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“Math is the Great Equalizer”

2013 marks the 25th anniversary for the release of the inspirational movie, Stand and Deliver; a film based on the true story of math teacher Jaime Escalante. Mr. Escalante leaves a secure position in the private sector to start a career as a math teacher at Garfield High School, in East Los Angeles. The school, with a largely inner-city Latino student body, was in danger of losing its accreditation due to a high percentage of failing students. Faced with an environment that valued quick fixes over education and learning, Mr. Escalante is determined to change the system.

He decides to hold his students to a higher level of achievement and fights to teach them AP Calculus, against the advice of the school administration who felt it was ridiculous to attempt to teach advanced mathematics to students with problems demonstrating a clear grasp of more fundamental math concepts. Over the course of a year, he slowly manages to gain the respect and confidence of his students, finding ways to engage their attention, convincing them to work harder on their education (both in and out of school) than they ever considered, and succeeding—with 14 students taking and passing the extremely difficult Advanced Placement Calculus Exam. That year, their inner-city High School had the highest number of passing scores for all High Schools across Southern California.

This victory is short-lived and dashed when the students are accused of cheating, as no one outside of the school can believe that these students were capable of doing so well with such difficult material. Eventually, the students are allowed to re-take the test, and 12 of them agree to do so. All of them pass—again, and their original test scores are re-instated.

One of the messages Mr. Escalante tries to impart to his students when they question the point of learning advanced math and what it might possibly do for kids like them is simple. “You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. *Math* is the great equalizer.”

It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, if you can do the math, you’ll have a future. And as true as that was when this movie was made, it still stands today in the 21st century. In fact, that spirit lives on, as demonstrated in this presentation by Jessie Woolley-Wilson, DreamBox Learning, CEO, where she echoes the spirit of Mr. Escalante, “… figure out a way to make quality education available to every child, regardless of what language they spoke, regardless of where they called home, regardless, really, of their zip code.”

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