The Sequel That Will Never Be Made

Jaime Escalante died last week at age 79—he was the inspiration for the 1988 film Stand and Deliver.  Edward James Olmos was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the Bolivian born math teacher who transformed Garfield High School in East Los Angeles by proving that its tough Hispanic inner city kids could learn advanced calculus.  The film is probably the best modern entry in the Hero Teacher genre which has been a staple of Hollywood at least since 1955’s Blackboard Jungle through To Sir With Love in 1967 and on to such lesser contemporary pictures as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.

I must be a good actor, because I don't know what this stuff means.

In each of these films, a tough, no-nonsense educator takes on the thugs and outcasts of a ghetto public school and transforms them through discipline, caring and creativity into successful and educable students.  And these films have something else in common too.  After they end, our public school system remains almost entirely dysfunctional, incapable of systematizing or even repeating the hero teacher’s feat.

If you’d like to know why that is, some of the answers lie in what you might call the unfilmed sequel to Escalante’s story—I mean, the story that happened after Stand and Deliver was over.  You can find that story in a book by George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige entitled The War Against Hope, How Teachers’ Unions Hurt Children, Hinder Teachers and Endanger Public Education.  It’s published by my friends over at Thomas Nelson.

At the peak of Escalante’s work at Garfield, his math enrichment program involved over 400 students and produced more kids who passed Advanced Placement calculus than wealthy Beverly Hills High.  He achieved this truly mind-boggling feat despite constant opposition from guess which formidable source.  If you guessed evil right-wing racists, congratulations, you have the chief qualification to become a New York Times columnist:  a distorted sense of reality.  Because the true answer of course is: that untouchable mainstay of the Democratic Party, the teachers union.

The union opposed Escalante’s classes at the beginning when they were smaller than union rules allowed and at their peak when they became larger.  There were complaints he came to work too early and left too late, and gripes about his high standards and tough discipline.  “If you looked into what is going on in this school in the name of the union,” Escalante wrote the union president in 1990, “I think…  you would be appalled.”  Escalante was able to triumph over this opposition because his success had made him famous and because he had the support of another hero, Garfield principal Henry Gradillas.

But Gradillas had made an enemy of the union too and, in 1988, after he took a year-long sabbatical, he was reassigned to a position supervising asbestos removal.  Unprotected by the administration, Escalante was harried and demoted until, disgusted, he finally left the school in 1991.  A new teacher tried to continue his program but the union, backed by the new principal, chased him out with constraints and restrictions within a year.  By 1996, only 11 Garfield students passed the AP exam, down from a high of 85.

The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the US, and its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, is also huge.  With their Democratic allies, they make the firing of bad teachers almost impossible and the work of good teachers heartbreakingly difficult.  Then, ironically, they trade on the good will generated by men like Jamie Escalante and by movies like Stand and Deliver, knowing that, in Democratic Hollywood, the anti-union sequel will never be made.

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  • Kevin

    this is quite sad. That man should have been celebrated for what he did.

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  • john

    Thanks for a great story on a great man who deserved better. What happened to him will be the story of the entire country and downfall of us all if we do not stop it.

    Dumbing down America to is not enlightenment. Little wonder Republicans earn 60% more college degrees than democrats every single year since 1955. Republicans are truly the educated class, but it’s because we take individual responsibility for it.


  • debbie 1960

    This is depressing. This is similar to what happened to John Taylor Gatto in NY. Why do unions chase out the great teachers and protect the awful ones?

  • Lars Walker

    Because it’s not about the kids, it’s about the unions. The kids are the hostages.

  • Simon Templar

    Great article. I would suggest, however, when exposing liberals for what they truly are that we need to explain to the reader why this union took these actions toward the teacher. People will not understand nor be inclined to believe these stories are real if we do not tell the whole story and the motivations and political gains behind liberal actions like these.

  • hollywoodron


  • Kay

    When will the children in our schools and the people in our nation beome the main focus? Shame on the unions for their lack of support for a great teacher. May he rest in peace.

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  • Immanuel Goldstein

    So now we know. It’s the teachers union that is dumbing down America.

  • Carlist

    God Bless homeschooling!!

  • RES

    Mention of Mr. Gatto and homeschooling bring to mind his attendance at our state Homeschooling Fair a few years back. THe neatly made the point that the public schools are all about schooling kids, not educating them. Content of lessons is less important than the format of those lessons: sit still, do what you’re told, regurgitate the expected answers. As McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.”

    Is it any surprise such a system had no room for such as Escalante or Gradillas?

  • Ellen

    I wish I was rich. Not to indulge myself, but so I could quit working and teach my granddaughter and nieces and nephews.

  • Mike M

    It is truly sad how unions champion mediocrity. They are the refuge of the incompetent.

  • MM

    The teacher’s unions are what is most wrong with our country. If you have any doubt that the democrat’s don’t recognize the importance of getting those young minds “properly” prepared, then check on any state that has tried to initiate even the smallest voucher program.

    I live right across the street from my small city’s high school and have engaged some of the faculty in discussions about vouchers. You want to see someone go from 0-60 in 2 seconds and all the while throwing out every liberal education canard you’ve ever heard? It’s like a cross to vampires.

    Here in Co we have tried 3 times to get the smallest voucher program going and millions pours in from every mofoing NEA local nationwide.

    The democrats know that an educated populace will question claims made by politicians. They will have been taught a basic economic and historical foundation on which they can accurately evaluate the issues of the day-like I was.

    Instead, horseshit like Zinn’s POS is actually used in some schools. What kind of view does an empty mind get of this great country reading that crap? You get Obama. The promises he made in his campaign and since should have elicited howls of laughter but he stands in front of styrofoam pillars and is lauded-thank a teacher’s union.

    The democrats will fight any attempt to loosen their control of educating our children to the death. Because if they do, they know it’s their death.

  • Bruce Deitrick Price

    A wonderful, sad story.
    Please, more on education. You can never say too much. Everyone knows the Democrats are soft, squishy and guilty on education. Republicans and conservatives should hammer this constantly.

  • James Anderson Merritt

    I wonder if Mr. Olmos has ever commented about what happened to Mr. Escalante after the “Stand and Deliver” years. I wonder if he would ever be interested in reprising the role in an independently-made sequel that dealt with those years. I believe Lou Diamond-Phillips might also be able to reprise his role. Somebody should make that movie.

  • Theresa

    Jaime Escalante’s story inspired me long before I became a teacher. In my choice to teach the lower functioning students I have also faced opposition and disbelief when I have pushed my students to do better, to become more. When they passed the state mandated test it was written off as a fluke. The same fluke, year after year? We kick butt! Hoever, I also face hurdles that try to push my students back to their ghetto, back to their low SES place in the pecking order. I have been told to lower my expectations. ARE YOU KIDDING??? I cannot! The kids deserve MUCH higher expectations. I expect them to succeed! I am flabbergasted and horribly depressed when they don’t. Teacher’s need to have a collective voice, yes, but we DO NOT need to have the worst protected or the collective mindset that says the kids are to dumb to achieve!

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  • Eli

    I’m sorry Mr. Klavan but this post is ridiculous. Have you spent much time in different schools, watching actual teachers and administrators work? Escalante was an amazing teacher. There are many amazing teachers. There are many terrible teachers.

    But teacher’s unions have little to do with this. Most teachers I know do what they do more out of a passion for their job – to help children succeed – then any monetary reward. No one goes into teaching for the paycheck. To the extent that they are good or bad at what they do is nothing more than a reflection of their passion for the work, and unions are largely irrelevant.

    Unions do give more protection for failing teachers than they ought to. But they also give protection to the best teachers. It’s a bargain that, in my opinion, as a teacher who has worked in environments without union representation, ultimately serves children.

    At the end of the day, the problem with “teacher hero” movies is that they give a false impression of the job. Almost by definition, they portray “good” teachers as those who will sacrifice everything in their lives for their students. Like other real people, most of us have families and lives outside of work. I have daughters and a wife that need my love and attention. I have hobbies that I enjoy and that provide me fulfillment. Working 9-10 hour days, plus weekend grading and planning already takes up plenty of that. It is absurd for society to expect that its teaching workforce of over 3 million make such compromises.

    But beyond the sacrifices, teaching is as much an art as a science. Escalante and the best teachers are able to get so much out of their students because they happen to possess an ability to gain rapport and respect from their students. This isn’t something that you can just show up and follow procedurally. Teachers are all effective and ineffective in their own ways. They have different personalities which fit with different students, and styles of learning. An excellent teacher in a suburban school might fail miserably at a poor school, where students generally lack preparedness and social skills to succeed at adequate levels. It takes a special type of person to reach these kids.

    The sad fact is that these schools the work is much more difficult (imagine the difference between trying to win a race with a lamborghini vs. a yugo!); there are fewer resources, and the stress levels are vastly higher. This creates a market force that pushes more qualified teachers out of these schools, who end up being disproportionately staffed by younger, less experienced teachers who tend to struggle even more. The environment at these schools is often a pressure cooker in which many complicated issues arise and unions can provide protection for teachers who are facing an environment ripe for abuse.

    Just to give my own example, I worked at a charter school under no contract, with no union support and situations arose which were very harmful to the students and teachers, but there was no recourse because the teachers had no power to stand up to the corrupt and incompetent administration. Redundant and pointless meetings would be scheduled at the last minute and take up valuable planning time. Prep periods were canceled and classes were reorganized in haphazard ways. Facilities were left in disrepair. Crucial student services weren’t provided and behavioral consequences were left unattended to. The community was poor and had little knowledge of what to expect from a properly run school, and so there was no pressure on the administration from parents. The school was receiving Title I federal funding because of the low SES status of the students, yet basic services such as free and reduced lunches weren’t provided. Afters-school tutoring or money for extra-curricular programs was never provided. Teacher evaluations on 12 different grades were performed by a single principle who spent barely more than 30 minutes in the classroom yearly. There was almost no leadership to speak of. Everything was top-down and teachers were rarely asked for input on basic programmatic decisions. Firings were often seen as capricious and arbitrary when excellent teachers were removed while incompetent teachers remained. Yet the principle wasn’t even responsible for many basic decisions either: these came from out-of-touch administrators in corporate offices 2 hours away.

    So would a union have made things at our school better or worse? I think they would have been better. Employees would have felt protected and thus had the courage to stand up for what we felt was actively harming the students. The administration would have been held accountable. Would any of us had worked any less hard? That’s literally laughable. All of us could have worked much less than we did – we are professionals after all. Because of the administration’s reckless incompetence we simply had to work harder. I know that if I had been given a prep period (instead of being forced to do yard duty) my instruction would have been improved dramatically.

    But all of this is coming from an actual teacher. I can sit down with you and tell you in detail about my job requirements and what I think is best. The vast majority of people commenting on education are not, or have ever been teachers. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong at all. But it does mean that they need to be very wary about judging issues in a profession that they they know little about.

  • Ed Observer


    So having a formally combative relationship with school administrators would have improved the school? Are you kidding me? Because of union militancy, no school in a big city in America is without outright intimidation of school administrators BY teachers. Principals can hardly ask a teacher to clean their chalk-board, let alone persuade them to teach a kid with gusto! There is no stick. And without merit pay, there is no carrot. Barren wasteland, on which nothing grows, that’s all.

    In a school of choice, administrators have an equal chance of losing their jobs if the kids aren’t learning and the school isn’t chosen. Unlike in politically controlled schools, administrative authority is legitimate. And that’s why you and your union sympathizing buddies can’t stand them. Non-public schools unionize less because goals and incentives are aligned.

    Through union dominance, they become aligned in public schools too – administrators are unionized as well. Nobody gets fired no matter what happens in the building. In public schools, the inmates truly do run the asylum. A socialist paradise. Are you that unprofessional that you would choose a job in a public school hell-hole where most teachers just “show up” than an opportunity where you might, god forbid, be challenged by an administrator to do SOMETHING? Or is it just that you see teaching and collecting a salary for doing it, regardless of performance or merit, as a right.

    So you had a bad experience with a charter school administrator? Do what every other employee in America does when they can’t stand their boss: leave. If your grievances are truly with merit, and it’s affecting learning in the building, the injurious administrator will be replaced or the school will shut down. Chances of the former are greater if it’s part of a network of schools, which is why the unions want only one-off charters, which are naturally more likely to be run by charlatans, and more likely to be shut down. But the same can NEVER be said about failing public schools. They’re rewarded with MORE money for failure.

    For me, schools are a means to educating children not an ends in themselves. They’re not union job mills designed for the coddling of insecure and unambitious teachers.


  • Gamboa702

    Its easier to just say black or white. The real problem is more complex than just blaming the problem on democratic unions or rascist right wing activist. We can agree that the majority of teachers are underpaid. We wouldn’t pay doctors and lawyers the same wages teachers make. Why not? It would probbably bring our health quality down, thats if anyone signed up for the many years a doctor must endure in school. The question I have for you is what kind of teachers do we the Unted States of America attract by paying the bare minum ? Mr. Escalante was a special teacher just like Mrs. Cain , who taught music at Sheridan St school, Boyle Heights,Ca. The problem America has with education is greed. Like most bussines we want something for nothing. How much does the Chinese government invest in education, youth symphonies, etc. . We must take a hader look at what the problem is in Americas education. In my opionion money attracts talent. America must get rid of self,hidden fears, or we will continue to die.

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  • Teila K. Day

    It seems you aren’t cognizant of the reality that scores of lawyers make less than secondary teachers, I’ll educated you…

    Scores of lawyers make less than teachers; now you know. ;)

    Comparing the median income for an attorney or physician to a teacher is comparing apples and oranges. Virtually any college graduate that doesn’t have a felony conviction can become a teacher. Far less people can pass the California bar exam, let alone get into a good law school. Same goes for medical school.

    No… teachers should NOT get paid as much as a licensed physician removing ovaries or gallbladders, nor paid as much as an attorney over seeing complex legal issues, corporate mergers, or having the skill to negotiate a 3.8 million dollar settlement.

    As I said, apples and oranges. Teachers are great, some even great at teaching, but let’s not get ridiculous.