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Constructing the Achievement Gap

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The problem of the "achievement gap" in public education is the most vexing problem on the agenda today. Many people look at this gap -- in grades and test scores between people of different races and family incomes -- as a mysterious and intractable problem with no discernable solution. I disagree. In reality, the gap is something that is constructed and reproduced year after year -- by the conscious and unconscious actions of many people. We can talk about the actions of politicians, administrators, teachers, and the students themselves. For now, I'd like to focus on the actions of some parents, mostly white, mostly high income.

I know that school districts are desperate to get parent involvement. And I believe that the best educational projects involve a close collaboration between parents, students, and teachers. Indeed, I understand that it is the natural and normal response for parents to be watching out for their own kids, to try their damndest to support them getting a decent education and having a positive process of development.

But we all know the powerful and fierce pressure some parents exert to create tracks and to get their kids on the high track, whether it is in various forms of so-called gifted classes (a subject in itself to explore another time), selective enrollment schools, magnet, and choice schools. Even students who are struggling mightily with academic work will, if they come from the right families, find a way to get a place in these schools.

Let me recount a recent struggle at Berkeley High School to illuminate how this parental action works. Local and even national media has been reporting the recent flap over the "elimination of science labs" for students at Berkeley High -- another silly series of breathless media accounts and an unsatisfying non-conclusion. The facts fade away, leaving a fog of untruths. For this one, let's get the core lie out of the way. The proposal of Principal Jim Slemp and the Shared Governance Committee was to incorporate science labs into the science classes in the normal six period day -- the way it is done at almost all California high schools -- instead of the extra classes that had been created and paid for by parcel tax money that Berkeley taxes itself. The proposal was to redirect some of this money towards projects designed to narrow the achievement gap -- for student engagement, academic and social support, etc. It would also help to more equitably distribute the parcel tax money -- since the extra labs were consuming a huge portion of the funds for a sector of the student population that already has great advantages.

One of the interesting things about Berkeley High School is that it is a diverse school -- containing an ethnic and socio-economic diversity that is unusual in America's increasingly segregated schools. But this can also be a frustrating factor when one is forced to witness the inequities of the US, the different opportunities and different outcomes, contained within a single school. And as the distance persists, as the achievement gap seems impervious to endless well-meaning gestures, it makes one wonder if it can ever be overcome - it suggests some mysterious, ominous force greater than the efforts of mere mortals, which cannot be changed.

But a closer look at Berkeley High reveals something more sinister -- that the gap persists because of groups of people, conscious active people, who move aggressively to thwart any effort to even make a little progress in developing equity between students. Generally, we are advised to keep silent, to not name this partnership of a handful of elitist teachers and privileged parents, in the interest of the normal administrative belief in a collaborative process which might find us able to agree, some day. This is the kind of "managing change" paradigm advocated by Michael Fullan and supposes that conflicts should be minimized, common ground should be sought, usually with lots of butcher paper on the wall. But sometimes in social change there is conflict. An example is the Civil Rights Movement. We did not just seek common ground. There were clear, entrenched forces that had to be countered, even when they wielded political power.

Since I am a former teacher at Berkeley High, I look back and realize that all of these years of sitting in meetings to try to persuade the opposition has led to an embarrassingly paltry amount of positive movement towards equity. I think it's time to call it what it is -- a stranglehold on any progress at the school which is enforced by what is informally known as the Parents of Power, or sometimes the Parents of Privilege (PoP). I'm certainly in favor of having us all just get along. But the truth is, just as with Obama's overtures to the Republicans, the opposition to equity never lets up, never wavers in its determination to block change.

I taught at Berkeley High for 11 years and had some fantastic experiences with the student newspaper, with the small school Communication Arts and Sciences, and with hundreds of students and some fantastic colleagues. I know, because I've seen it time and again, that African American and Chicano Latino students who are given respect, agency, and opportunities, who are taught with culturally relevant and meaningful curriculum, who are engaged in a community, defy the system's negative expectations and do fantastic work. But in the end I became convinced that we would always be half-stepping, we would never get a chance to develop the kind of powerful, engaging, equitable educational project that Berkeley could be capable of.

Again, I honor the many parents involved in public education and the contributions they make to the schools. Indeed, many of the best friends that Ilene and I have today are BHS and small school parents, with whom we have become close. But the Parents of Privilege are another category altogether -- wielding their social capital and political connections to get their way, even if it is against the interest of all students, even if it is against the interests of their own kids, which I'll speak to below.

Where to start? We seem to be in a state at Berkeley High where there is one constructed crisis after another -- each orchestrated by the PoP and duly picked up by the media. The "end of the science lab" story was not only run in the SF Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, and East Bay Express but it was a topic on KQED Forum as well as a feature in the Los Angeles Times. It was a juicy story, filled with dire unspoken fears and code language -- about the danger of "dumbing down" the curriculum, the undermining of "choice," and the dangers of PC policies that help those who are too lazy to help themselves. Since the labs were not disappearing, this story seemed to follow the pattern of Sarah Palin's death panel charges concerning health care legislation -- and it similarly appealed to the idea that we are losing something because of those dang poor people again. One of the side claims of the PoP was that BHS graduates are fantastic in science ("My older daughter, she became a doctor!" exclaimed one. And of course that never would have happened without the extra science lab). BHS Advanced Placement scores -- for the group of privileged kids who take them -- on chemistry and physics tests are quite high. Of course, they don't mention that these AP test scores are compared with those at schools across the state which have much lower income families. And they leave out the fact that an estimated 70 to 80 per cent of Berkeley High students in AP science classes are receiving private tutoring, sometimes at $50 to70 per hour.

The science lab story has been preceded by other false alarm panic stories, again designed to forestall any progress towards equity. Some of these stories were:
• Small school "cheating" by giving students extra time or alternative science options if they were failing in college prep classes (this was only a few months ago).
• Small schools inflating grades and throwing pixie dust in the eyes of college admissions officers
• The problem of the creation of advisory classes to support students in planning and committing to their education -- something that might take some minutes from academic classes.
• The danger of block scheduling (same concern as above).
• The threat of small school options being created for all BHS students, taking away the number of AP options students might have.

All of these threats to the traditional, factory-model, impersonal, transmission style education have been ferreted out by the PoP and stopped in their tracks. They can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing has changed, not one attempt to address the achievement gap. But they know they have to be vigilant. The principal and staff, they imagine, in some misguided attempt to support the "difficult" kids (that's code language), will probably come up with a new proposal. And the PoP will sniff it out early, ready to bash it down. The handful of committed, integrated small schools within Berkeley High represents one reform that has gotten a small foothold and thus becomes a target, being perceived as a threat to privilege.

Many people are surprised at the avalanche of false or misleading data the PoP present to the school board when they are launching one of their attacks. The claim about BHS AP test scores is one example. The recent charge that small schools don't teach as well, as shown by test scores, is another. Anyone familiar with education issues knows that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and social capital, not academic attainment. The only thing the low test scores show is that the lottery and the fear generated among middle class white parents has resulted in a higher per cent of low income, low skilled students coming into the small schools in the 9th grade. Many of the Parents of Privilege are UC faculty -- and it's always humorous to see these professors of a Tier I research university twisting data and invoking sloppy "back of the envelope" calculations.

And one of the teachers favoring the maintenance of elite privilege, in the science department no less, recently demonstrated the same penchant for proposing conclusions based on similarly irresponsible, unscientific, specious reasoning. His suggestion was that "The birth of an achievement gap at BHS coincides with the creation of small schools." In the real world, the achievement gap goes all the way back to the beginning of Berkeley schools. As soon as computer programs allowed the disaggregation of data, around 1994, the gap which we all knew was there became apparent and quantified. But this claim somehow invokes a "good old days" when there was no gap. Are you kidding?

In spite of all the protestations of liberal concern for the poor, for the "others" who they feel sorry for, the PoP maintain a primary focus on policing the school, to make sure the curriculum is "challenging" for their kids and that their children are kept away from the "disruptive" students, the troublemakers, what one Academic Choice parent called the "slack-jawed" children. Interestingly, some of these parents are so adept at working the college admissions game that they keep their kids in private school through middle school, then drop them into Berkeley High so they can claim on their applications to come from an urban, diverse school. God forbid, however, that they should actually encounter that diversity.

While the small schools were implemented in the interest of finally integrating the school, of bringing a diverse group of students through a whole four year program, the large school "programs" have reverted to the old Berkeley High tradition, segregation within. Walk down the hallways of Berkeley High. You will see mostly black and mostly white classes in these programs, but they manage to claim that their overall program is integrated.

Another part of the full court press the PoP put on is to harass, pressure, complain, and generally brow-beat administration figures to do their bidding. The new superintendent is currently getting his baptism in PoP treatment, facing a line of parents who complain that their voice is not strong enough in the shared governance process. They are, get ready for this, marginalized and powerless in the school! Of course, the opposite is true. The low income families, and most African American and Chicano Latino families, are desperately underrepresented in school functions and school decision making. A meeting held last year at St. Joseph the Worker Church for Latino families, to discuss advisories, was stacked with the PoP who took up all the space in the big discussions and in the small groups. The previous superintendent experienced the same boxing out by these parents and Jim Slemp, the current principal who has had proposal after proposal shot down, must surely be wondering if it is all worth the hassle.

An interesting aspect of the breathless protestations of the Parents of Privilege is the way they evoke the term "choice." They should have a choice of which teacher they have, a choice of the curriculum, a choice of the way city parcel tax money is spent, a choice of how the schedule is set up. So much freedom! But really "choice" here has a similar ring as the "state's rights" calls of the southern whites who were resisting integration. Indeed, integration and a move towards equity was going to deny them some choice about the kind of school they had and who sat next to their kids. And if the states wanted to enforce inequity, the movement, and the federal courts, took that choice away from them.

Yes, racism comes dressed up in many covers and Berkeley has its own liberal version of it. We don't so much have an achievement gap as an educational debt, a debt we owe to low income students, to many African American and Chicano Latino students, who continue to be crushed by the Berkeley school system, who continue to head off to the streets or the prisons. The failure continues and what do we have in response to it? Some patronizing hand-wringing, some head shaking, wondering what's wrong with those kids, maybe we should get them a few tutors, some after school back-up. But we have to ask: what are they doing right from 3:15 to 5:00 PM that they could not be doing from 8:15 to 3:00?

The failure of these students, or rather our failure of them, is not some mysterious or impenetrable problem. It is constructed, it is created, by our schools -- which very efficiently reproduce the class and racial fissures of our society. It is kept in place by conscious actions, by real people, who head off any efforts to make the school work for everyone. If our community cared about this problem, each of the proposals enumerated above, and many more, would be embraced in an affirmative effort to solve the problem. Any effort that is made in the Berkeley schools, however, is met with a chorus of protests by selfish and mean-spirited citizens of Berkeley who want to keep all the marbles for themselves.

The sad thing is that many, many powerful efforts have been mounted in Berkeley, precisely because it could be a showcase of progress and equity. We had the Diversity Project, a six year process of research, assessment, and recommendations led by Pedro Noguera and involving graduate researchers, teachers, parents and students; we had the concerted efforts of the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools; we had the Parents of Children of African Descent, the Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, and the United in Action; we have had endless hours put in by teachers committed to equity and diversity, the demands of the students over and over, and the series of proposals that Principal Jim Slemp has initiated. Each initiative has gained some life, made some progress, and been beaten back by the PoP.

What we lack is a strong, coherent voice of the communities, the teachers and parents and students who know what would make Berkeley High work. Too often, the struggle is a one-sided shouting match. We don't need to sit with the principal and hash out a two year "decision making" process only to have it crash and burn at the board level. We need to put our efforts into building a strong, consistent, militant community movement that demands change, deep change, and nothing less.

Ultimately, we have to take a deep look at what we think education is for. Why do we have schools? What are they about? In the broadest sense, they are to develop the adults who will lead our society in the next generation. They are about supporting young minds in imagining a just and fulfilling world -- and then going out and creating it. Schools should not be dismissing the knowledge, withholding the instruction, and crushing the hopes of students who are not the right race or income level. These students, the ones our schools marginalize, show again and again the greatness they can achieve if just given a few chances.

And the blocking efforts of the PoP don't only harm students who have been pushed aside by our schools; they harm their own kids. I don't think a consequence of by-product our children should be to exacerbate the gap between rich and poor, to create a world of gated communities on the one hand and blighted neighborhoods on the other. In the interest of bumper sticker pride, so they can display an Ivy League school their children attend, some of these parents push their kids to take 3 or 4 AP classes, extracurricular activities, endless lessons, and some obligatory charity work.

I've had the experience of encountering some of upper track students in the hallways, being restrained by security as they went through a panic attack brought on by overloads of AP classes and extracurriculars. I've seen so many of them robbed of the joy of learning, figuring out how to do a book report from Cliff's Notes, scheming how to get by -- through cheating or through putting up the minimum needed for the "lazy A." I've known college professors who are so discouraged to get these students, to find them so uninspired about learning, so cynical about the world and their possibilities. They have developed the habit of narrow survival, learned to play the game, and never gained passion for anything. How sad is that?

It's interesting to listen to many of the students themselves on the upper track at Berkeley High. One in the Shared Governance committee argued that high-achieving students of Berkeley High were ready to lose the privileges of additional classes if all students were given greater opportunities for success so that the achievement gap could be narrowed. He added that he "had too many AP classes anyway." When the school board was considering the dire danger of the extra lab class being cut, another student shocked them by declaring that nothing much happened in that class, many teachers did not take attendance. It was padding on the schedule, not a rigorous lab. One is left to wonder: was the frantic response of the PoP based on a knee-jerk reaction that feared some privilege of their kids might be infringed upon? Or were they worried that the elevation of the educational opportunities of the low income students would make their kids' transcripts not look as good in comparison?

Somehow, these parents declare how proud they are that they are sticking with public school, that they "got involved" in the school. They beat back any attempts at meaningful reform. They pushed the rigor and the rigor mortis of the curriculum. I guess they can say they won.

I know we're all supposed to get along but I can't believe that these parents don't, in the private moments at home, feel some shame at what they've wrought. I know I'm not supposed to blast all this complaint out. It is a bitter note I have written many times -- and heard other teachers, administrators, parents, and students voice often - but, having gotten it off my chest, I usually decide to hit the delete button. Perhaps this time I will hit send. I have no doubt that this group will continue to dominate the board and the direction of the school. But at least someone should name them, because these are the active agents of the achievement gap. They need to own it. And we need to understand them.

We need to make this struggle openly and deeply, so that some day we will be able to take an honest look at the problems and take common sense measures to address them.