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What Jaime Escalante Taught All of Us

The tributes to Jaime Escalante, who died on Mar. 30, are for a teacher whose success with inner-city students read like a work of fiction. He achieved the seeming impossible at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles by posting a pass rate of more than 90 percent on the famously difficult Advanced Placement calculus test. In so doing, he instilled in his students the importance of determination and perseverance.

But fed up with petty jealousies among the faculty, Escalante quit in 1991 to teach at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, where he intended to apply the same methods. After seven years, however, he was never able to duplicate the AP pass rate at Garfield. (His best was 75 percent.) He attributed the difference to cultural factors and administrative turnover. He left to return to his native Bolivia.

What makes Escalante's story so alluring to reformers today is the assumption that his record at Garfield can be matched by other teachers if they emulate the master. But the goal is unrealistic for several reasons that are poorly understood.

First, there has to be chemistry between teacher and students. It is often the result of factors too idiosyncratic to identify, let alone mimic. Escalante admitted as much when he blamed cultural differences for his relatively disappointing performance in Sacramento. So much depends on the students whom a teacher happens to inherit, whether in elective or required classes.

Second, there has to be a principal who is willing to support teachers with demonstrated talent, particularly in the face of faculty envy. It takes great tact to be able to maintain faculty morale when the limelight is focused inordinately on one teacher. Schools, of course, should be places where colleagues work in harmony, but mavericks like Escalante don't.

Third, there has to be parental and community involvement. Without their backing, it's easy to accept the status quo. Escalante knew this instinctively. That's why he made it a point to appeal personally to parents who had low expectations for their children, whether for cultural or financial reasons. Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post and author of "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America," explains how he did it in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on Apr. 4 ("Lessons for a lifetime").

But in the final analysis, it's important to remember that great teachers are like great artists, musicians or actors. We can study them inside and out. Yet we can't ever become them. They are uniquely gifted.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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