Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Against the expectations of the Educational Testing Service, students of Bolivian teacher Jaime Escalante pass calculus exam twice

What happened in 1982 in an inner city school in East Los Angeles where Bolivian teacher Jaime Escalante was teaching math was perceived by many people as either a miracle or a major fraud. For the first time in the history of the school, the majority of the students who wrote the exam passed the advanced placement calculus examination, an important requirement to go onto higher education. This was totally unexplainable to the experts of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), who suspected that a major cheating scam had taken place during the examination as previously, year after year, students from Garfield High School had overwhelmingly failed that particular test. Had the children been from an upper social class, or had the school been located in a wealthier neighbourhood, the educational experts would have been unlikely to raise any suspicions, but these were poor Latino students, and the school was located in a poor area of the city with high rates of criminality, drug addiction and prostitution. All the expectations were that these students were going to fail once again, but this time they passed. Whether or not they passed without cheating was a big question that could only be answered with a new test, or so the ETS claimed.

If they had known the work of teacher Escalante during the previous years in that school, they wouldn't have been so surprised. Jaime Escalante had started teaching in Garfield in 1976, after arriving in the United States without speaking English and without an official teaching degree (although he had taught mathematics and physics in Bolivia during his youth). At Garfield, he worked hard with the students to help them understand mathematical concepts and the importance of discipline, and, most importantly, to start believing in themselves, in their own intellectual capacities as human beings. In a context marked by high levels of prejudice and discrimination against poor Latinos, that was not an easy challenge. In their book Pygmalion in the Classroom, published in 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson had clearly shown the great impact that teachers' expectations have on students achievement. At the same time, however, the film The Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, had shown that, in spite of negative societal and institutional expectations, sometimes a single teacher who believes in the learners and who respects them can make a difference. This was the case of Jaime Escalante, who at the same time was a demanding teacher, a counsellor, or a friend, depending on the student and the circumstance. The students did well in the exam because somebody finally believed in them, they believed in themselves, and they prepared themselves to succeed by working hard as a group. The success of the Garfield students was difficult to believe by those who endorsed the genetics of IQ or the determinism of cultural deprivation theories.

In any case, the students were demanded to take a new test. That was clearly perceived as unfair and discriminatory by the students and their teacher, but the authorities were so distrustful and so sure that some type of cheating had taken place, that another exam was finally imposed. It came as a great triumph when students not only passed again, but this time performed even better.

The story of Jaime Escalante, Garfield High School, and the young students teaches many lessons on structural discrimination and the power of agency to overcome it. It is an inspiring story that, in the same way that the exam as taken and retaken, must be told and retold. A few years later, under the direction of Ramón Menéndez and the performance of Edward James Olmos as Escalante, the acclaimed movie Stand and Deliver contributed to tell this story to the rest of the world.

Source: (February 17, 2001).

For an interview with Jaime Escalante, see

Prepared by DS
February 2001

Citation: Author (2001). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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