Which to Fund: Science Labs or Racial Equity?

A committee at Berkeley High School in Northern California has proposed eliminating science lab classes—and the teachers who teach them—in favor of funding activities and resources for underperforming students and closing the racial gap in performance at the school.

Writing at the Berkeley High Jacket student newspaper, Chloe Holden explains:

Under the new plan, finalized and approved two weeks ago, the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP) grants currently being used to fund science labs, along with those used in the arts programs, will be redirected to fund a new system of “equity grants.” These grants will be intended to support the Action Plan’s larger objective of student equity at BHS. While it is possible that parts of the lab program may be submitted by the science department funding under the new equity grants, potential of this taking place is currently unclear.

According to the East Bay Express,

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.

In the same article, a parent is quoted as saying that the lab classes have been presented to the School Governance Council as enrolling mostly white students.  The article also cites Mardi Sincular-Mertens, a 24-year veteran of BHS science teaching, as saying that cuts will impact her black and Latino students as well; for example, she has 12 African-American male students in her Advanced Placement classes, and black students constitute 17.5 percent of her four environmental science classes.  Latinos constitute 13.9 percent of those classes.

That 17.5 percent isn't a representative percentage of the black students at the high school; Razib Khan offers a pie chart illustrating the school's demographics; it indicates the school is 29.1 percent African American, 36.7 percent white, and 12.6 percent Hispanic/Latino.  As Khan points out, the city of Berkeley is 9.3 percent black, 57.4 percent non-Hispanic white, and 10.7 percent Hispanic.  Compare the two sets of numbers, and it suggests parents are sending their white students to private schools in larger numbers than are parents of black or Latino students.  Cutting the science labs may contribute further to this trend, he writes.

This action will reinforce this tendency; the type of engaged parents which a public school benefits from won't consider sending their child to one which has to slash science laboratories to focus on remedial education. So Berkeley High School is simply accelerating its long death spiral.

More generally, the bizarre racialist logic used to justify the slashing of the science curriculum, that science implicitly benefits whites, is objectionable (at least to me, and likely to readers of this weblog). Our civilization is grounded fundamentally in science. Additionally, Berkeley High School is just a few blocks from UC Berkeley, where there are plenty of non-whites who do science. 42% of the undergraduates at UC Berkeley are Asian, as opposed to 31% who are white.

Science teachers at Berkeley have written an open letter to the school community; they are, of course, protesting the cuts.  From the letter:

This proposal flies in the face of the BSEP mandate and the 2020 Vision. The science labs during 0 and 7th periods provide weekly enrichment and satisfy [University of California] and [California State University] requirements that college prep science classes offer 20% of instructional time for hands-on lab activities. In addition, the extra lab periods provide additional time to support struggling students. The science program meets the goals articulated by both BSEP and the 2020 Vision providing enrichment, support for all students and UC requirements.

The extra time BSEP funding supports allows BHS to maintain an outstanding AP science program. Many of our students take and succeed in three AP level sciences courses as first year courses. Our students’ performance on the AP exams well exceeds the national average. These courses would have to become 2nd year offerings if the labs were eliminated. Approximately 600 students per year enroll in our AP programs. All of our students take Advanced Biology, most take chemistry, physics, or environmental science or anatomy and the extra time provides the support students need to develop a deep understanding of these topics.

Where Asian-American high school students fit into all of this isn't clear from material available online, but I will point out that Berkeley High School has the largest racial equity/achievement gap in the state--a gap that is in desperate need of remediation.

It's not yet clear how the funds generated by cutting science labs will be spent, but Joanne Jacobs writes that one possibility is creating "small 'learning communities,' an innovation that’s failed to show results so far."

Vera L. Te Velde, a student at UC Berkeley, is confused--as are many commenters on various blog posts and articles, it seems--how removing classes that benefit one group (white and possibly Asian-American students) is the best course of action in leveling the playing field.  "Berkeley is home of people who are smug about their open-mindedness and intelligence and reasonableness," she writes, "and this is what they come up with."

In the long comment stream at Crazy on Tap, one commenter argued that providing Advanced Placement and honors students with additional class time is unfair to students who don't have access to the science labs, which meet before and after school.  Another commenter replied,

The new argument has been made [...] that there should be equal hours per student, that anything else is unfair.

Obviously the students that predominate the sports classes get far more hours than the regular students.

So, I want to know if you want to eliminate the sports (and possibly music) programs, or if you favor figuring how many hours are involved in that and making sure that all the students not involved get those hours as well.

After all, that is what is fair.

Of course, I want it both ways: I want to see higher achievement by black and Latino students and I want all students to have access to hands-on science.  And, as fellow BlogHer Deb Roby pointed out to me, the two desires aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, as evidenced by the success of Da Vinci Science High School in Southern California.  Both schools offer a "project-based" curriculum that emphasizes hands-on learning, often in groups.  Notably, the Wiseburn School District, which oversees Da Vinci and its twin, Da Vinci Design High School, as well as elementary and middle schools, is one of the few districts in the state to have eliminated the racial gap in achievement.

What are your thoughts?  How should Berkeley High School spend its grant money?  What solution seems most equitable to you?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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