Jay Mathews used to be Los Angeles bureau chief of the Washington Post and now writes the paper's education blog. In 1988 he authored a biography of Garfield High teacher Jaime Escalante, helping to make Escalante the best-known and best-regarded high school teacher in the country. Mathews' obit for the Post — calling Escalante "the most famous and influential American public-school teacher of his generation" — is the one I've been waiting for. Excerpt:
A lively, wisecracking Bolivian who did not begin teaching in the United States until he was 44, Mr. Escalante transformed one of the lowest-performing high schools in the country into a model for raising the achievement of disadvantaged children. A 1988 film about his success, "Stand and Deliver," with Edward James Olmos playing the East Los Angeles math teacher, spread his story around the world and inspired teachers in hundreds of inner-city schools to copy his methods.
Mr. Escalante pioneered the use of Advanced Placement, a program of college-level courses and tests designed for high-achieving private schools, to raise standards in average and below-average public schools. His success at Garfield High School, where 85 percent of the students were low-income and few parents had more than a sixth-grade education, suggested that more time and encouragement for learning could trump educational disadvantages.
Calculus was one of the most difficult of the AP subjects. The three-hour final exam, written and scored by outside experts, was considered an impossible goal by many Garfield teachers, familiar with the academic weaknesses of their mostly Hispanic students. Mr. Escalante's first calculus class in 1978 did poorly. Five of the original 14 students lasted the entire course. Only two passed the exam.
But each year's calculus class did better than the previous one. When in 1982 all 18 students passed the exam, Mr. Escalante hoped he had a thriving program that would only get bigger.
Then the Educational Testing Service, which administered AP exams for the College Board, accused 14 of the students of cheating on the exam. Outraged Hispanic community leaders suspected ethnic bias and called for protests. But Mr. Escalante urged his students to retake the exam, an option allowed under AP rules.
Twelve accepted his advice. The exam this time was heavily proctored. The results gave the film its dramatic high point and guaranteed Mr. Escalante's celebrity: All 12 passed the exam, including five who earned top scores
Mathews notes that a Washington Post investigation found there was cheating on the first exam, but that Escalante "never accepted that account and noted that the second exam results were clearly valid." Mathews, one of the nation's top education writers, credits Escalante for his career switch to education. Escalante, who lived in Bolivia, died Tuesday at his son's home near Sacramento.
* Programming note: Now I'm told Mathews will be a guest on today's "Which Way, L.A.?" on KCRW at 7:30 p.m.