Berkeley High School Shows System’s Inequities

Published November 1, 2006

Review of Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools
Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006)
318 pages, softcover, ISBN: 0-7879-7275-4, $24.95
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The topic of inequities in American public education isn’t new, but few books have examined it as closely as Unfinished Business, a memorable case study of the dynamics of race and achievement at California’s Berkeley High School (BHS).

The book highlights the challenges of maintaining a level playing field among all races and socioeconomic backgrounds in public schools.

In 1968, BHS became one of the first to integrate voluntarily. According to Noguera and Wing, Berkeley’s diverse student population clearly illustrates the “achievement gap” phenomenon in our schools.

Widening Gap

Despite the nation’s “leave no child behind” push, test scores, grades, and dropout and graduation rates reveal a widening gap between white, African-American, and Latino students. BHS is no different. To understand why, the authors spent four years investigating the school’s dynamics–examining cultures, academic tracking, curricular access, and after-school activities, to name a few.

They concluded many school organization factors set students on predetermined paths of success or failure.

As in most school districts nationwide, student tracking and teacher assignments placed low-income students at a disadvantage, the authors found.

Frank Discussion

Several former teachers and students contributed essays to the book, relieving it of an exaggeratedly academic tone, which makes it as suitable for parents as for educators.

The essayists frankly discuss claims of sexism and racism and outline clear differences between ethnic groups’ behavior. The authors suggest research shows minority students traditionally have been more interested in social activities than white students have been, causing one teacher to question whether his teaching methods were reinforcing the racial achievement gap.

Despite BHS’s well-publicized desegregation successes, locally it was also known for its “chaos, drug use, and permissive culture,” the authors note.

The disparities between students were highlighted in the 1994 documentary film “School Colors.” Two years later, the Berkeley High School Diversity Project was established to research inequalities, with the goals, the authors write, of critically examining the “organizational structure” of privilege and of empowering disadvantaged and marginalized students.

Differing Treatment

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book details the differences between “privileged” and “disadvantaged” students. The privileged students had easier access to Advanced Placement (AP) classes, more direct access to the best teachers and college prep courses, and received more “favors” such as bending attendance rules for academic clubs and field trips.

Disadvantaged students were those didn’t have the same kind of access to AP classes or college information.

One Asian-American student with excellent grades and athletic ability had to search Publishers Clearinghouse for information on college scholarships because his guidance counselor wasn’t helpful. He and many other “disadvantaged” students simply had less money, less influence, and sometimes less parental involvement and teacher support than other students.

At the end of the book, the authors make several suggestions they feel will help close the academic achievement gap. These include creating a detailed mentoring program, better advisory systems to allow students to choose the best academic courses for their development, and better alignment of the school’s graduation requirements with state college systems’ admission requirements.

Mike Scott ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in White Lake, Michigan.