Ugh, the Berkeley High science lab story

A friend drew my attention to this story last week, and I’ve been following it ever since (including a piece tonight on ABC 7 news).  As a Berkeley High graduate who received an excellent science education in high school, I had a visceral and emotional reaction to the idea that Berkeley High might gut its science program in the name of equity. But I’ve been hesitating to blog about it, partly because Caroline Grannan has already covered it all in her blog, and partly because the details still seem kind of sketchy (more on my questions below).

On the face of it, it sure seems like a “what were they thinking?” roll-your-eyes-and-say-only-in-Berkeley kind of story. Essentially, Berkeley High’s governance council (which may or may not have the required balance of parents, teachers and administrators, and which may or may not comply with other aspects of the state’s Education Code) recently recommended doing away with before- and after-school AP science labs under the rationale that they chiefly benefit white students; and that the resources spent on the labs could be better spent supporting struggling students of color (Berkeley High has a significant achievement gap).  The school board will debate the plan at a meeting next week (scheduled for January 13).  On the face of it, how can it possibly be good policy to end a high quality program because it fails to attract students of color? Wouldn’t it be better to figure out why students of color are not participating?

I do have some questions: first of all, the original story did not make clear that the labs are scheduled before- and after-school. In tonight’s ABC News piece, Berkeley Superintendent William Huyett is quoted as saying that it doesn’t seem all that equitable to expect students to be responsible for class work that is done outside of the regular school day, and he’s got a point. On the other hand, three years of lab science are required for students who intend to enter a four-year college, and aren’t we trying to encourage more students to build their skills in science and math? However, it appears from tonight’s piece that under the proposal, the labs would be rescheduled to occur during the school day, which would eliminate some teaching positions but might not affect the school’s science offerings overall.  (Finally, I don’t know what it means, but it’s interesting to see that the science teachers advocating to keep the labs are being led by Amy Hansen, who was briefly and tumultuously the principal of Lowell High School and who is now teaching science at Berkeley High.)

I’m truly hoping that there is more to this story that meets the eye, and that the governance council’s recommendation has been misrepresented – are there any enterprising UC Berkeley Journalism students (or reporters for the Berkeley High Jacket) out there who are willing to delve into this story more deeply? I do hope we learn more before Fox News jumps into the fray, but I’m not optimistic: the current “crazy Berkeley does it again” storyline is just too juicy.

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5 responses to “Ugh, the Berkeley High science lab story

  1. OK, fair enough. I do think that our expanded choice assignment system is at least partly responsible for the improvement in district scores, but I don’t think there is any real research about it, just anecdotes. (Though I do find the anecdotes pretty powerful: Miraloma and Alvarado going from shunned schools to high-demand, high-scoring schools, plus the improvements at some of the new immersion schools.)

    I do agree with you that the system is not responsible for the achievement gap. I think that the achievement gap has existed for much longer than the current SFUSD lottery, so the lottery couldn’t responsible for it.

    I do think that the improvement in SFUSD does at least correlate to the changes done for the assignment system. Was SFUSD the highest scoring urban district in 2000? But of course, correlation is not causation.

  2. Hi Frank. Interesting idea, but I don’t agree with the notion that our assignment system is the cause of our being the highest scoring urban district in the state — I don’t even think it’s responsible for our very wide gap in achievement between white and asian students and their latino, african-american and pacific islander counterparts.

  3. This sounds a lot like the issues around San Francisco’s enrollment process. On the face of it, how can it possibly be good policy to end an enrollment program that has helped the district become the highest-scoring urban school district in the state because it fails to attract students of color? Wouldn’t it be better to figure out why students of color are not participating?

  4. Ah yes, thank goodness for Jill Tucker. Here’s the story: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/01/06/MNR31BE0C7.DTL&tsp=1
    It did clear up whether the labs were “extras” or not — basically what the school has done is carve out the lab time and require students to take a lab before or after school once a week (twice for AP students). The good side of this is that it gives students a lot of science instructional time. The bad side is that struggling (or less motivated) students blow off the labs because they are seen as “extra time” rather than required class time. And, of course, they cost a lot of money. The Superintendent is quoted as saying that labs will still be part of the curriculum, but cutting the before- and after-school lab time of course will decrease the overall amount of instructional time in science. It all comes down to priorities – should the school spend money on the science labs or should it spend money on other things that will support struggling students? We will hear this story again and again and again this year: schools forced to choose between bad and worse options.

  5. Jennifer Moless

    The Chronicle has a good story on this today if you haven’t seen it yet. It answers some of the questions I had about the story as reported in the East Bay Express.