Berkeley’s battle over the basics

The famous liberalness of Berkeley is being tested these days with a proposal to reduce science labs for its high school’s college-bound students and to spend the money instead on programs for those who are struggling with the basics. Adding to the discomfort is the race factor: Like schools across the nation, Berkeley High has been plagued by big disparities in achievement among ethnic groups.

The labs are filled mostly with white and Asian students. Yet most African American and Latino students at the school aren’t proficient in math. Even with a parcel tax to help prop up the Berkeley schools’ budget, there isn’t enough money to meet both groups’ needs.

There’s clearly a lack of equity here. Laboratory sessions at most schools are integrated into regular science classes. At Berkeley High, they’re held outside of standard school hours -- and only for higher-achieving students enrolled in Advanced Placement and college prep courses. The school should be offering labs to all of its science students. Even among teenagers with little interest in academics, labs are often the most interesting part of science, where they get to see how it all works. Dumbed-down education will never raise achievement and prepare the next generation for a more science- and technology-oriented work world.

On a deeper level, though, Berkeley’s dilemma reflects a trend that worries many parents nationwide. At a time of severely limited resources, if more is spent on academically needy students, what’s left for the academic achievers?

It’s important to remember that impoverished students of color, who constitute a disproportionate number of low achievers, do not receive the lion’s share of education funding. Quite the opposite: They generally attend more run-down campuses with meager facilities, and their teachers are among the lower paid. At the same time, there’s no denying that one effect of the school reform movement has been to reduce educational aspirations to the lowest common denominator. The No Child Left Behind Act gives schools credit for raising underachieving students to “proficiency” levels; schools get no recognition for bringing good students to more advanced levels. Even as schools are rightly identifying more black and Latino students as gifted, programs for gifted students are being cut so that more money can be invested in remedial education.

We believe that inequities need to be corrected, but not at the expense of taking away most of the resources for high achievers. If the law recognized all improvements in achievement, from wherever a student started, schools could do a better job of balancing diverse students’ needs.