Home > Uncategorized > Berkeley High School, race, and AP classes

Berkeley High School, race, and AP classes

December 29, 2009

As much as I’d like to avoid the “R-word” I just don’t know how else to approach this:

Berkeley High School is considering a controversial proposal to eliminate science labs and the five science teachers who teach them to free up more resources to help struggling students.

The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was approved recently by Berkeley High’s School Governance Council, a body of teachers, parents, and students who oversee a plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley’s dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse.

Paul Gibson, an alternate parent representative on the School Governance Council, said that information presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students. He said the decision to consider cutting the labs in order to redirect resources to underperforming students was virtually unanimous.

East Bay Express: Berkeley High May Cut Out Science Labs (Emphasis mine.)

Now I don’t really care if someone thinks that science lab classes are a valuable educational experience or not; huge numbers of people find that they are and that’s good enough.  But they aren’t “for white students”; they’re for high-achieving students.  The proposed solution to poor kids having trouble getting into AP classes seems to be: cut out the AP classes.  That will make everyone equal, won’t it? 

Actually, it might, and that’s the trouble.  If there’s no “Up” we all stay on the ground.

I’m not saying race isn’t a factor in AP class availability: if there’s racism on one side, there can be on all sides.  But it would be better to approach it as a class issue rather than a racial issue.  A big chunk of the poverty equation is half-assed education foisted on people who live in poor neighborhoods – a vicious cycle.  If wealthy America can’t reach into the third world that is our own poor social strata, we can expect to be having this conversation every year from now on. 

And yes, we are our brothers’ keeper.  It does fall on the wealthy to open doors for the poor.  Much as we love to point to the exceptional performer from a poor neighborhood and say; “Why can’t they all be like that person?”, it can be an attempt to blame the poor for their poverty.  It always comes back to “Why can’t they be like us?, said by a person who enjoys the advantages of both race and economic position.  How well could they do in an actual foot-race if they had to start 100 yards behind everyone else on the track? Suppose an entire team had to run a longer race.  Would that change the win/loss record?

Over the long haul we can change the equation.  The even bigger issue to me is this: every school funding proposal has to fend off attacks from conservatives, but military spending proposals never do.  Our defense budget helps keep entire nations poor and radical, justifying its own existence. And it keeps our own poor down as well.  Dwight Eisenhower described it as a “theft” from humanitarian progress and warned us to be on our guard against letting it take control of the bottom line.

I’m all for “freeing up resources” to help low-achieving students go farther.  In fact, I’d like schools to be islands of opportunity in poor neighbourhoods.  The school should be like a beacon, the best thing around anywhere, because kids can see our priorities.

Sometimes it seems that conservatives would like to turn the US into an ignorant, third-world nation. It really burns me up to see liberals trying to help them do it.  And Berkeley, which sees itself as the center of the liberal universe (note to Berkeley: you aren’t) should know better.


  • “Shouting past each other” comes from being on the wrong side of the “what you did” vs “what you are” conversation divide.  See YouTube: “How to tell people they sound racist”.

  • h/t Pam’s House Blend for the link and story.
  • Razib Khan at Gene Expression brings a much more nuanced analysis with Science in Berkeley: it’s a white thing
  • I missed the Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards this month partly due to life-stuff, but mostly because nothing really forced me to the keyboard.  This news item did, but too late for the 26th deadline.
  • I don’t write much about race issues here in the Decrepit Zone, because it’s so easy to be misunderstood.  That is: I don’t want to be misunderstood on such an explosive topic, and equally I don’t want to level charges of racism at anyone else over debatable cases.  When you call someone a racist you are really accusing them of a Very Bad Thing, but the term is binary while the phenomenon it describes is a complex continuum. What do I mean by debatable cases?  Some racism is really obvious: the lynch mob, the “Whites Only” sign, or the photoshopped image of Obama as a witch doctor.  But other things are called racist which may not be, depending on how you look at them.  For example “Affirmative Action” can be seen as racist, or as a transitional remedy to racism.  People can, and do debate about it. Also as a white dude I’m aware that racism is sneaky and it’s easy to find oneself with unexamined attitudes that came in with childhood.  Over time we try to straighten these things out without shouting past each other* but it’s a minefield.  You see why I’d rather write about computer software?  At least then when I sound like an idiot, I don’t also sound like a bad person. I usually avoid gender issues too, and for the same reason.
  • Excellent post and discussion on the meaning and function of racism in culture: Is ‘Blacks have excellent rhythm’ a racist thing to say?
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 29, 2009 at 16:33 | #1

    Actually, I don’t think you’ve missed the COTEB. It’s been pushed back.

    There are a couple of things that I see wrong with the Berkeley School Board’s aproach.

    First, it’s just a continuation of the idea that everyone must be the same. There are no more “accelerated” classes for children who are smart enough to learn more. They get bored, and they don’t get an education that helps them make use of their minds. This is the most tragic thing – wasting these minds means we’re wasting our most precious resource. These children will be the leaders and, if they get enough education, the professionals of tomorrow. The stupider they are, the stupider we are as a society.

    Second, as you say, it’s fixing the wrong thing. Low-performing schools or populations need better opportunities. Sometimes, they are going to need more money for education, because the security and support needs will be greater. Fix that. Don’t try to paper over the problem by giving less opportunity to the students who can make use of it.

  2. Karen
    December 30, 2009 at 01:30 | #2

    I hate the idea of cutting the science labs, but it’s always possible that was the best of a bad lot of choices.  I hope they have a good plan in place for how to use the science lab teachers to assist struggling students, since they’ve otherwise screwed the science lab students for no good reason.

  3. December 31, 2009 at 15:28 | #3

    One of the worst things we can do for students and drag the top performers down. It’s horrible that people would be agreeable to this. Tell those repubs or dems involved that such actions at the high school would bring us closer to communism than any action Obama has taken.

    I’ve talked to my wife about these issues before and she agrees. Which I find interesting since she is a special ed teacher. One might think she would have some bias but as a teacher trying to make things better she knows what can really help and what is a load of bull.

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