'Too White' Berkeley Science Labs May Be Cut

The Berkeley (CA) Board of Education will consider, at its February 3 meeting, whether or not to cancel before and after school Science Labs for Advanced Placement Science classes at Berkeley High School because the classes are attended largely by white students. The proposal is aimed at addressing "Berkeley’s dismal racial achievement gap"

According to published reports, the proposal to cancel the science labs and re-allocate the money for five teaching positions to an unspecified program of "equity grants" to help struggling "minority" students comes from Berkeley High School Principal Jim Slemp and the school’s Governance Council.

Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent William Huyett said the unspecified new programs could include  "a course on supporting kids’ scholarship — note-taking skills, how to study — and helps them apply those things to the courses they are taking." 

Huyett, a former AP Physics teacher himself, has been quoted as believing that moving the lab classes from before and after school to inside the school day would improve participation in the AP classes by "minority" students. Huyett admits that limiting labs to the school day would decrease the overall number of lab classes available to students.  The reason lab classes were scheduled before and after school in the first place was the limited number of labs on campus.

Huyett, speaking for the Berkeley High School Governance Council, says that "the six teachers (to be re-allocated from AP Lab classes)…should help all students, not only those preparing for college" and "should be used for other classes, not only science."

Berkeley’s AP Science courses are an outstanding success.  In a time when we are constantly reminded of the need for American students to get better at Physics, Biology, and Chemistry, 82% of Berkeley’s AP chemistry students passed the national exam. The national passing rate is 55.2%.

Mardi Sicular-Mertens, a science teacher at Berkeley High School for 24 years, recently told the school board that her AP classes include 17.5% African-American and 13.9% Latino students. Apparently, that’s not enough. Chemistry teacher Aaron Glimme said that "there is a clear difference by race as to who shows up to the lab classes."

In other words, the AP classes are open to all students, but because "minority" students don’t "show up" to these lab classes in the same percentage as the percentage of "minority" students attending Berkeley High overall, the classes must be cancelled to close the "dismal racial achievement gap."

This being Berkeley, groups have organized on both sides of the issue. The BHS Science teachers have sent a letter to Berkeley parents and residents seeking support. An online petition to preserve the successful Science Lab program has hundreds of signatures.

Proponents of the class cuts cite the need to address the "achievement gap." According to the California Department of Education, while white students at BHS are 90% proficient in English, only 30.8% of African-American students are. While white students are 87.1% proficient in Math, only 31.3% of African-American students are.

The Los Angeles Times points out that other largely "minority" schools have much narrower "gaps" but cites no specific program differences between the schools or reasons for the differences in statistics between campuses.

Unsaid (and unsayable in politically correct speech) in this debate is the obvious.  If classes are open to all students, why should those students who choose the harder classes be punished in the name of those students who did not choose to work as hard ?

Berkeley High School has a first rate reputation for providing equal opportunity to all students. Unequal outcomes in student achievement are the result of the effort each student puts into taking advantage of those opportunities. Narrowing the "achievement gap" by eliminating the achievers doesn’t help either the achievers or the rest of the students.