Movie Review: Stand and Deliver

My rating: 9/10.

Stand and Deliver is the story of computer industry worker turned inner-city high school math teacher Jaime Escalante.  A man who could not be stopped.

Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutierrez (December 31, 1930 – March 30, 2010) was a Bolivian educator well known for teaching students calculus from 1974 to 1991 at Garfield High School, East Los Angeles, California.

“Students will rise to the level of expectations,” he says early in the film.

In class, he asks if they have “ganas”.  Spanish for desire.  They don’t initially, but they get it.

They needed a challenge, and he gave them one. He persuaded them to arrive an hour before school, stay after, take summer school and work during vacations. Not an easy task.  But he was not just a teacher, he was a salesman.  He persuaded them to work. Hard. Harder than their peers. He persuaded them to change their time preference, from short to long. The reward was in the future, at the expense of the immediate.  According to Wikipedia:

Escalante had to persuade the first few students who would listen to him that they could control their futures with the right education. He promised them that the jobs would be in engineering, electronics and computers but they would have to learn math to succeed. He said to his students “I’ll teach you math and that’s your language. With that you’re going to make it. You’re going to college and sit in the first row, not the back, because you’re going to know more than anybody”

This is significant considering the lower class environment they were living in.

In “The Time Paradox” by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, they write:

Future orientation is a prerequisite for membership in the middle class.  Ambition and need for achievement drive a future orientation that focuses on work, savings, and planning for a continually better life through one’s efforts.  A broad-based middle class stabilizes a nation and enhances the gross national product frough its work ethic and its investment in the future of its children.  Present-oriented people are likely to be less concerned with work and more cynical about current efforts paying off in the future.  They are also more distrustful of society, institutions, and families, all of which prevent movement up the social-class ladder. Living in the present time zone means a greater likelihood of being in the lower class in any society.

This school was in East L.A., and the students were lower class.  They were not expected to graduate high school, let alone attend college, or pass college courses while in high school through AP classes.  The transformation was legendary, because it was not just academic.  It was a change in the psychological perspective of the students.

At the end of the movie, the class is accused of cheating.  Escalante’s class averaged fewer than 4 wrong, while other schools averaged 14 to 18 wrong.  Too good. They are forced into retaking the test to prove that they could do it. They take it again, and all 18 pass. It’s a powerful moment when the scores of the students are read aloud while showing their faces.

“Angel Guzman. Five.”

As the film ends, and over some classic 1980s beats, we read:

“In 1983 Garfield H.S. had 18 students pass the A.P. Calculus Exam.”
“In 1984 Garfield H.S. had 63 students pass the A.P. Calculus Exam.”
“In 1985 Garfield H.S. had 77 students pass the A.P. Calculus Exam.”
“In 1986 Garfield H.S. had 78 students pass the A.P. Calculus Exam.”
“In 1987 Garfield H.S. had 87 students pass the A.P. Calculus Exam.”

In interviews with his former students, graduates said that his class had made them whatever they are today. Some students took no more math classes in college. He had persuaded them that they could perform at a far higher level than they had known. They said they never had to work that hard in college. They got out of East L.A. They were grateful.

Escalante was successful.  He defied the odds. The film ends here, but the story does not.  According to Wikipedia:

In his final years at Garfield, Escalante received threats and hate mail from various individuals. By 1990, he had lost the math department chairmanship. At this point Escalante’s math enrichment program had grown to 400+ students. His class sizes had increased to over 50 students in some cases. This was far beyond the 35 student limit set by the teachers’ union, which in turn increased criticism of Escalante’s work. In 1991, the number of Garfield students taking advanced placement examinations in math and other subjects jumped to 570. That same year, citing faculty politics and petty jealousies, Escalante and Jiménez left Garfield. The math program’s decline at Garfield became apparent following the departure of Escalante and other teachers associated with its inception and development. In just a few years, the number of A.P. calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams dropped by more than 80 percent.

Envy destroyed the program that Escalante built.  It was the desire to pull down the high achiever.  And they succeeded in pulling him down.

This was possible because it was in a tax funded institution.  Uniform mediocrity is rewarded in bureaucracy.  Why? Because a high achiever exposes others as mediocre.  And Escalante made the other teachers look bad, which was a threat to their job security.

Education is not the motive.  Profit is not the motive.  Not getting fired is the motive. Teachers that stay employed get raises.

There is no element of performance, other than “don’t get fired.”

Had Escalante started a private, profit-seeking educational institution, he would have been rewarded for being outstanding.  By the end of the program, 600 students were enrolled in various AP courses at Garfield HS.  He had not only raised the bar for mathematics, but academics in general. As the program had more success, popularity amongst the students increased.  But as the classes became more popular, resentment amongst Escalante’s peers increased in tandem.

I took away two lessons from Jaime Escalante.

  1. The enormous power of one.  We can have a legacy.  We can have a real effect.
  2. Be in the right environment if you want to excel. Surround yourself with individuals that are constantly pushing the envelope.
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