Thinking About Equity

By Chloe Holden

Many issues within the last decade have stirred controversy in the Berkeley High School community. BHS has seen debate over schedule changes, small learning communities, district budgets, and standardized testing, among other subjects. Integrated through many of these discussions is the equity gap between racial and socioeconomic groups in the Berkeley Unified School District.

The gap, which comprises both a difference in opportunities available to groups of students and standardized test results, is rooted in the divergent social and political histories of racial and ethnic groups in the United States. This is generally undisputed, but it is the concrete and current details of the BHS equity gap — recently deemed the largest in the state — that are often misunderstood by the Berkeley community.

The issue has been addressed with a fair amount of discourse, but even with all of the debate in recent years, the gap in Berkeley schools seems frequently to confuse and cause conflict. This struggle is a consequence of different opinions on the causes of the gap, differing philosophies about how students’ needs should be met, and lack of coordination and openness between the many groups involved.

Blame for the gap, placed implicitly on students in early discussions, has now rightfully been directed elsewhere. However, its causes are still rarely as simple as they are made to seem by adults. When a student is not successful according to measurable standards, it is frequently a result of inequity of resource access, social and societal influence, and a variety of other details which cannot be measured. This paradox is central to all debates about the equity gap in Berkeley. It must be recognized by everyone working towards academic equality that the academic cannot and should not be separated from the social and the political, and programs aiming to improve academic performance must be developed with this in mind.

Discussion of the equity gap began in the context of standardized test scores and grades, and racially imbalanced dropout rates and Advanced Placement enrollment. Now the equity gap in the Berkeley school system is most often discussed in the context of specific efforts to change it.

It is only relatively recently that a large scale commitment — the 20/20 Vision Plan-— has been made to end academic inequality in BUSD, but many are skeptical that such a large-scale plan can be effective in closing the equity gap by its target year, now only one decade away. On a smaller scale, different groups have their own views about how the gap should be closed, increasing difficulty when it comes to policy implementation.

At BHS, the trimester schedule that was on the table for some time was voted down by the School Governance Council, and instead of putting off change for another year by going back to the drawing board, Principal Slemp created a new and simpler proposal for next fall. It is still uncertain what effect this proposal will have on the equity gap which it is intended to mitigate.

Beyond the schedule, strategies such as hiring a teaching staff more ethnically representative of BHS, training teachers to better help struggling students, and creating specialized programs are all complex and difficult to enact under the current decision-making system.

In order for any of these strategies to be carried out successfully, cooperation and communication is essential, and though disagreement is healthy in important decision-making, good ideas can get tangled between different bodies, groups, committees, and ideologies. Furthermore, there is a notable lack of student input into the process, a waste considering that the most acute insights into the gap are most likely to come from students themselves.

The core of the equity issue involves providing for all students who want to learn and achieve their own goals, and increasing access to the choices, knowledge, and opportunities that will allow them to do so. There is a way for this goal to be reached, as other districts have proven, and if leaders in the Berkeley community choose cooperation over conflict in the coming years, it can be done.