Separate and Unequal: Berkeley High

I’ve long had reservations about Berkeley High and the way its small schools function to divide students academically, which unintentionally tends to lead to further divisions along social and racial lines.  Earlier today I was talking to another teacher about how I’m working to address the achievement gap in my classroom, and happened to bring up my criticisms of Berkeley High.  After our talk I ran out to grab a coffee and what was the first thing I saw on the table at the coffee shop?  This week’s East Bay Express with the glaring headline on the cover:

Separate and Unequal at Berkeley’s Small Schools

Berkeley High embraced the small schools movement to close its staggering racial achievement gap. But evidence suggests that these schools are exacerbating the very problem they were supposed to solve.

Click here to read the full text of the article.  

At first I was excited to read the article–finally an indictment of the segregation at Berkeley High!  But, like so many in Berkeley, and I’m afraid so many powerful white teachers and parents, author Rachel Swan got the story all wrong.

Swan’s initial skepticism of the small schools movement is not unfounded.  Small schools, like their larger counterparts, are not without fallible teachers and administrators, or moments of pedagogy that miss the mark.  But Swan appears to view the issue similarly to the teachers at BHS who rail against the small schools.  

I’ve selected some of Swan’s own reporting to articulate what I see at Berkeley High, as a teacher, scholar, observer of BHS classrooms, opposer of segregation, holder of almost unattainably high expectations of all students, local resident, relative of a BHS student, and friend of many BHS alumni. 

Small schools enthusiasts cite several reasons why this approach is good for students. Their biggest selling point is “personalization,” a word that pops up immediately in any argument on behalf of small schools. This personalization is based upon a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, a tight-knit classroom community, team teaching, a curriculum designed to meet students’ individual needs, and parent-teacher conferences where the parent — not the teacher — is the expert.

It isn’t just small schools enthusiasts who cite “personalization” as an argument for small schools, it’s a great number of academics and a body of research that began as far back as John Dewey’s Experience and Education (1938).  Dewey and his successors that argue for a personalized approach to curriculum and pedagogy in all schools.  Dewey says, “amid all uncertainties there is one permanent frame of reference: namely, the organic connection between education and personal experience” (p. 25).  Dewey goes on to detail the ways in which experience can be rendered educative or miseducative.  One could analyze both the large school and small school pedagogies that Swan describes and make arguments about whether or not the experiences the pedagogies engender are educative or miseducative.  But based on Dewey’s thesis on experience and the influence his work has had on educational theory in the last eighty years, it is difficult to condemn a pedagogy that emphasizes “personalization.”  

Chief among [opponents of small schools’] arguments is that standardized test scores show that small schools have not boosted academic performance or even leveled the playing field at Berkeley High.

As Victor Cary, current program director at Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (which facilitated BHS’ small schools initiative) concedes in the article, standardized test scores are not where you’ll see gains for the population of students that the small schools target.  What Victor Cary failed to mention is that the reason standardized test scores are an unfair predictor of non-white students’ achievement is that standardized tests (including the SAT and California’s STAR test) have been shown to be racially and culturally biased time and time again.  Opponents of the small schools argue that the small school students’ A’s can’t be real A’s if they can’t pass a standardized test.  But how can students pass tests designed for them to fail?  One of my favorite quotes from an education professor is, “we don’t need an expensive test to determine which students will fail our system.”  Implicitly, we need only look at the color of their skin.  The level of the playing field cannot be determined by standardized test scores, which falsely portray learning and knowledge of non-white students.  Information on racially biased tests here, here, herehere, and here

But critics note that if the rest of the academic world uses standardized tests to measure success and Berkeley High doesn’t, then it isn’t really preparing its students for college.

This is, in some ways, a valid point.  In an ideal world, colleges would accept students based on their thinking skills, not their standardized test skills, but in the real world the tests are still gatekeepers for higher education.  But I accept the statement above with a slight revision; I would concede that small schools at Berkeley are not preparing students to excel at standardized tests.  

To teach with the objective of ensuring that non-white students excel on standardized tests would have a number of negative implications.  First, to teach students how to excel on tests that are racially and culturally biased would be to fight a losing battle.  Some students might succeed, but many, many more would be the casualties of such curriculum and pedagogy.  This is, in Dewey’s terms, a potentially miseducative experience for the child.  Creating and supporting an experience in which a child is doomed to fail only teaches the child that their work does not pay off and that education for does not work.  Is this really the message we want to send our working and lower class students who strive for a better chance than their parents?  Perhaps if Ms. Hansen (the vocal opponent of the small school in Swan’s article) had ever met a seventh-grader so resigned and demoralized by school that she had a scheme to drop out and sell her body and the drug ecstasy to survive, she might see a greater need for ensuring that low-income non-white students feel encouraged that they can succeed in school.  No one, on the right or the left, large or small side, desires more thirteen-year-old drug-dealer/prostitutes on the street.  We all agree education is one of the only ways out of poverty.  But in order for children to access that education we as adults, teachers, and citizens need to keep them in school, and keep the faith that they can learn, that they might adopt our faith in turn.  

Second, to “teach to the test” would be to teach students a series of facts in a decontextualized manner that prizes memorization, notable for its position as level one of Bloom’s famous taxonomy.  To do so would be another form of racism in effect; while (majority white) students at private and public schools that serve the executive elite class (in Jean Anyon’s term from  “Social Class and School Knowledge“) are problem solving, creating and constructing, and analyzing and synthesizing (the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy), the non-white students who have to take a racially-biased test have to sit in class year after year memorizing?  How does that prepare them for college seminars, which value the quality of an argument, strength of textual support and analysis, and construction of new ideas through synthesis of multiple texts?  The dilemma that we still face then is what to do about the standardized tests?  How (can?) we change their status as gatekeepers to higher education?  Do we really believe that they measure intelligence?  Why?  Based on what?  

A more useful criticism of the small schools’ curriculum and pedagogy might be how they are preparing students for the kind of thinking they will need to do when/if they reach that seemingly unattainable dream: college.  And based even on Swan’s critical descriptions of the small school classrooms she visited, it would seem that the teachers who lead those rooms are striving to create an environment in which children are using higher level thinking skills that will prepare them for the type of challenges that will greet them in a college seminar.

The example of a classroom that Swan provides is lead by teacher Susannah Bell.  In this example Bell is leading a discussion about the same controversy Swan writes about.  Bell’s students are responding.  According to Swan’s description, Bell’s students do not raise their hands, they yell out.  They do not always speak in complete sentences, and sometime they use vernacular language.  Examples: “He’s a jerk,” and “Hi haters.”  

It would seem that Swan (and likely the teachers at the larger schools at BHS) would not consider Swan’s description of Bell’s classroom and example of learning (whether facts and memorization or analysis and evaluation skills).  But I would like to highlight what I believe is the true difference in Bell’s classroom: language.  If a knowledgeable adult and speaker of the students’ language were in the room, they might well believe that what the students were doing was constructing an understanding of a controversy through analysis of presented facts.  Bell’s students and the nature of their responses also represent cultural differences between students based on race, ethnicity, and social class.  As the small schools’ objectives seem to dictate, Bell is accepting of the culture that her students bring to the classroom.  In order for her students to learn and be open to learning from her, they must feel that she is not trying to deprive them of what they feel is the essence of their identities.  But, Bell has a parallel responsibility, and that is to teach her students explicitly that in dominant (white) culture, that people interact and use language differently.  Therefore the onus is on Bell to 1) value where her students come from 2) be explicit about power structures in the world and how people in power communicate 3) teach her students how to access the language and behaviors of the culture of power without oppressing their individual culture.

This is no easy job.  I would bet that Bell has these goals in mind, even as she taught the students the day that Swan visited.  To teach these ideas and skills, a teacher must infuse everyday instruction with instruction that leads to deep understandings of items 1) and 2) and skills that address item 3).  What I suspect is a challenge to Swan and the big school teachers is an understanding of this theory, and what it looks like in practice in a classroom.  It is likely that a classroom that is designed to accomplish these objectives is one that would feel quite uncomfortable to those accustomed classrooms that adhere to mainstream, or dominant culture’s expectations of “school:” i.e. passive students, quiet students, teacher as the expert, student as receivers of knowledge as a static instrument, etc.

To refute, critique, and argue Swan line by line would prove exhaustive, and perhaps more importantly not useful.  I will try to summarize from this point on.

Swan describes a scandal that seems in effect a fight between two factions of faculty: Hansen and Kavalar of the big schools, and Halpern representing the small schools.  Hansen and Kavalar accused Halpern and teachers at the small schools of inflating grades and circumventing diploma and graduation requirements by allowing students to take independent study classes to satisfy requirements.

What Swan goes onto describe is an ideological face off with Hansen and Kavalar on one side and Halpern on the other.  Unfortunately, this fight is unproductive.  Neither side will see the changes they desire while fighting with ideology as their only weapon (unless, perhaps, they are capable of winning over some politicians).  It appears that Halpern attempted to say just that in his letter to the school newspaper, The Berkeley High Jacket, but Swan doesn’t see the truth in Halpern’s claims and derides his letter as “carping.”  A sort of group mediation that Halpern suggests is abandoned, when he and Hansen can’t get along.

Swan’s article might have more accurately be title “Warring Faculty Factions at Berkeley High.”

I won’t take a side in the faculty debate.  When it comes to this part of the article Swan’s bias is blatant.  Even with “all” the facts, I don’t believe there is an absolute “right” in this debate.  What is apparent is that things at BHS have gotten ugly.  Hansen reportedly is fighting the small schools on the grounds of “morality and ethics,” only the former of which could be arguably deemed absolute on the individual level.  With regard to ethics, teachers as a group have no stated ethical code, such as physician’s Hippocratic Oath.  

Swan concludes by pointing out the speciousness of the small schools’ policies based on the fact that five senior could not pass the California High School Exit Exam (see argument against standardized testing above) and characterizes small schools as “lowering the standards.”  Apparently, Hansen and Kavalar have Swan convinced:

Perhaps some of them genuinely believe that African-American and Latino students are better served if you put them in a segregated system, give them an unconventional curriculum, inflate their grades, and then lie to them about how well they’re doing. But with so many stakeholders involved, it may get harder for Berkeley to extricate itself from a system that appears not to be working. The supporters of small schools want to meet their equity goals so their programs look viable. Principal Slemp wants to keep his reputation as a reformer. BayCES wants to keep Berkley High on the reform track so it can keep its organization in business. Evidence suggests that the improvements to date are dubious, at best. If New York University professor Pedro Noguera were to come back to Berkeley High and conduct another Diversity Project, he’d get the same results today.

I don’t think anyone “genuinely believes” (in Swan’s bombastic language) that non-white students are better served in a segregated system.  The major point of the story, which Swan glossed over on page one, is that small schools, with best intentions, have resegregated Berkeley High.  This issue deserves front-page attention.  Only gossipmongers are interested in reading about faculty infighting.  Swan’s article does nothing to report on the how or why re-segregation has happened (and by the way, there is not, as Hansen would seem to like, a singular culprit who we can give a scarlet ‘A’ or even ‘S’ to pin on their jacket).  The re-segregation is the real story.  

Regarding curriculum, many, many people including experts from Dewey onto Herbert Kohl and Lisa Delpit believe that unconventional curriculums are better for all students, not because they are unconventional, but because they have been shown through research to result in better learning outcomes for students.  Perhaps it would have behooved Swan to ask some of the carping teachers at the small schools where they got their ideas for cooperative learning and personalized instruction: it wasn’t out of a magician’s top hat or from some magic mushroom trip.  

“…inflate their grades, and then lie to them about how well they’re doing.” 

Does Swan really think the small schools teachers, or the people at BayCES actually do this in bad faith?  It’s almost laughable.  

It’s too bad that Swan’s last twenty or so paragraphs of bias serve to discredit what appears to be months of well-intentioned reporting.  I don’t think that Pedro Noguera, if he were to return to BHS, would be as harsh as Swan, or come to similar conclusions about diversity and education.  He would more likely cite his colleagues David Tyack and Larry Cuban, as he has many times before, and gently chide Swan for failing to understand the inevitable pendulum swings (that might even take place on one school campus) as we as a citizenship, as educators, and students “tinker towards utopia.”


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2 responses to “Separate and Unequal: Berkeley High

  1. therachelcr

    I also found the Swan article very problematic. I do want to note that the Small Schools didn’t resegregate Berkeley High. Berkeley High has been segregated and formally or informally tracked for decades. What I was trying to point out in my comment on the original article is that you can’t expect a segregated economic and educational system to magically desegregate and all the students to become equally capable academically in 9th grade through even the most amazing new schools. If we “throw” enough money and resources to try to help we may be able to do something. However, as Saddleshoos points out, the problems faced by students are wondering if they should drop out to hook in high school versus those wondering will they be able to get into the Ivy League or ‘have’ to go to a U.C. face these different situations due to a myriad of economic factors and experiences that cannot be solved easily through schools. I commend the Small Schools for what they are doing to help those who historically have been allowed to drop out.

  2. Pingback: Do small schools lie to their students? « Teacher, Revised

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