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Escalante Program Proves Its Worth
By John Rude
Jan. 29, 2015

escalanteprogramIt was a long time coming, but the Jaime Escalante program, which has operated at East Los Angeles College for 32 years, recently confirmed its powerful ability to transform math achievement for young learners.

The unorthodox Bolivian high school teacher Jaime Escalante began his accelerated math program at Garfield High School in 1974, then brought his teaching methods to ELAC in 1983. As depicted in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” the Escalante method challenges low-performing students to tackle math problems at a higher level than they think they are capable of.

As a consequence, students become engaged and motivated learners. Escalante students succeed in regular math classes because of intensive tutoring that they receive after school and during the summer. Over 200,000 students have benefitted from Escalante’s teaching techniques over three decades. One of Escalante’s early protégés, ELAC math professor Fernando Fernandez, is the program’s current director.

The Escalante program has been limited in its ability to prove the reasons for, or extent of its success. Professor Fernandez could point to thousands of students and parents standing in long lines each summer to register. He could theorize about the intensity of the summer sessions — four hours per day, five days per week, seven weeks — 140 hours of math enrichment. He points with pride to his carefully-selected teaching staff, and to a series of locally-produced, user-friendly textbooks that are eagerly digested by students, tutors and family members.

But did the Escalante method significantly improve school achievement scores in math? If the answer was yes, how did it produce this unlikely result, in light of the fact that the vast majority of East Los Angeles middle and high school students fail to meet California’s math achievement standards?

Last year, Bryan Bowen, a doctoral student in education from Azusa Pacific University, applied a rigorous analysis to a group of 2,386 Escalante students. The research compared these students to their 7th and 8th grade counterparts in the Garvey School District. Bowen (who himself taught math in high school) teased out the differences between participants and non-participants enrolled in pre-Algebra and Algebra classes over a two-year period.

Using standardized tests issued by UCLA and the State of California, Bowen discovered that Escalante students had significantly higher test scores than those who did not receive tutoring. The effect was especially strong when students enrolled for two consecutive summers in Escalante tutoring. Possibly the most surprising result was that Escalante tutoring had much greater impact on girls than on boys. Although both genders were successful as a result of Escalante instruction, the data reveals that girls, who are often stereotyped as “math avoiders,” have the potential to take off as scientists, doctors or engineers if they are given the right start.

Escalante Director Fernandez was pleased with the research. “This is a tool that the Escalante program has needed to convince school districts and families to jump-start progress in a difficult subject.”

East Los Angeles College Vice President Dr. Richard Moyer said, “I was impressed by the rigor of Dr. Bowen’s research. All along, we believed that we’ve been faithful to Jaime Escalante’s original vision. Now we are sure. If anything, the program has improved over time.”