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He stood and delivered

31 March 2010

Jaime Escalante, the hero of the only good movie, — make that the only movie– ever made about calculus died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 79.    The film recounted the story of  the “controversy” that erupted in California when fourteen of Escalantes’ students — from poor cholo and Latin immigrant families — were accused of cheating after passing Calfornia’s Advanced Placement calculus examination in 1982.

Advanced Placement examinations give university credit to high school students.  At the time, they were fairly rare, and Advanced Placement classes were usually only found in the more prestigious private schools, or in public schools in wealthy communities (in the United States, schools are largely financed and educational requirements are largely controlled by locally elected school boards).  About three percent of U.S. students took the calculus examination in that year.  A passing score on the Advanced Placement calculus examination is 3 out of 5.  Eighteen of Escalante’s students took the examination, and all passed.  Seven received a five.

That fourteen of the students derived their solutions to problems using the same logic shouldn’t have been surprising, but served as a basis for assuming that Escalante’s students cheated. Cholos and immigrants aren’t supposed to be taking these examinations, let alone passing them.

His later involvement in conservative politics in California was problematic (he opposed bilingual education, and was at one point an educational adviser to George W. Bush).  Escalante was somewhat unpopular among the educational establishment and in his later career, never managed to have a class repeat the performance of his 1982 Garfield High School class.

What was not part of the film, and largely overlooked, is that Escalante was the typical immigrant success story.  The son of school teachers in Bolivia, he was fortunate in attending the better schools in that country, and being a graduate of the Bolivian Normal Superior.  There’s a reason U.S. schools are now recruiting Mexican math teachers beyond the need for more Spanish speakers.

Although he later complained that “There’s a tremendous amount of feeling that the Hispanic is incapable of handling higher math and science,” my limited (very limited) experience with Latin American schools is that mathematics are much better taught than in the United States.  As Escalante did, Latin American math teachers use observable phenonoma (famously in Escalate’s case, using basketball shots to explain a parabola) to explain the workings of the theorems and corollaries-  And anyone who has seen a builder — who certainly is not a graduate of a Superior Normal school — lay out an addition on a house, calculating the dimensions, the number of bricks required, and get it mostly right without writing down a thing, should know that “hispanics” certainly can handle mathematics.

After his retirement in 2001, he returned to Bolivia, where he taught university courses part-time, until returning to the United States to be near his children and receive treatment for the cancer that finally killed him.

The guy cleaning the floors in your local cafe — the job Escalante had when he first came to the United States in 1963 — or short order cook — which he was while working on his U.S. teaching degree after learning English — might be smarter than you are.  And, more calculating.

Elaine Woo  wrote the excellent obituary of Escalante published in today’s Los Angeles Times.

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