crop of students–Escalante, at 67, has been unable to work his magic again.

The school district converted a cavernous shop room into a classroom just for him, with a one-way mirrored observation booth so visitors could watch the legend at work. These days, however, the man who gained renown for enrolling hundreds of students in calculus at Garfield is not even teaching that subject.

The official reasons he has no calculus students sound logical enough: Only six students enrolled in his advanced class, causing it to be dropped; and, by that time, someone else was assigned to handle introductory calculus.

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Letters from parents and administrators hint at a more troubling undercurrent, though. They complain about Escalante’s tactics, saying the students shy away from letting him know they don’t understand for fear of public humiliation.

At least a third of his Algebra I students have dropped out since the start of the year. That leaves 20 teenagers scattered around his huge classroom. His classes at Garfield were packed with 60 students.

Even when he was still teaching calculus at Hiram Johnson, the program was not growing at a great clip. Last year, only 11 students took the Advanced Placement exam in the subject–the test that became the most tangible measure of what his culture of high expectations achieved at Garfield. There, more than 140 students took it during his last year.

Though Escalante was recruited here with great fanfare, there is no continuing commitment to his success. The superintendent who wooed him–Rudy Crew–has long since moved on to become New York City’s schools chief. Since then, Hiram Johnson High has gone through three other principals.

During Escalante’s recent annual evaluation, he fared badly, he said, because of his unorthodox teaching methods, which center on a brief introduction followed by a daily test. The reviewer wanted to know: Where was his lesson plan?

Escalante uses no lesson plans, no teacher’s guide, no textbooks, no computers. He interweaves math tricks–quick ways to figure, unusual math coincidences–with the lesson of the day, part of his quest to make the subject more interesting.

He plays music during class, everything from opera to Weird Al Yankovic, and has filled the classroom’s ample wall space with advice both mathematical and motivational. Wearing his trademark cake-cutter hat and oversized glasses, he paces the room, popping math questions to students.

And he still could be the model for tough love, interspersing verbal assaults with equally expansive praise: “You’re the best there is. . . . You are the smartest kid in the class. . . . You’re going to ace the test.”

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On a recent Thursday morning, buried in his campus mail was a note from one mother asking when she and her husband could come discuss their son’s low grade. The boy is one of eight students holding an F at mid-semester in Algebra I, largely for not turning in homework.

Escalante concedes that he is a hard grader–giving few A’s, many Cs. But students can raise their grades by attending special Saturday clinics.

His response to the note is to chew the boy out at the start of class.

“You have to do the work!” he says.

“I do more work in here than I ever did before,” the boy whines.

What Escalante pines for is the cultural leverage he had at Garfield, where virtually all the students and their parents were Latino. At Hiram Johnson, the student body is an amalgam of working-class white, Asian, black and Latino.

Escalante, Bolivian by birth, could guilt-trip the Garfield parents in their native tongue and, he said, they were more inclined to do his bidding. That gave him power over his students.

“The Latinos are more family-oriented, and you have to take advantage of that, say, ‘Look, I’m going to call your mom if you don’t do this,’ ” he said. “The group of students here will say, ‘Call anybody you want. I don’t care!’ “

That observation fits neatly into his view of the broad changes in public education during his 23 years as a teacher. Students get little support or pressure from home or society these days, and seem numbed by the violence of rap music and video games, he complains.

“Some of the kids pick easy classes–they meet the challenge and they feel great,” he said. “We allow them to do that because we’re so nice.”

Ross Billingsley is hardly one of those kids. A sophomore already taking Algebra II, Ross chose Escalante after watching a PBS series featuring the veteran teacher. He describes Escalante as “the best math teacher I’ve ever seen.”

But even Ross plays three sports and holds an after-school job–distractions from study that Escalante would never have tolerated at Garfield. Even worse, the youth shows up late for class every day.

“I have trouble getting up and I have to fix my hair,” said the lanky teenager. “I mean, I’m never late to my job or anything.”

Are there days when Escalante wants to call it quits? He clearly has more prestigious alternatives. But he shrugs them off, getting agitated at any suggestion that he might just retire.

“I fall in love with these kids,” he said, gazing into a room of Algebra I students–the same ones he had earlier called “the troublemakers.”



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