Jaime Escalante Dead at 79

Jaime Escalante 1998 Photo

Jaime Escalante "didn't just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives," said actor Edward James Olmos, who portrayed Escalante in the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver." (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / November 14, 1998)

Jaime Escalanta, the inner city Los Angeles school teacher made internationally famous by the movie “Stand and Deliver,” has died of cancer aged 79.

Elaine Woo has a long tribute to him in the LAT:

Jaime Escalante, the charismatic former East Los Angeles high school teacher who taught the nation that inner-city students could master subjects as demanding as calculus, died Tuesday. He was 79.

The subject of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” Escalante died at his son’s home in Roseville, Calif., said actor Edward James Olmos, who portrayed the teacher in the film. Escalante had bladder cancer.

“Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives,” Olmos said earlier this month when he organized an appeal for funds to help pay Escalante’s mounting medical bills.

Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam only to be accused later of cheating.  The story of their eventual triumph — and of Escalante’s battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students — became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America.

Escalante was a maverick who did not get along with many of his public school colleagues, but he mesmerized students with his entertaining style and deep understanding of math. Educators came from around the country to observe him at Garfield, which built one of the largest and most successful Advanced Placement programs in the nation.

“Jaime Escalante has left a deep and enduring legacy in the struggle for academic equity in American education,” said Gaston Caperton, former West Virginia governor and president of the College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Assessment Test and the Advanced Placement exams.  “His passionate belief [was] that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding course work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed.”

Of course, it’s only true if you have a teacher like Escalante, who’s not only unusually talented but willing to work hours off the clock and able to convince students to do the same.  Indeed, as Joanne Jacobs notes, Garfield’s calculus program collapsed entirely after Escalante’s departure.

Ironically, Escalante’s career at Garfield High didn’t last long after the movie brought him to fame.

Escalante’s rise came during an era decried by experts as one of alarming mediocrity in the nation’s schools. He pushed for tougher standards and accountability for students and educators, often irritating colleagues and parents along the way with his brusque manner and uncompromising stands.

He was called a traitor for his opposition to bilingual education. He said the hate mail he received for championing Proposition 227, the successful 1998 ballot measure to dismantle bilingual programs in California, was a factor in his decision to retire that year after leaving Garfield and teaching at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento for seven years.

He moved back to Bolivia, where he propelled himself into a classroom again, apparently intent on fulfilling a vow to die doing what he knew best — teach. But he returned frequently to the United States to speak to education groups and continued to ally himself with conservative politics. He considered becoming an education advisor to President George W. Bush, and in 2003 signed on as an education consultant for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign in California.

Much, much more in Woo’s feature and a July 2002 Reason peace by Jerry Jesness titled, “Stand and Deliver Revisited: The untold story behind the famous rise — and shameful fall — of Jaime Escalante, America’s master math teacher.”  And, no, the shame was not Escalante’s.

A life well lived but, alas, like that of other extraordinary achievers, not easily emulated.   We can and should expect more of our teachers.  But expecting them to all be Jaime Escalante is unreasonableness squared.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    My dad was at Garfield. The only tidbit I got about Escalante was that he didn’t like working noontime supervision. (Teachers took turns walking lunch areas.) My dad is also gone now, to the cancer.

  2. john personna says:

    “His passionate belief [was] that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding course work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed.”

    Talk about a eulogy! But working East and Central LA was risky, sometimes dangerous. Most teachers went there because they believed what they were doing. They believed in the kids.

    I’m trying to distill and remember a few hundred dinner time conversations … and I guess the big themes were:

    In the 70’s the community was most concerned with getting minority representation in school administration. By the 80’s that was in place.

    The gang problem was huge, especially in Junior High. By High School the real criminal element left or was suspended.

    The kids in East LA had a hard time seeing beyond the community, for success that could me made. My dad tried to talk to kids about that (on his noontime supervision.)

    Gangs plus low hopes.

  3. UlyssesUnbound says:

    When I was working with South Carolina youth, I ran into one of Escalante’s former students, and subsequently brought him into the program I was running. It’s interesting, and touching, seeing how the changes someone like Escalante brings don’t stop with the immediate students, but continue rippling outward. J., the former student I had met, was a CPA and Actuarial analyst, and devoted almost all of his free time to raising the math skills of rural and inner city youth.

    The changes that J. brought would never have come about if it weren’t for Escalante. And I’m sure that trend will continue as J.’s students grow up.

  4. 11B40 says:


    During my short career in the Federal bureaucracy, I concocted a modification of an earlier bit of folk-wisdom. Mine went, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is dead.

    As with most narratives about our education systems, there is no reference to what the Catholic parochial school system has accomplished and is accomplishing.

  5. clyons says:

    James, congratulations on being the first rightwing blogger I’ve ever read who, in the midst of the usual “expect more from teachers” bit actually notes that it is unrealistic to expect all teachers to be Jaime Escalante.

    Heck, you even noted that Mr Escalante willingly gave up any semblance whatsoever of a private life. I’d add “uncompensated” to that as well, by the way.