“DOES GOOD DRAMA MAKE FOR
LAZY THINKING?”

“Stand and Deliver” (1988)
Director: Ramón Menéndez
Starring: Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips

by Richard Geib, Los Angeles Herald movie reviewer
July 6, 2004

The American public school system could be improved in many places, as everyone knows – and too often our public schools are places where instead of learning how to respect others and learn to think, young adults learn how to victimize and terrorize others (or survive victimization and living in fear) and encounter the fact that being smart isn't’t “cool.” There is no place where this crisis is more acute than in the inner-city schools of our major cities. Schools that barely merit the title, “school.”

Garfield High School is one of those schools, which is precisely why the movie mavens of Hollywood chose to make the movie “Stand and Deliver” about a unique and talented teacher, a Mr. Jaime Escalante, to dramatize the plight of a high school classroom in East LA during the 1980s.

The movie tells the quintessential American “underdog story” of the best bringing out the best in the worst: that is what gives it drama, what makes it a story that the public will spend their money to see. It is a tried and true Hollywood formula. Think of “The Bad News Bears” (1976) and “Hoosiers” (1986) in the realm of sports films. Think of “To Sir with Love” (1968) and “Dangerous Minds” (1999) in the teacher/hero genre. At play here is the democratic desire to elevate the lowly and ensure equality, wherein we can rest more easily in our supposedly egalitarian society.

STORY OF A DYNAMIC EDUCATOR

This movie, which Escalante himself claimed was 90% truth and 10% drama, shows the story of a dedicated, knowledgeable, passionate teacher who challenged a group of mostly lackluster and pathetic students to rise to the occasion and take on the challenge of taking and passing the AP Calculus test. The movie shows students moving from struggling with fractions to mastering calculus in one year, although in reality it took Escalante several years to build a progression of classes that prepared Garfield students for calculus.

Escalante and his students arrive early before school for special cram sessions. Escalante, in the film, deals with parents reluctant to let their children pursue higher education. He shows sensitivity yet firmness, and a large part of his success one feels is that he saw potential and opportunity in young people where nobody else concerned did. Escalante left a better paying engineering job in private industry to teach at a very struggling school, and he put in very long hours and committed his whole being to improving a school badly needing it.

Escalante shows how teaching is an art, rather than a “theory-based science,” where an instructor is a motivator and instructional expert, a leader and model of what an educated person is, and an advocate for the rights of one’s students. It is not only that Escalante led his students along a long and arduous path to upper-level math, but he furiously advocated on their behalf when the College Board suspected fraud. Escalante was in charge of that class; he earned the respect of students; and by the end they would move heaven and earth for him – and they did. This reviewer doubts Escalante paid much attention to educational theorists: he had a vision of what his students could do, and he performed a Herculean effort to get them to do it.

The embellishments and the overlooking of certain inconvenient facts by Hollywood screenwriters notwithstanding, the story is worth telling. It is inspiring. It launched Escalante as a celebrity, a development which led to the end of his employment at Garfield and the withering of the prestigious math programs he spent years starting, nurturing, and directing. The irony is neither insubstantial, nor does it fail to instruct. Why, for example, would any quality institution let a superstar like Escalante go?

Escalante encountered trouble and left Garfield in 1991, unhappy with the departmental politics and backbiting he claimed occurred at the school. Escalante encountered problems with the teachers’ union and school administration. (“The untold story behind the famous rise -- and shameful fall -- of Jaime Escalante, America’s master math teacher,” by Jerry Jesness [http://reason.com/0207/fe.jj.stand.shtml]) The math dynasty he had built up began to wither on the vine after the departure of its founder. Escalante later moved to teach math at a Sacramento High School, where he encountered more frustration and an inability to repeat the “magic” of before. Already 61-years of age, Escalante finally moved in semi-retirement to his native Peru.

LARGER QUESTIONS

The story of Jaime Escalante, both in the movie and in real life, brings up several difficult questions presented by the “teacher-savior” figure in American life and popular films.

Are standout, brilliant teachers like Escalante the answer to a distressed educational system? “Savior” teachers like Olmos’s Escalante, Sidney Poitier in “To Sir With Love,” (1967) or Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” (1995) all make for good drama. They sell tickets to the movie theater to moviegoers who wish to be entertained. But does the exceptional make for good policy when it comes to the everyday exigencies of school reform?

Are there thousands of charismatic, highly-skilled, expertly trained, and experienced school teachers ready to imitate Escalante in similar circumstances? Ready to contribute to a qualitative shift in the quality of instruction in struggling schools? Those willing to work 60 hour weeks giving their all with study sessions before school, visits to student’s homes – on their own time? Willing to do it for $40,000 per year? To give and work thusly to the exclusion of their own selves and families? To the point of ill health? (Escalante has a heart attack in the movie.) To spend voluntarily their days - and nights and weekends - in communities plagued by gang violence and multi-generational poverty?

And when success in your job is far from assured? Escalante after all, in real life, found his position and program at Garfield undermined by the jealousies of the teachers’ union and school administration second-guessing. Can a talented and dedicated teacher thrive over the long-term in the dysfunctional, unprofessional atmosphere which so often typifies the American public school system?

To all this “Stand and Deliver” is strangely silent, even as the real life example of Jaime Escalante fairly screams an answer. But none of these complexities of real life would make for easy fare for moviegoers, nor would it be “entertaining.” It would not do well at the box office. It might lose money as a business enterprise.

This movie reviewer wonders if holding up Jaime Escalante as the ideal teacher poses more problems than rewards. Not every (any?) teacher can be charismatic and passionate, expertly trained in their subject, culturally sensitive and knowledgeable, with infinite patience and compassion, and never always so. Nor should we expect such from mere mortals.

Instead of hoping for superstar “saviors” to rescue an underfunded and often decrepit and downright unprofessional and unsupportive school system, perhaps we should provide better and longer teacher education programs, reduce class loads to provide for more collaboration and training for teachers, give higher pay coupled with higher expectations in performance, and merit pay to reward excellence – coupled by giving principals the power to fire incompetent teachers (no hiding behind tenure and teacher unions). Instead of asking for soul-wrenching experiences in soul-wrenching situations from flesh and blood teachers who will by necessity be imperfect, maybe we as a society should changed the unrealistic expectations of working in a place like Garfield High School. Make it a job that more than one in a thousand can handle.

Most employers provide the support and conditions necessary for their employees to be successful most of the time. Garfield High School, and many (most?) other schools in America, do not. Why is that? Why is it that so many of the strongest and most dynamic teachers leave the profession of teaching? Do the best athletes in America leave sports? Do successful actors leave show business to become teachers?
Is America a great place to be a fighter pilot, movie actor, or entrepreneur, but a bad place to be a public school teacher? Do we do the one well, the other poorly? Is this just the nature of America?

Furthermore, is an actor playing the role of a teacher in a movie the same as being one? Is what we see on the screen real life? Can anyone tell the difference? How much can we learn about James A. Garfield Senior High School, or the Los Angeles public schools generally, from “Stand and Deliver”? Does the movie offer hope and inspire teachers of the future? Or does the movie personify how entertainers and movie companies thrive in America, while teachers, students, and schools languish? Does the drama of the movie offer a false optimism unsupported by the facts of real life? Is it intellectually honest?

Perhaps that is the larger lesson of Jaime Escalante and “Stand and Deliver,” one that is less politically palatable, less entertaining, but perhaps more enlightening to our society if we are really serious about making schools such as Garfield High School worthy of the name “school.” (Full disclosure: this movie reviewer also taught in Los Angeles Unified School District secondary schools for some years.)

WHAT CAN WE LEARN?

Today, as ten years ago when the film premiered, the movie actors and producers live like spoiled kings in the Hollywood Hills, looking down from their mansions towards overcrowded East LA where the underclass struggles, sweats, and too often fails in the race of life.*

Is holding the example of Jaime Escalante up to America and to beginning teachers through the film “Stand and Deliver” a realistic representation of how prospective instructors can be successful in their careers in inner-city public schools? Or is it an example of why, in inner-city schools and elsewhere, approximately 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years?

Was Jaime Escalante a true improvement in the system? Or not? An exemplary teacher? A model of change? Or was he a one-of-a-kind flash in the pan? Was he an example of how change does happen in public schools? Or does the story of Jaime Escalante show how change does not happen? An example of why education will not improve, despite the best efforts of the best teachers?

Or is Escalante, as this reviewer believes, both?

* The dropout rate at Garfield today is more than 50%; and the high school’s test scores are among the worst in the California, a state not known for academic achievement. Garfield earned an API score of 531, in the lowest decile of all California high schools, in the year 2003. 1

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FTHS  Ventura, CA     805.289.0034 ext. 1408     rgeib@vtusd.k12.ca.us