Steve Poizner Is No Jaime Escalante

Sorry, Steve Poizner. But you’re no Jaime Escalante.

Escalante, who died recently of cancer, arrived in the United States from Bolivia in 1963 with very little money and knowing very little English. He mopped floors and worked as a short-order cook by day, while earning math degrees and a teaching credential in night school. He went to work for an electronics company before taking up teaching where he became, in the words of Jay Matthews, education reporter for the Washington Post, "the most famous and influential American public school teacher of his generation."

Escalante -- who made East Los Angeles' Garfield High School famous when his story was immortalized in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver -- earned that title by teaching calculus to students who the school system had decreed couldn’t handle anything harder than general math.

Escalante’s secret? In order to overcome low expectations, he believed, a teacher has to show students that he has faith that they can learn and excel and then put in enough hard work so that they’re inspired to match his effort with their own. All you need is “ganas,” Escalante used to tell the audiences he’d address on the lecture circuit. And, no doubt, a thick skin, given that education reformers must inevitably battle cynics intent on substantiating their own prejudices about who can learn and who can't.

People like Steve Poizner. The California Insurance commissioner and GOP gubernatorial candidate is a long shot to defeat the Republican frontrunner, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. According to polls, Poizner trails Whitman by more than 40 points despite recent and shameless attempts to scare up votes by impersonating a restrictionist on illegal immigration.

If Poizner loses the race, which seems likely, the multimillionaire and former Silicon Valley entrepreneur will likely still have plenty of job opportunities. But whatever Poizner does next, he shouldn’t go back to one of his earlier jobs -- teaching 12th-grade government at the largely Latino campus of Mount Pleasant High School in East San Jose. It’s clear from some of what Poizner has written in his new book, Mount Pleasant, a controversial memoir of the year he spent volunteering in the classroom, that Poizner doesn’t have the chops to teach barrio kids. In large part, it seems, because the gubernatorial candidate bought into the same culture of low expectations that Jaime Escalante spent a career trying to overcome.