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Science labs, race and equity at Berkeley High

berkeley highOur editorial board weighed in today on the controversy at Berkeley High, where parcel tax money that pays for after-school, college-prep science labs might instead fund extra teachers to work with struggling students.

At the core of the issue is the stubborn achievement gap between the school’s white students and its black and Latino students. In the 1980s, voters approved the parcel tax money in question to help bridge the gap, but it remains as wide as ever. Most of the students who participate in the after-school science program are white.

The Trib editorial argues that eliminating these rigorous labs is the wrong way to address the racial disparity. It suggests a different approach: recruiting more non-white students to the program.

Another idea the district is considering is to shift $3 million in state funds to a new, technology-focused charter school for struggling students.

The equity questions raised in the Berkeley High debate remind me of the “two high schools” said to exist at Oakland Tech: the top-notch academies, some of them selective, and the rest of the school.

What do you think Berkeley High should do with its parcel tax money? Do you think it needs to create a separate school to help its low-achievers?

image from Jeremy Franklin’s photostream at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • David B. Cohen

    I’m basing my comments mainly on information from the KQED Forum show on this topic, so if I’m missing some information, I’m open to reconsidering. But… it seems to me that many fine high schools are able to build good science programs that don’t need to meet outside of school hours. Using extra funds to add quality to a program is fine – we don’t need a “Harrison Bergeron” plan to keep everyone exactly equal by minimizing quality across the board. However, when faced with the evidence that an educational program is effectively creating barriers for significant numbers of students, leaving them less prepared for college, then I think the argument that the extra hours are necessary has to be reconsidered. It would be unfortunate to lose some enrichment opportunities, but first, do no harm. Requiring regular attendance outside the regular school program also seems like an equity issue with legal dimensions to it.

    Interested to hear other points of view.

  • walton barnaby

    Interventions work best when they are targeted. So, yeah, create another charter school for the low-achievers and give these kids the very best teachers from BHS. Give the high achievers the mediocre teachers and administrators and this may even the score.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Berkeley has tried many of the same things and want to continue similar types of intervention for the students of color who are not working at grade level. Pouring more time, effort and money in the same manner that has not worked to try to make it work will not solve the problem, just spend more money.

    In our education system we seem to set up the entire student society on the “Us and Them” principle. At Berkeley High they have done it yet again it’s the “Us” of the low performing students of color vs. “Them” the white students of privilege. Neither are really correct and Berkeley High School seems to be stuck in one way of solving the problems of the students of color (primarily) who need extra help and extra time to learn the material and the students who are white (primarily) who need access to a science lab.

    I am not proposing that I know how to solve the problem, but I know Berkeley and Oakland both continue intervention in ways that have not had high proven success rates. I strongly suggest that Berkeley and Oakland look at school districts that have been able to turn around the high school learning differences and adopt new ways of meeting the needs of the students. In turn, we could also look at ways to use the UC or community college labs for the students who need to have lab access.

    I have often witnessed in school districts the long-standing discrimination of students of color. We assume if they are raised by a single parent, a grandparent or another relative that they may not be capable of concentration because of the high stress they are under, when they stumble in learning we let it slide, promote them to the next grade rather than staying before or after school, having learning groups or intervention when the difficulties begin.

    Likewise, we assume the white students automatically have privilege because of their color and systematically they do. However, there are many, many white students who have parents working two jobs and who study for hours every night to be at the top or for whom learning is exciting and are expected to sit in a seat at school so that the school can collect the ADA and the students are not being taught new material for months on end.

    Neither is fair, neither is equitable, both scenarios have a hint or more of stereotyping and both have played out in schools just as described.

    Generally, I am speaking of our districts continuing to use the same methods to address issues and expecting different outcomes. I just don’t see how the same methods will produce different outcomes. We need to find districts who have done more to help the needy students in ways that are different from ours. Because to date, our Bay Area ways are contributing to the problems not eliminating them.

  • Nextset

    Stop catering to low achievers, money doesn’t help them. It only makes things worse. Spend the money on those with potential. The things that do help the left side of the bell curve don’t cost much. The main thing the dull students need is discipline and basic skills. Beyond that vocational and life skills. These cost a fraction of science labs and math teachers. A good school has room for all of this.

    Berkeley can have a top notch high school program for the right side of the curve with a functional remedial and vocational program for the left. They should be on different campuses. Only a certain portion of the left siders want to be in a school anyway.

    To wreck a school system chasing down the dull students and throwing money at them on programs they do not want and can’t use is folly, Leftist irrational folly. Which is what Berkeley is known for as a town.

  • Anthym

    Yes, invest in the those with potential. Send the remedial (or those who don’t fit the mold of NCLB) straight to waste management training.

  • On The Fence

    I agree with Union Support-But’s comment that there often seems to be an “Us” vs “Them” view of the “achievement gap” and I would say a presumption of wrong doing (or at the very least, not doing enough) at the schools that have not been able to bridge this gap. However, I am more and more confused about what we truly know about the achievement gap and IF it can be fixed at all. It is especially important for us to understand what evidence exists about why this gap exists and how it can be remedied, before we decide to throw untold amounts of money at it.

    I always assumed that the acheivement gap was really a simple proxy for socio economic status or family income and education, and that it would virtually disappear if the students were matched along those lines. However, I remember an ‘expert’ speaking at my child’s elementary school and debunking my assumption. He stated that the gap exists for certain groups even when controlling for income/parental education.

    Does anyone know what the research has shown regarding why this gap exists and how to remedy it? Along those lines, Redwood Heights is often touted to have bridged that gap. Is that true, and if so, how have they done it?

  • Nancy

    IF then issue is achievement gap, then it wouldn’t seem feasible to create uneven expectations for students. All students need to be given access to the same expectations – not just in writing, but in the mindsets of the institution and all of its adults. It appears to me on several instances that there is nepotism in the Berkeley USD network which is most likely creating this problem of separate and unequal conditions and lack of equal expectations for all students with rigorous, cultural-linguistic relevant curriculum. I keep seeing a who’s who in that District among its personnel and negative mindsets. Something needs to be done for those poor students sake.

  • http://www.movingforwardeducation.com Lacy Asbill

    Nextset: You advocate investing in the students who have potential. I ask you: what student in Oakland is lacking in potential? This perspective keeps the disparity in place, and we need to do better.

    I have personally witnessed what the right kind of intervention does for low-achieving students in Oakland. Most of my students are not low-performing because they are “dull”, they are low-performing because they lack the confidence to see themselves as successful, or because their personal lives are so wracked with difficulty. When these young people are equipped with academic and emotional support, they truly do amazing things (i.e. the 70% CAHSEE pass rate at my continuation high school programs).

    You’re right: school equity is not as simple as dumping money into programs for low-performing students. We have to be strategic about investing in innovative programs that support ALL of students’ needs.

  • Nextset

    Lacy: Students demonstrate potential in a number of ways. By responding to discipline, by scoring well on measurements of cognitive ability, by some demonstration of talent, ambition and drive that the school can promote. It doesn’t matter how poor your family is or what color etc the student is – people with something to promote are out there. The racial distributions differ wildly, and that is not the school’s problem. You can’t make people be what they don’t want to be, or be what they are not. You can take a child and tell them that with their particular set of skills they can be this thing or that thing and encourage them to choose well. If they want to be a welfare mother with 4 kids by 3 cons at age 20, don’t waste too much time on them. Spend the time on the others that are interested in what the school is selling, education and most importantly placement in military, industry or higher education.

    Our current system condemns students to the dust bin if they are in the wrong neighborhood because there is no selection process to spot potential stars and bring them up – all are considered equal and put in equally bad schools. I would have schools for the different groups with college prep in some and remedial & voc ed in others. I would keep the promiscious, violent, insolent, insubordinate and criminally inclined out of the main schools and give them a reform type school of their own (and encourage them to drop out). This would be better for the teachers and better for the students that are going to work for a living. Most of the public school kids will never graduate from any college. The High school diploma is the terminal degree. We need to do more for the average public school kid and not spend too much money on the bottom 25% who aren’t in school to learn or graduate.

    San Francisco Unified has Lowell High, why doesn’t OUSD have a similar high school?

  • Pepe

    OK Nextset, I’m biting on this one. You throw out a lot of “facts” on this blog. Yet Nextset’s gospel always seems purely based on your opinion and narrow experience–where do you get your (mis)information and gross generalities?

    I think it does your actual message more harm than good–we are not meeting the needs of the majority of the students.

    Lacy has a very valid point, one based in reality. Yet it seems like you ignored most of her post just to reiterate your controversial philosophy. I think it would do us all well if you stopped hijacking every topic just to repeat the same tired message.

    What do you have to say about Lacy’s description of her experiences that completely contradict your world view? What proof do you have that her experience is either extremely rare or not true?

  • Nextset

    Pepe: Can you restate that?

    Contoversial Philosophy? Really…

    Which experience are you referring to?

  • Debora

    I wrote about my experience on an email list serve. It takes in Lacy’s point – but it may also address some of what Nextset has been saying.

    Those who know me know that I am often critical of many, many things in OUSD. But I would like to talk for a moment about something – I am not saying that there is a solution for what I am going to mention, and I am certainly not going to tell you that this is happening in every Oakland public school classroom because it is not. But I want to talk about something that I am so incredibly frustrated with that I am fuming, at myself, at our society, at the district, at some parents – oh, hell today I am frustrated with the world about it.

    I am working toward my teaching credential. I have passed the CSET and earn high math scores on the exam. I am taking a “Teaching Elementary Students Mathematics” course at Holy Names University and I voluntarily work with a group of students in math who are in fourth and fifth grade in an Oakland public school. These students VOLUNTARILY come to the morning class from 7:30 AM – 8:30 AM to get the extra help they need. Their benchmark tests are at about 50%. Meaning they get half right and half wrong. And, that’s only half of the story.

    If these same students are given one problem on a paper – the SAME EXACT problem they missed on the benchmark test. They solve the problem and give the answer with 100% of the time – or very close to 100% of the time. And, when solving, unlike the benchmark test, there is no multiple choice. So, I think maybe someone helped them. I ask them to explain their calculations and why they think their calculations are right. They verbally explain the answers to me, the steps they took to get to the answers, and the general “formula” or “rule” that makes it so. For example, “I know that the angles of a triangle must add up to 180 degrees. So I subtract the side that I am given from 180. Then I know that because there is a square in the corner, that means 90 degrees, so I subtract 90 degrees and I get 47 degrees. Wasn’t that right?” Well, of course it’s right. Yet, for the SAME EXACT problem on the test, worded in the same exact way, they marked 90 degrees.

    We’ve gone over test taking techniques; we’ve used the cross off the obviously wrong answers; we’ve talked about working the problem right there in the test book, looking at only one problem at a time.

    So I ask the students if they know the material – yes, they do. They are happy to show me. But when the high stakes test comes something happens. Today, we did no calculations, we just talked. Why do you think that you are not able to show what you know on the tests? I ask, here are some of the responses: I always mess up on tests. All my other teachers said I was bad in math so I guess I am really bad in math. I see all the questions and I just flip out. I see all of the problems and think I will run out of time. I see all of the problems and I pick the hard ones first and I get stuck and don’t have time for no more problems. What is math good for anyway? I see four answers and I just pick one. And the comments go on and on.

    So, I am not offering up excuses. I am not offering up solutions. I am telling you that these kids know the math on that test and if you came in and asked each student to show you his or her work on the white board, the problem presented just as written on the test, nearly every child in my group of 14 would calculate the answer and put a box around it.

    Thanks for taking the time to read – it’s all about so much more than I understand right now.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Debora, thank you for sharing this story.