Multiculturalism vs. science labs

Multiculturalism has gone berserk at Berkeley High School, writes William Briggs on Pajamas Media. The school board may cut before- and after-school science labs that extend instruction time by 20 percent. After all, most advanced science students are white and Asian-American.

But there’s plenty of time and money, Briggs writes, for the required History of the Americas course and Globalization, in which students “draft a more effective decision-making mechanism of world government.”  Students also can take Politics and Power (“large run” by students) and Contemporary La Raza History.

Popular Culture in 20th Century America . . . examines “texts” as diverse as mural paintings, street theater, rap music, women’s art, immigrant stories, and MTV to analyze their role in shaping American society. Popular Culture is designed to teach students skills in critically examining the historical role of popular culture in defining racial issues, the regulation of sexuality, and consumer society. It also explores popular forms of resistance to the dominant culture.

If no room is left in the “Eco-Literacy and Social Justice Seminar,” kids might opt for the fall-back “Social Justice Seminar,” where the question “What can I do to bring about social change for a more just society?” is answered.

. . . BHS will surely keep all offerings from its African American Department. There, students can open their minds with “African American Journalism” or “Advanced African American Journalism.” From their course descriptions, these appear to be identical in substance with non-African American Journalism courses (which BHS also offers). Just as the course “African American Economics” doesn’t differ from non-African American Economics.

. . . Black Psychology— whose major objective “is to impart a clear knowledge of what African-Centered thought is” — could be that easy “A” a lot of kids seek because it “is not a lecture course.” Major “emphasis is on classroom discussion.” What is cooler than sitting around and grieving?

Berkeley High has the “largest racial equity/achievement gap in the state,” notes San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders. The plan to eliminate science labs “bolstered the common suspicion that some educators want to close the achievement gap by dumbing down public schools.”

As Peggy Scott, a governance council parent who voted against the plan, told KQED Forum’s Michael Krasny on Wednesday, “Closing the achievement gap really means bringing the bottom up, and the problem is that it does seem and it does feel like what might be happening is trying to bring the top down.”

While the science labs have been shown to improve achievement, the savings will go toward “equity grants.” One proposal is to “de-track” ninth-grade math so all students take the same class. “The result will not be a more just society,” Saunders predicts. “Instead, a declining number of Berkeley High students will be able to do the math.”

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  1. I have noticed a correlation between the rise of these “puff” courses in which students “draft a more effective decision-making mechanism of world government” and the increase in the achievement gap.

    Why? I’d hazard the guess that those who have parent-supplied motivation are more likely to stick with solid “gut” courses – making them the better scorers on almost every measurement system available. Those students who select an easy course, one whose major objective “is to impart a clear knowledge of what African-Centered thought is” with major emphasis on classroom discussion as the grading rubric instead of a course in Rhetoric with an emphasis on writing, will probably also be a student who doesn’t care about scores or doesn’t want to work for those scores.

  2. I accidentally deleted the final paragraph of that last comment. I’ll not re-write it but leave figuring it out as an exercise for the reader.

  3. Don Bemont says:

    It’s hard to decide which is more disturbing, the Berkeley’s decision to drop the before and after school labs or Briggs’ hostility towards efforts to motivate students.

    The lab closing is a cautionary tale about measurement. What gets measured becomes the target, so if the measurement is gap closing, then that becomes the institutional target, even if gap closing makes a terrible definition of what we really want in education. After all, a school could close the gap by teaching everyone less, but teaching the top students MUCH less.

    One of the toughest things I deal with in my own teaching is talking parents out of trying to solve problems with their kids by using one simple, vicious punishment. Grounding the kid for months or giving him a memorable whipping might express your feelings very well, but it will rarely fix the problem. In truth, there is no substitute for ongoing attention to the details…

    The same principle applies to fixing education. Creating these measurements, publishing results, and threatening sanctions against those who do not measure up is emotionally satisfying because it makes the designated scapegoats howl – but does not fix the problem. As soon as you reduce education to a few numbers for convenient comparison, you create the monster that leads to ending an effective program that works on the “wrong” students in Berkeley… or, closer to my home, the drive for a higher graduation rate convinces ordinary students that it is stupid to work on schoolwork because the school consistently gives course credits to students, even if they sleep, refuse to work, or don’t even attend.

    While I am glad that Mr. Briggs agrees that squelching the education of already achieving students is a tragic way to improve educational results, I am not comfortable at all with him as an ally.

    He thinks a course in “the exciting study of black speechmakers in African American history” so obviously ridiculous, he need not explain his objection. He mentions a “Social Justice Seminar” dealing with “What can I do to bring about social change for a more just society?” and assumes that all his readers agree that this is a monstrosity without any explanation on his part. Similarly: “Funk Aerobic Exercise.”

    Hmmm. Mr. Briggs does not like aerobic exercise and assumes that everyone is on board with his distaste? And he is hostile to justice in society as a focus for a social studies course? And a historical look at speechmaking is somehow no longer a part of English curriculum?

    Or does he mean that it is absurd to try to motivate African-American students by using examples that they might feel a closer connection to? If so, that is a much deeper question.

    I grew up in a community that was largely Italian-American, and the school did quite a lot to include Italian heritage in the teaching of school subjects. Many states and regions emphasize their culture over national culture, presumably for similar purposes I often choose or discard material based on the accessibility for my poor, rural students, and this often translates into literature that is about people my kids can relate to. I have some qualms about this, because I believe that education involves understanding beyond self and those like oneself. It was Sydney Harris who said, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” But I also find that the weaker the student, the more the student needs to begin with examples of history and literature that feel close to home.

    Maybe Mr. Briggs believes otherwise, or maybe he believes otherwise specifically when talking about African-Americans?

    I’m certainly open to evidence that particular courses Mr. Briggs mentions are, in fact, non-educational. That is a widespread problem, in part due to lazy measurement schemes. But the implication that they are obviously evil because they are black – If that is what he means, well, that is just ugly.

  4. Kevin Smith says:

    I understand exactly why BHS is doing this. This country has way too many engineers, physicists, genetic researchers, and brain surgeons. What we REALLY need to be globally competitive is more ethnic studies majors!!

  5. dangermom says:

    Somebody at BHS needs to read Hirsch and take him to heart. Something about needing “conservative” teaching (lots of content, serious basic courses) if you’re looking for “liberal” results like social justice. All the African American Journalism courses in the world won’t give a kid a real foundation to build his future on if he doesn’t get plenty of solid work in math, language, science and history.

    Good education shouldn’t be about liberal vs. conservative. But I can guess how dismissive BHS administrators would be of such ideas. (I went to UC Berkeley myself and the language is SO familiar…hearing course titles like “Eco-Literacy and Social Justice Seminar” is like a taste of home.)

  6. Ain’t “local” control great?

    Isn’t it wonderful that education is a function of the governance system and its sport?

    All you need to do to impose your half-baked philosophy on other people’s kids is win a couple of low-turnout elections.

    Heck, with indoctrinating tomorrow’s “leaders” before they have a chance to learn much of anything as a prize I’m astonished that school board elections aren’t a lot more hotly contested then they are.

  7. If there’s underrepresentation of black & Hispanic kids in the high school science labs, perhaps a better solution would be to try to strengthen the academic pipeline. Partner with the university to offer tutoring to elementary & middle school kids so they are able to take the harder courses in high school.

  8. It’s not up to undergrads to fix the public school system. Besides, Berkeley’s teachers would have a fit.

    A few years back, David Baltimore, then president of Cal-Tech, offered a similiar program to Pasadena Unified. Pearl clutching ensued–“But they’re not TEACHERS.”. Plan dropped.
    Cal-Tech faculty send their kids to private schools, as,I’ll bet, do a number of the tenured at Cal.

  9. dangermom says:

    You may be overestimating the salaries of professors at Cal. I’d be interested to know where they do send their kids–the professor I knew best lived in a tiny condo and did without any luxuries in order to send one son to a Montessori elementary school (wonder how they managed when the other kid got old enough?). But most professors probably live in Albany or something; Berkeley housing is too expensive for most families trying to raise children, and the schools are better elsewhere.

    I did actually do some tutoring at an elementary school when I was an undergrad. It was sort of like being a pebble at the beach. I think improving the elementary schools overall would be a better strategy than hoping the undergrads can fix it, but I can guess how likely that is.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    The problem with courses like “social justice” is that, in my experience working with various groups claiming it, there is only one kind of social justice allowed. Whatever, mostly far-left, idea they have is “social justice” and any criticism is fighting against social justice.
    It would be interesting to sit in on a few classes as planned.

  11. We used to have a tutoring program with the private university across the street — the undergrads didn’t even need to drive over. It fell apart because the undergrads were completely unreliable and nobody at the university end really took responsiblity for them. I had some ELL kids who seemed to benefit from the one-on-one, but three or four tutoring times in a semester didn’t make much of a dent.

    In general, relying on 19-year-olds for just about anything is a dicey proposition.

    (And, FWIW, the faculty kids do attend our district.)

    In any case, extended day and electives are two different budget pots. It costs the same to offer 5 sections of British Literature as it does 2 sections of British Literature, 1 section of African American Literature, and 1 section of Literature of the Oppressed (or whatever).

  12. Any time that a school is actively teaching beliefs as opposed to knowledge that school is encouraging hate, distrust, racism, and violence. You may as well be handing these students over to Adolf Hitler for an education.

  13. Bill Leonard says:

    In my experience, any conversation — let alone any course — that centers on concepts labled “social justice” usually really means the redistribution of wealth as a necessary way to partially atone for all the evils caused by capitalism. Mr. briggs seems to abhor such constructs; Mr. Bemont seems to like them.

    Draw your own conclusions…

  14. So, let’s assume the school board takes this anti-intellectual step. What happens? Hmm. The white & asian parents enroll their children elsewhere, if they can afford to move. Those who choose to stay turn to private providers, to supplement the school curriculum, so that their children receive the preparation necessary to do well on the APs. It will be a boom time for test prep companies.

    The black and hispanic children will not receive extra, private instruction. The achievement gap will grow larger. Classes in history and rhetoric do not teach you how to titrate, dissect, or manipulate DNA. It’s a real shame, because for many children, the public school classroom is the only place they will have the opportunity to learn math and science.


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