See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more) Unfinished Business: Closing The Achievement Gap At Berkeley High School

Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us
Unfinished Business:
Closing The Achievement Gap
At Berkeley High School

by Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing
Berkeley, California

The following is the Introduction chapter of Unfinished Business: Closing The Achievement Gap In Our Schools, edited by Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing, published by Jossey-Bass. Pedro A. Noguera is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and the co-director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings. Jean Yonemura Wing is Manager of Research and Best Practises for the New School Development Group of the Oakland Unified School District. Unfinished Business can be purchased at Jossey-Bass and are linked to a new browser window for easy viewing.)
If ever there were a need to identify a school district that could vividly illustrate the phenomenon now commonly referred to as the achievement gap, Berkeley, California, would be an excellent choice. Academic achievement in Berkeley as measured by grades and tests scores, has historically followed a distinct pattern. In every school in this district of nearly nine thousand students, most white and Asian students perform at or well above national averages on norm-referenced exams, while many African American and Latino students (and some Asians) perform well below the average. Berkeley High School, which The New York Times has called “the most integrated high school in America” (Goodman, 1994, p. A1), has a student population that fluctuated during the life of the Diversity Project from a low of twenty-eight hundred to a high of thirty-two hundred: approximately 38 percent are white, 35 percent African American, 11 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 10 percent Latino, and 6 percent multi-racial/“other.” Similar patterns can be seen through other indicators of educational progress, including high school graduation and drop-out rates, college attendance and completion patterns, as well as enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, gifted programs, and special education and remedial courses. In nearly every category associated with positive academic outcomes, students of color are typically underrepresented, and in categories associated with negative outcomes, they are overrepresented.

There are exceptions. Some African American and Latino students achieve high academic honors and excel. They stand out among their peers and are held up as role models. And there are a few white students who barely manage to graduate. Some of these students use drugs, cut school, and show through their academic performance and behavior that every stereotype has its exceptions. Then there are the Asian American students at Berkeley High School, who, despite the prevalence of the so-called model minority stereotype, demonstrate perhaps the widest range of variability in academic performance. They are well represented among the most successful and can also be found among the academically at-risk students, but unlike the others, they are the group most likely to be ignored by adults in the school and in discussions about race and student achievement (Wing, 2002). In a school where racial conflicts have historically been framed through a white versus black prism, Asians, and to a lesser degree Latinos, have often been rendered invisible, even though together they comprise over 20 percent of the district population. The experience of these students and others who defy well-established academic patterns shows that the exceptions do not challenge existing stereotypes; rather, they serve to reinforce them, precisely because they are seen as individual exceptions.

Many observers of academic trends have argued that the achievement gap in communities like Berkeley is less about race than class (Gordon, Piana, and Keleher, 2000; Maran, 2000). After all, the vast majority of those who fail, who are suspended or expelled, or are labeled educationally deficient and siphoned off into remedial courses are poor and often come from families headed by parents or guardians who lack a college education. In contrast, the vast majority of academically successful white students come from affluent families, and they generally have parents with high levels of education. In Berkeley, even white students who are not affluent -- the children of white- and blue-collar workers, small businesspersons, artists, freelance writers -- generally outperform their minority peers. Although their families may be technically middle or even lower middle income, these students nevertheless possess the valued “cultural capital” inherited from their typically well-educated parents (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977). They also benefit from prevailing assumptions about the relationship between race and academic ability. In a district where race and class are highly correlated, even white students who are not high achievers tend to benefit from sorting practices that treat race as an unofficial proxy for academic ability. In other words, they may be given the benefit of a doubt and be placed in more advanced classes than their grades or test scores might support.

Hence, though some in Berkeley like to argue that the achievement gap is not a racial phenomenon, but one rooted in socioeconomic inequality, there is little they can say to counter the reality that this is how the issue generally is perceived. As is often the case, perception has a way of creating its own reality.

Those who prefer to place greater emphasis on class than race in their analysis of achievement patterns often do so because they find comfort in the idea that the cause of such pronounced differences in academic outcomes is not some form of inherent racial difference or racism. Innate racial differences rooted in biology have historically served as the favorite explanation for disparities in intellectual performance, while racism has tended to receive considerably less attention (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Unlike many other regions of America where innate or even cultural differences are more likely to be accepted as the cause of group differences in academic achievement, sophisticated liberals in Berkeley tend to shun such explanations. However, they are equally squeamish about the possibility that racism might somehow be implicated in these well-established patterns.

The charge of racism is particularly inflammatory in a liberal community like Berkeley. This is a community that has historically taken great pride in its commitment to racial justice and equality. If racism were indeed the culprit behind persistent disparities in achievement, then surely a community with a well-deserved reputation for its liberalism would be mobilized to take action to address the problem. Of course, that would work only if it were racism of the old sort -- the blatant, in-your-face, “we hate black people” variety. If instead it were a more subtle form of institutional racism that worked through seemingly neutral policies and procedures to reward the privileged while covertly limiting opportunities for the disadvantaged, then what could be done?

Those who hope to avoid the thorny issue of race and racism can find solace in knowing that there is no proof that racism of the old type is the cause of the achievement gap in Berkeley, certainly not the racism of bigots wearing white sheets. That perception makes it possible for earnest liberals to shake their heads in disappointment when they hear statistics about the large numbers of black and Latino students who fail. If they care enough, they can call for something to be done -- more tutoring perhaps -- without having to incur any sense of guilt or culpability for the problem.

For this reason, Berkeleyans, like many other Americans, prefer to attribute the causes of the achievement gap to the effects of poverty and the unfortunate influences of family background -- that is, parents who are presumed to have less education and know-how when it comes to raising their children. Such explanations are eminently more palatable than ascribing the cause to some form of discrimination or racial injustice. By attributing the cause of minority student underachievement to a lack of student effort or deficient family background, we can comfortably dismiss the problem as sad and disturbing, and reject the possibility that something more pernicious might be at work. It is undoubtedly at least partially for this reason that conversations in Berkeley about the achievement of students of color have been characterized by a high degree of avoidance, or, worse, resignation and acceptance. Like homelessness and air pollution, the achievement gap is regarded as one of those unfortunate conditions that the members of this idealistic community have learned to live with.

Placing Berkeley in a National Context

Berkeley is hardly alone. The racial achievement gap is now widely recognized as an educational challenge confronting school districts throughout the United States (Jencks and Phillips, 1998). The issue is receiving more attention now in part because of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which requires that students be tested annually and that their test results by racial subgroup be released to the public. Yet as greater attention has been focused on the issue, relatively little has been done to provide schools with guidance on how to address the problem. Public reports that certain subgroups are not making adequate yearly progress have helped to expose race and class disparities in school districts, but it has done little to help them figure out what to do to remedy the problem.

The existence of stable and fairly predictable disparities in academic performance that correspond to race and class differences among students is by no means a new phenomenon. Such differences on standardized tests and other measures of “intelligence” and academic ability have been present since the beginning of testing (Lemann, 1999). What is new and different today is that such patterns are increasingly regarded as a problem that must be addressed, rather than as a manifestation of the natural order of things. Even the fiercest critics of the Bush administration must acknowledge that despite its many flaws, No Child Left Behind has, in an odd way, moved the national conversation about race and education forward, because for the first time in our nation’s history, schools are required to produce evidence that they can serve all students.

Berkeley, like other school districts across the country, has never served all students, at least not equally -- but arguably, it has made more effort than most other places. Long before it was fashionable to decry the achievement gap, Berkeley had numerous programs and initiatives designed to assist struggling minority students. That most of these efforts showed little evidence of success is hardly a reason to single out Berkeley for condemnation. The achievement gap is, after all, a national phenomenon, and few communities have demonstrated the same kind of willingness as Berkeley to invest resources to address the problem.

As recently as 1999, Berkeley joined together with fourteen other school districts to create the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). The consortium comprises districts that bear a striking resemblance to Berkeley, including Ann Arbor, Michigan; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Evanston and Skokie, Illinois. Each MSAN district shared an interesting combination of attributes: liberal, affluent, and possessing a long track record of serving their most privileged students well, while consistently failing to meet the educational needs of poor children of color. To be fair, the challenges confronting schools in MSAN districts did not lend themselves to easy explanations. Unlike most large, urban school districts where a lack of resources often contributes to academic failure, these systems have more resources than most others. Similarly, in contrast to many affluent white suburban communities where racial integration has to varying degrees been tolerated, there is a greater sense that diversity is embraced and there is no widespread overt hostility toward students of color in these liberal communities. Yet despite these apparent advantages, all of these districts has struggled to elevate the academic performance of students of color. They formed MSAN with the expectation that together, they might be able to address their common challenges, and in the hope that there might be wisdom, if not strength, in numbers.

Six years later, MSAN has yet to show that by meeting together on a regular basis the districts could help each other to find ways to close the achievement gap. Like Berkeley, MSAN districts remain largely paralyzed by the persistence of wide racial disparities in achievement and stymied in their efforts to find solutions. They have sponsored research and studied the issue in minute detail, but the search for greater educational equity remains beyond their reach.

Cynics might argue that if the districts in MSAN are unable to find ways to reduce the achievement gap, then perhaps it cannot be done. Such resignation is increasingly common in many suburban districts across the United States that have recently experienced dramatic changes in the demographic makeup of their schools and communities (Orfield, 2001). As people of color leave or get pushed out of gentrifying cities, and growing numbers of immigrants who typically do not speak English take up residence in inner-ring suburbs, a large number of formerly all-white schools are struggling to respond to the academic needs of students they have little experience in serving.

Because of NCLB, these inner-ring suburban school districts are under pressure to find ways to address the achievement gap, but unlike Berkeley and the districts in MSAN, good will and good intentions do not appear to be in abundance. Many of these communities have been significantly less magnanimous in their response. Racial integration was never embraced in many of these white suburban communities, some of which were created as a result of white flight from the inner city in the 1960s (Gans, 1993). Now required by law to demonstrate progress in their efforts to close the achievement gap, many of these school districts are complaining loudly that if it were not for the presence of those unwanted “subgroups,” their schools would not be labeled as being in need of improvement (Bernstein, 2003).

When placed in the context of the larger national effort to close the achievement gap, Berkeley’s efforts to address the problem are laudable. Unlike many other communities, Berkeley continues to take pride in its diversity, and although its commitment to racial inclusion has not helped it in addressing the problem, no one can reasonably question the community’s commitment to tolerance. There is a deeply held belief in Berkeley, with its long history of embracing progressive causes, that it is not like other communities and that it should be held to a different standard (Nathan and Scott, 1978). Berkeley is, after all, renowned for its idealism and support of progressive values. It is well known, and widely ridiculed, for its support of outside-the-mainstream social causes and its willingness to adopt cutting-edge social policies. From civil rights to gay rights and from its early commitment to opposing war -- in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq -- to its ongoing commitment to providing support to the homeless, the undocumented, and the addicted, Berkeley has long been a community that has nurtured and given birth to movements on behalf of underdogs.

As might be expected, Berkeley’s aspirations and attempts to push the boundaries of liberalism have frequently generated resentment and belittlement from conservative critics, and at times the national media. For its detractors, Berkeley’s willingness to embrace offbeat and unconventional ideas has been used to justify the derogatory nickname, “Berserkeley.” Yet many of those who reside in what is affectionately called the People’s Republic of Berkeley take pride in knowing that more than a few policies once seen as avant-garde and wacky have gradually been adopted as sound governmental policy in other parts of the country. This has been true for curbside recycling, sidewalk access for wheelchairs, and domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian public employees. Berkeleyans feel a degree of pride that they have often been ahead of the curve on national issues, and in more than a few cases, the city has been a leader in progressive social reform.
Berkeley’s Approach to Racial Integration in the Public Schools

Not surprisingly, Berkeley also was once at the forefront of change in public education. In 1968, it became one of the first school districts in the nation to integrate its schools voluntarily (Kirp, 1982). Significantly, it did so not through passive acquiescence to a court order, but in response to efforts by grassroots organizers.

After several earlier defeats, Berkeley voters approved a plan to desegregate its public schools through a system of shared busing (Noguera, 1995). While white resistance to school integration resulted in violence and boycotts in other communities, integration was largely welcomed in Berkeley. In yet another example of the community’s commitment to progressive social values, Berkeley citizens adopted a plan that called for the burden of bussing to be shared by the black and white communities. The plan called for largely black children from low-income neighborhoods in the flatlands of Berkeley to be bussed from kindergarten through third grade to schools in affluent white neighborhoods in the hills. Students in grades 4 through 6 were bussed from the hills to flatland schools in South and West Berkeley. When opponents of desegregation attempted to undo the plan by launching a recall of the members of the school board, Berkeley voters, in a rare display of public support for racial integration, squelched the backlash and resoundingly affirmed their support for the new busing plan (Kirp, 1982).

For many years after 1968, the integration of Berkeley’s public schools was cited as one of its greatest achievements. To the city’s critics who regarded many of the political causes championed in Berkeley as little more than empty rhetoric that required no sacrifice, its school desegregation plan stood as proof that its commitment to justice and equality was real. In many ways, taking stands against war or global warming was easier than sending white children to school with black children. To its credit, even as white flight steadily undermined school integration in northern cities throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Orfield and Eaton, 1996), Berkeley public schools remained relatively integrated. To this day, it is one of few cities that places its children where its proclaimed values are.

It is largely because of this city’s reputation for progressive stances on social issues that the achievement gap in Berkeley has recently generated so much concern. The persistence of disparities in achievement that correspond to the race and class backgrounds of students, patterns that are evident in most school districts throughout the country, indicates that Berkeley may not be the beacon of hope that its reputation suggests. The gap in academic outcomes is a sign that the desegregation was partial; students of different races may attend the same schools, but they receive a very different education within them.

It is for this reason that we have titled this book Unfinished Business. Like civil rights activists elsewhere who have called attention to the many areas in American society where racial justice remains unfulfilled (Wolters, 1984), we regard the persistence of the achievement gap in Berkeley and elsewhere as a remnant of the Civil Rights Movement that is far from finished. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 2003 ruling in favor of affirmative action (Gruter v. Bollinger), Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested in her majority opinion that there might be no need for such a policy in twenty-five years (Greenhouse, 2003). The implication of her argument was that in the not-too-distant future, public schools would provide all children, regardless of their backgrounds, with an education that would make racial preferences in college admissions unnecessary. Unfortunately, Justice O’Connor did not explain how this feat would be achieved, and so -- like the historic Brown decision issued nearly fifty years earlier, with its vague call for integration to proceed “…with all deliberate speed” (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka) -- the High Court's Gruter ruling provided no guidance on how racial justice in education will would be brought about.

The effort to eliminate racial disparities in student achievement is an essential part of the unfinished business of the modern Civil Rights Movement, and it was this recognition that inspired our work at Berkeley High School. To a large degree, our experience as parents, activists, educators, and researchers had convinced us that Berkeley should be a place where it is possible to educate all students. This is, after all, a community that remains committed to the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. However, we believed neither that the conditions necessary for educational change were present in Berkeley, nor that closing the achievement gap would be necessarily easier there than anywhere else. The long history of unequal education in Berkeley and the dogged denial that confronting racial inequality is the responsibility of the schools and community is the clearest evidence to the contrary. Yet our experience has led us to believe that the possibility for change in Berkeley is real because the aspirations for a more just social order are more than lip-service.

Unfortunately, though, this is not a book about Berkeley’s triumph over racial disparities in achievement, but about the effort to take on this unfinished work. As this book goes to press, the achievement gap remains firmly entrenched in Berkeley, as it is across the rest of the country. Yet there continues to be considerable energy and commitment to support students and teachers and to close the achievement gap. These efforts have been ongoing since 1968, and for this reason, we believe it would be a mistake to wait until the work was completed to write about the efforts to take on the challenge. Our hope is that other communities and school districts can learn from Berkeley’s experience as they pursue their own initiatives to close the achievement gap and contribute to the historical struggle for racial justice.

Taking Up Unfinished Business in Changing Times

In the spirit of taking up the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement, it is worth noting that desegregation in Berkeley also preceded an extended period of deindustrialization. The blue-collar jobs that once paid decent union wages are largely gone now, and as the jobs have departed, so too have working-class families. These trends began in the 1970s and they accelerated dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. Berkeley and other East Bay cities have experienced large-scale loss of heavy industry and manufacturing. In the 1980s, three major East Bay auto and truck manufacturing plants (Ford, GM, and Mack Truck) that employed thousands of assembly line workers shut down, and Durkee Foods, Colgate Palmolive, and other big and small manufacturers closed their doors along Berkeley’s waterfront during this period. However, unlike the rustbelt cities of the Northeast and Midwest, new industries soon replaced the lost manufacturing jobs. Unfortunately, the jobs that have been created are concentrated in the service sector (primarily in health care) and offer lower, largely nonunion pay, or in the high-tech and biotech industries, which typically require postsecondary education, particularly in science and math.

As a result of these economic changes, minority communities in Berkeley have experienced increased unemployment or underemployment, particularly among those with a high school education or less (Wilson, 1997; Gee, Hull, and Lankshear, 1996). As we will show in the pages ahead, these changes to the economic base of Berkeley and the Bay Area have had profound social consequences for students and schools.

In the 1980s and 1990s, housing prices skyrocketed, and Berkeley, like many other parts of the Bay Area, experienced a dramatic gentrification. For example, a section of the industrial zone in West Berkeley has been transformed into a center for high-end home remodeling and boutique shopping. Several pricey restaurants, dress shops, home furnishings, fine produce, and other retail shops are now perched on land once occupied by factories and warehouses. Pockets of poor residents -- renters, homeowners, and those who reside in subsidized housing -- still remain in the area, but the neighborhood has been transformed. As might be expected, gentrification has contributed to enormous income disparities, and social cleavage and tension have increased among flatlands residents.

In addition to these changes in the character and composition of Berkeley, there have been significant policy changes in California that have had profound ramifications for schools. Perhaps most important among these was the 1996 voter passage of California’s Proposition 209 banning affirmative action. In particular, Proposition 209 barred state government and public agencies from using race or gender preferences in hiring, contracting, or college admissions. Even before Prop 209 was adopted, relatively few students of color from Berkeley were admitted to the University of California (UC). In the years since the policy was enacted into law, the UC system has become even more out of reach. Out of 8,676 admissions letters for the UC Berkeley freshman class entering in fall 2004, only 211 went to African American students. And although Berkeley High School is located just four blocks to the west of the UC campus, no more than a handful of African American, Latino, Filipino, and Southeast Asian graduates of Berkeley High have gained admission in the last few years.

For all of these reasons, the achievement gap at Berkeley High School is a serious problem with implications and consequences that extend far beyond the school. With economic, political, and social changes at the national, state, and regional levels creating new barriers and constraints, it has become even more important for the school to figure out how to address longstanding disparities in achievement. Again, Berkeley is not the only school confronted with such formidable obstacles. Because its challenges -- both internal and external -- are in many ways representative of the kinds of issues confronting schools throughout the nation, our hope is that a close examination of its efforts to address the achievement gap will prove illuminating to others.

A Catalyst for Change: The Diversity Project and Berkeley High School

This book is about the efforts of teachers, staff, students, and parents from Berkeley who collaborated with researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, to address the racial disparities in academic performance at Berkeley High School (BHS). Through the Berkeley High School Diversity Project, these individuals sought to find a way to compel the school and community to take on an issue that had been ignored since desegregation. This book is about the strategies and tactics that were used to carry out this work, the accomplishments over the course of six years, and the many things that remain undone. Most of all, it is about the ways in which a school and community has acted in unwitting complicity in the perpetuation of racial inequality and the attempts by members of that community to interrupt its continuance.

We could have chosen any school in the district as the focal point for our work, but we chose Berkeley High School because the issues there were in many ways more visible and intense. Berkeley High is the only public high school in the city, and with over three thousand students, it serves more than a third of the students enrolled in the district. It is the final destination for all students who make it to the ninth grade, and it is the place where future trajectories -- to Ivy League colleges, to state and community colleges, to dead-end jobs, or to prison -- are determined. With its seventeen-acre campus and its artificial turf football field, public television studio, Olympic-sized swimming pool, and three-thousand-seat theater, it is a prized community resource. And with its reputation for chaos, drug use, and permissive culture, it is the object of anguish and occasionally scorn.

Located at the center of downtown Berkeley, it represents the best and the worst of the city. To understand the paradox that is Berkeley High School, pass by Martin Luther King, Jr. Park across the street from the high school on any sunny school day and watch as dozens of its students lounge on the green grass, at all hours of the day, smoking marijuana in full view of city hall, the police department, and the school district headquarters. But before you rush to judgment, keep in mind that many of those students are headed to the best universities in the nation, while others are headed nowhere at all.

With more than its share of National Merit Scholars, a highly acclaimed jazz band, and national award-winning school newspaper, it was easy for many in the community to allow the school’s successes to overshadow its glaring failures. All of this changed in 1994 with the airing of School Colors. The three-hour documentary on Berkeley High, which the filmmakers hoped would serve as a gauge of the nation’s progress in achieving racial integration some forty years after the historic Brown decision, jolted the community out of its passive acceptance of the status quo. When the film was broadcast to a national audience on public television, what the public saw was a school mired in deep racial separation and polarization. Based on interviews with students and teachers over the course of a school year, School Colors was used as evidence that racial integration in public education had failed. To the shock and dismay of many residents, the spotlight was shining on Berkeley not for its progressive accomplishments but for its utter failure to live up to its ideals.

Interestingly, the airing of School Colors had the effect of briefly uniting the diverse elements of the Berkeley community. Although the film was hailed elsewhere as a revealing portrait of racial inequality and resegregation in American high schools, Berkeley citizens uniformly reacted to it with outrage. Many claimed that the film distorted the image of the high school and the community, and they accused the filmmakers of taking advantage of the access to the school that had been so generously provided. When one of the filmmakers dared to return to Berkeley to discuss reactions to the final product, she was met with a rare show of solidarity as large numbers of people turned out to castigate her for misrepresenting the community and the school.

Yet despite the fierceness of their opposition, what the community seemed to forget was that the film footage was authentic, if edited. Although the attitudes of the teachers and students conveyed in the film may have told only part of the story, there was no doubt that the words were theirs and that the sentiments expressed, in their unfettered honesty, were real. Anyone familiar with the school knew that Berkeley High School was a deeply divided place, segregated from within in almost every way that mattered. It was also a school where inequality bred deep resentments and hostility, and occasionally these rose to the surface in frightening ways.

While it was true that the film had not captured all of the complexity that is the whole story of integration at the school, it had captured an important part of the story. So, like a fashion model complaining about being photographed on a bad hair day, the reaction to School Colors revealed that BHS and the Berkeley community were engaged in a deep denial.

The Diversity Project was created shortly after the airing of School Colors to help the school and community face up to its denial and to begin to respond honestly to the problems confronting the school. The project was co-initiated by Ronald Glass, a BHS parent and a lecturer at the School of Education at Stanford University, and teacher Dana Moran. Comprising BHS teachers, parents, students, and joined by researchers from UC Berkeley, the Diversity Project commenced its work in the summer of 1996. From the beginning, its purpose was to try to find a way to move the high school beyond the denial that made it possible for longstanding inequities to be accepted.

For years, Berkeley High School’s embrace of diversity had disguised the glaring inequities. It was, after all, the only high school in the country that had its own African American Studies Department, offering Afro-Haitian dance, Kiswahili, and Black economics, history, drama, and psychology. Berkeley High also offered electives in Chicano studies, Asian American studies, and women’s studies, and it required all of its freshmen to take a course in ethnic studies.

Although there was general awareness about the existence of dramatic racial disparities in student achievement at the school, there was no agreement about its causes. There was ample finger-pointing by those who wanted to cast blame on their culprits of choice -- “lazy and unmotivated students,” “negligent teachers,” “parents who don’t care” -- but there was little evidence of a willingness to take responsibility for finding solutions. Without a clear understanding of the causes, the school could revel in its diversity even as it was unable to make progress in addressing the larger problem.

It was the lack of agreement and clarity about the causes of racial disparity in achievement that prompted the Diversity Project to seize on research as a tool that could be used to figure out what was going on. The project focused on research not because we believed there was any magic in the data and findings that might be generated, but because we believed that it might make it possible to illuminate the problem. Two overarching questions guided our research:

  • What are the factors that contribute to the disparity in academic achievement between students of different racial and class backgrounds at the school?
  • What are the factors that are responsible for the racial separation of students within the school?

The first question was the obvious big question. We needed to understand what was going on if we hoped to have any chance of making changes at the school. Although data showing wide disparities in academic performance among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds had been discussed for many years, those data had done little to move the school toward solutions. Instead, various groups argued over how the data should be interpreted and who should be blamed. Our hope was that through our research, we could move the school beyond the paralysis and bitter antagonisms that characterized discussion over issues related to race and achievement.

We posed the second question because we had a hunch that the voluntary and involuntary processes that were used to segregate students at the school had the effect of creating the perception that racial identities were inextricably linked to academic performance. Finding ways to undo that link was one of the central goals of the project. Patterns of racial separation were most evident when one enters the school grounds at the beginning of the school day, and served as a central theme of School Colors. Across the sprawling campus, students could be seen gathered in racially distinct groupings. Black students congregated in front of the administration building near a red, black, and green map of Africa painted on the asphalt. White students gathered in the center of the campus quad, on the steps of the Berkeley Community Theater. Along Martin Luther King Way at the periphery of the school, groups of Latino students could generally be found hanging out near a Chicano/Latino mural. Smaller groups of Asian students found their place along a wall adjacent to the Science Building. Each grouping was racially distinct, but those who knew the school well were aware that the boundaries were permeable, because a significant number of students crossed over and maintained close relationships with individuals from other groups.

This form of racial separation is the most noticeable, and because it appears to be voluntary and a matter of choice, there is a sense that this is what students prefer. Yet racial separation is not limited to the clustering that occurs outside the school. It shows up in classrooms and clubs throughout the school, and these forms are not voluntary. Rather, they are products of the school’s structure and organization. Although the separations created by tracking -- the practice of sorting students into courses based on some measure or estimate of their academic ability (Oakes, 1985) -- are less visible, their impact on student outcomes is far more profound. Despite its obvious divergence from Berkeley’s long-term commitment to racial integration, racial separation in all its forms, like racial disparities in academic achievement, is a social phenomenon that had come to be accepted as normal at BHS.

The Diversity Project sought to use research to understand what was behind these complex and controversial issues. Like most other research projects, data collection and analysis took up much of our time and energy. However, in a departure from traditional academic research, the strategic dissemination of our findings was always done with an awareness of how we might influence the process of change at the school. We understood from the beginning that even as we sought to find answers to the questions we had posed, the process was as important as the inquiry itself. We purposefully created a team that was representative of the diversity of the school and composed of the various constituencies that made up the broader community, because we wanted to ensure that our work would not be dismissed as a special interest initiative and thereby contribute to further polarization. We deliberately blurred the lines between researcher and subject to avoid the classic division that separates university-based researchers from those whom they study. Most of all, we wanted to be credible to the entire school and community, and for that to happen, there could be done no “us” versus “them” in our work.

Our plan was to use findings generated from our research to guide and influence changes at the school. We employed a variety of research strategies, including: an annual survey and study of the entire Class of 2000 that was maintained over four years; focus groups with all of the core constituencies; analyses of course enrollment patterns; analyses of school discipline patterns; and a review of academic programs, such as the detracked freshman English/history core and the English as a Second Language programs.

We did this to obtain as clear a picture as possible of what was happening in the school. Our hope was that if we relied on research, we could help the school to move beyond its preoccupation with searching for blame in order to find genuine solutions. We also hoped that the research would provide the school with a new and different way of perceiving racial disparities that had come to be seen as natural and unchangeable.

From the start, we understood that we would have to do more than merely document the patterns. Our goal was to use research to bring about a change in how people understood the production of student outcomes, and to do this we would have to find ways to change the ways in which people thought about racial patterns at the school.

To accomplish these goals we devised research strategies that were designed to achieve the following objectives:

1) To make the familiar seem strange and problematic. This is a concept commonly used by anthropologists who seek to uncover the meaning behind practices and beliefs that cultures take for granted (Erickson, 1987). Our hope was that we could use research to enable teachers, students, and parents to question their assumptions about why students do or do not succeed academically. We thought the data and findings our research would generate could provide some degree of detachment from the emotionally charged issues we were investigating. Although we never deluded ourselves into believing that our findings would be treated as politically neutral facts, we did think that by providing an empirical basis for discussion about what was going on, we might make it possible to challenge prevailing beliefs about the relationship between race and achievement.

2) To critically examine the organization and structure of privilege. For years, discussions about race and achievement in Berkeley had been framed in terms of a search for what was wrong with minority students. Why did so many of them fail, drop out, get into trouble, and not go to college? The experience of high-achieving, white, middle-class and upper-middle-class students was never subject to similar scrutiny or questioning when it was framed in this way. Our understanding of the school led us to believe that the superior achievement of white students was not merely related to the advantages they inherited from their parents. Rather, our experience with the school led us to suspect that there were formal and informal practices built into the structure and operation of the school that harmed the educational interests of some students while enhancing the opportunities of others. For this reason, we were just as interested in understanding how the school served its most privileged students as we were in the experience of students who were consistently low performers.

3) To empower the disadvantaged and marginalized. Our experience with Berkeley and its high school led us to recognize that like most other things in this city, education was political. Although the community was renowned for its liberalism, we knew that any effort to challenge the status quo at the high school would be fiercely resisted if it was perceived as undermining the advantages that its most privileged students enjoyed. That segment of the community was active and fully aware of what was happening at the school. While it was unlikely that affluent parents would oppose an effort to help underperforming students, we were certain that they would fight any effort that they regarded as lowering standards or taking resources away from their own children. Hence, we understood that their ability to exert influence on educational leaders in the district and local politicians posed a serious threat to our work and would have to be dealt with.

To offset the influence of these parents, we knew we would have to find a way to make the political playing field more level. We settled on the research process to help those parents who had historically been most peripheral to the school (African American and Latino parents) to become informed and organized, so that they too could exert influence over the school. We did this knowing that our efforts might generate conflict within the school, as those who felt their children had not been well served made demands on the school. However, we reasoned that without such a force, the parents of high-achieving white students -- parents who were already well organized and benefited from the status quo -- might attempt to undermine efforts they perceived as harmful to their interests. We sought to use the research process to create a degree of balance in the school so that parents of students who were not well served could also be heard.

The Structure of the Diversity Project

With a small amount of funding from the University of California and the San Francisco Foundation, the Diversity Project began its work in the fall of 1996. From the start, it was a public process, and our meetings and our work drew attention and scrutiny from the broader community.

The Diversity Project began with a simple structure -- the Core Team and the Extended Team. The project was led by the Core Team, which was carefully constructed to include equal representation from the university (faculty and graduate students) and from Berkeley High School (teachers and staff), and to include a racially diverse mix. The founding Core Team began with five teachers, three graduate students, one school staff person, and two professors. The larger Extended Team included the Core Team plus over thirty teachers, classified staff, administrators, students, and parents, as well as administrators, school board members, and an associate superintendent.

The Core Team met regularly and coordinated the work of the Extended Team and of the various research and organizing committees that emerged over time. In order to enable full participation, the Diversity Project paid for 20 percent release time for teachers, and paid graduate students as part-time research assistants. The Core Team initially had two university-based co-directors, Pedro Noguera and Ron Glass. But within a matter of months, as the project developed, we chose one co-director from the university, Pedro Noguera, and one from Berkeley High School, teacher and later vice principal James Williams.

The Core Team initially selected staff, students, and parents to sit on the Extended Team on the basis of their letters of interest and personal interviews indicating a commitment to equity. Extended Team members received a modest stipend and were expected to participate in at least one project research committee.

During the Project’s first year, four research committees were created:

1) Class of 2000 Committee. This committee designed and conducted a four-year, longitudinal study of the 750 students of the Class of 2000, to better understand the factors contributing to the racial achievement gap. The committee analyzed large-scale data on grades, attendance, course-taking patterns, graduation rates, and college-going patterns, disaggregated by race, gender, zip code of residence, home language, and other important markers of inequity. It developed an annual whole-class internet survey of student background, perceptions, and experiences of schooling, as well as student access to information and resources pertaining to graduation and college. In the junior and senior years of the Class of 2000 students, the committee selected a diverse group of thirty-three case study students to interview in-depth and to shadow for entire school days once each semester.

2) Taking Stock Committee. This committee investigated patterns of race and gender separation in the high school’s abundant extra- and co-curricular clubs, athletic teams, and activities. The committee organized the entire Extended Team to interview the athletic coaches and club advisors about issues of race and gender separation, diversity, and inclusion.

3) Professional Development Committee. In the Project’s first year, this committee conducted a survey of teachers regarding their perceptions of teaching racially diverse students and heterogeneous classes (classes of students with mixed skill levels). In later years, this committee piloted a peer coaching model of professional development, and designed a series of professional development workshops, open to all 180 teachers on a voluntary basis, to learn from best practices to address the achievement gap at the classroom level. In the final three years of the Diversity Project (1999-2002), the professional development team facilitated a group called Action Research for Teachers (ART) to expand the number of teachers using cycles of inquiry and various kinds of research data to close the achievement gap within their own classrooms.

4) Focus Groups Committee. This committee began collecting focus group information from teachers, counselors, clerical staff, campus safety monitors, parents, and students about their perspectives on the factors causing racialized patterns of success and failure and contributing to patterns of racial separation.

In addition, during the first year, the project’s graduate student researchers also participated in four task forces created by Principal Larry Lee to study possible reforms in areas such as school organization and structure, and school culture and climate.

In the project’s second year, the Focus Group Committee was disbanded, and focus group research methods were incorporated into the work of some of the other research and outreach committees. The Taking Stock Committee also ended, as it had completed its study. The Class of 2000 Committee continued to survey the entire class and to collect data on course-taking patterns, grades, attendance, and discipline. In addition, the project launched a one-year study of the detracked freshman English/history core, and the Professional Development Committee began piloting a peer coaching and customized professional development model to address equity in the classroom. It was also in this second year that we launched two important outreach committees: Parent Outreach and Student Outreach. The Parent Outreach Committee began by organizing eighteen well-attended focus groups to solicit input of marginalized parents of color, and to begin mobilizing these parents to have a voice in the school.

In the project’s third year (1998-99), in addition to ongoing committees such as the Class of 2000 Committee, we launched committees to study the prealgebra program, the transition of English learner students in the English as a Second Language department, the possibility of small schools-within-a-school as an equity reform, and the racial disparities in the school disciplinary system. Both Parent and Student Outreach Committees also provided important perspectives and recommendations to Principal Theresa Saunders’ five-year strategic plan for BHS in the spring of 1999. During this third year, we established the position of site coordinator, a position that also served as a third co-director, and selected LaShawn Routé-Chatmon to fill this post. Her primary responsibility as site coordinator was to integrate the project’s research teams with new interventions and changes underway at the high school.

By the project’s fourth year, we had begun to reach one of our major goals: weaving the Diversity Project into the fabric of the high school placing the racial achievement gap at the center of every conversation about school change. We still had a Core Team and an Extended Team, but by this time, dozens of parents and students had joined the work of Parent and Student Outreach, and scores of teachers had participated and supported some aspect of the project’s work. By the time the Diversity Project presented its final set of findings to the high school community and the school board in June 2000, the Project had truly become a part of the high school to the point that it was difficult to say who was on the Diversity Project and who was not.

In the pages ahead we describe what we learned from our work at the school. We analyze the obstacles we encountered, both those we anticipated and those that were unexpected. We also describe the revelations and insights we gained during the course of our work. Our hope is that full disclosure of the challenges and pitfalls as well as the positive lessons will make this book useful to others who are concerned about making schools more equitable and as committed to carrying on the nation’s unfinished business with civil rights and education.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 19, 2006.

Also see:

Email, Opinions & Discussion

If you have any thoughts on this or would like to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the
E-mail, Opinions & Discussion column click here to send e-mail to

In Unity/NPC Productions/Links

What is New? || Affirmative Action || Art Changes || Autonomy: Chiapas - California ||
Community Images || Education Rights || E-mail, Opinions and Discussion ||
En español || Essays from Ireland || Global Eyes || Healthcare ||
Human Rights/Civil Rights || Piri Thomas ||
Photo of the Week || QA: Interviews || Region || Rural America ||

Search || Donate || To be notified of new articles || Survey ||
In Motion Magazine's Store || In Motion Magazine Staff ||
In Unity Book of Photos ||
Links Around The World || OneWorld / US ||
NPC Productions

Copyright © 1995-2012 NPC Productions as a compilation. All Rights Reserved.