When I first wrote about principal Jim Slemp’s proposal to eliminate 0 and 7th period science labs at Berkeley High, not many people seemed to notice. We’ve tried on Berkeleyside to keep up with events on what is a key issue for BHS and Berkeley more broadly. We’re particularly grateful for the many thoughtful comments that have flowed in to our main post on the subject.

It’s good to report that many more people now have picked up the issue and are writing and commenting on the controversy. Raymond Barglow has been on the beat for the Daily Planet, with three articles so far.  The East Bay Express wrote about the science labs brouhaha earlier this week. Their article contained one particularly startling paragraph:

Paul Gibson, an alternate parent representative on the School Governance Council, said that information presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students. He said the decision to consider cutting the labs in order to redirect resources to underperforming students was virtually unanimous.

That paraphrase attracted the attention of Wired editor-in-chief (and Berkeley resident) Chris Anderson, who tweeted: “RT this! Berkeley High to cut science, ‘labs seen as benefiting white students’.” Anderson has 24,577 followers on Twitter, so the story has spread and spread. I think that’s good, because the central issue of whether the science labs are being funded at the expense of greater equity at BHS is an important one.

It’s unfortunate, however, that Gibson’s comment (or the paraphrase of what he said to the East Bay Express) has become the meme spreading about BHS. All students at BHS currently take science labs, whatever their skin color. Some writers, like Mike Masnick at TechDirt, dug a little deeper and found that the story wasn’t about white students versus black students (or, at least, not only about that). Others, aren’t so careful.

I may not like some of the distortions, but it does produce some good headlines. Best so far is from the Jawa Report: Berkeley High Cuts Pasty White Geek Classes.

If you want to do something about the science labs issue, you could sign the online petition and clear your calendar for both the next meeting of the BHS School Governance Council at 4:15 p.m. next Tuesday in the Community Theater at BHS and the January meeting of the BUSD School Board on Wednesday, January 13 at 7:30 p.m. at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

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  1. Dear Thomas Lord,

    I find myself wanting to say something to you that can all too easily be misconstrued in horrible ways. I hope you take this in the friendly and respectful way in which it is meant:

    Your boiling down of redteapots posted comments leaves a residuum reeking of bias and ignorance… yours.

    You’ve claimed her subtext is as follows –

    a) “changes at BHS are fine as long there is no reduction in service to anyone”.

    Eliminating 0 and 7 period science labs is a “reduction in services” in the same way amputating your leg would be a “reduction in limbs”. The current construct provides essential support for classes forced to excel under the “reduced” circumstances of obscenely large class sizes and finite lab space.

    As far as not reducing services “to anyone”. Does that mean “anyone who wants services” or those whom the BUSD has a priority mandate to serve – legal residents of the city of Berkeley? Surely our burden would be eased if that was the case. After all “BUSD receives $12,400 per student compared with the average California unified school district that receives $9,000 — almost 40% more!”

    Your translation of the second part of redteapots comments is even more mystifying.

    “…(b) “science is good; (c) the “science is good” position has political power…”

    Characterizing (as you do) those statements as hectoring (“…to treat with insolence; to threaten; to bully; hence, to torment by words; to tease; to taunt; to worry or irritate by bullying.”) requires that someone must be bullied, even tormented, by the facts that science is good and has political power. Who is the object of this bullying torment? For all the bullying torment I’ve endured from those who perpetrate the “classism and racism” you accuse redteapot of endorsing: Not once has the racial epithet “science is good” gotten under my skin.

  2. Shouldn’t the sports programs be on the chopping block before the science labs? Have the people advocating getting rid fo the AP science labs, first looked at the sports programs? Or do those programs benefit the right colored students?

  3. Redteapot, I find myself wanting to say something to you that can all too easily be misconstrued in horrible ways. I hope you take this in the friendly and respectful way in which it is meant.

    Your argument seems boil down to: (a) changes at BHS are fine as long there is no reduction in service to anyone; (b) science is good; (c) the “science is good” position has political power.

    I think that with (a), in reality, you are endorsing classism and racism (since upper classes and certain raises are favored by the current allocation of services) and that (b) and (c) are hectoring, not rationale.

    The principal’s plan seems weak on his specifics and rationale for how to spend the reallocated funds but you and others are attacking it on some princple opposed to reallocation of funds at all… and I think in performing such opposition you are making a case study in institutionalized racism and classism. I wish the principal had his “ducks more in a row”, so to speak. Things are muddled because there are both good and bad reasons to oppose his plan. It’s the popularity of the bad reasons to oppose that really makes me uncomfortable with the opposition.

  4. There has been no decision to date on this proposal. Those involved with education in Berkeley are committed to closing the achievement gap without taking from one group and giving to any other group. This is not an ends justifies the means debate. There will be more opportunities for people to weigh in on this discussion. The new superintendent in Berkeley was a science teacher some years ago and I strongly doubt that he is in favor of killing science labs without very good cause.

  5. I love and hate the opportunities that the ‘net has brought to the realm of public debate. I love that everyone who is on-line has the opportunity to participate. I hate that the dialogue tends to be immoderate and thin on facts. Most particularly, there’s a thinness of “on the ground” points of view. This leaves too much room for dogmatic debate.

    I would love to know in this case the opinions of recently graduated BHS students, now in college, who: took the AP science classes at BHS; successfully took the exams; and are now studying in college. What do they think? Do they think that the additional hours of lab in high school really helped them absorb the intellectual material? Were they better prepared for higher level classes in college because of their additional time in lab compared to other students who might not have gotten it? Did it matter? Would it have mattered if the lab time were reduced?

    I’m ambivalent about this issue. I come from an “all science” family. My family history is full of scientists of various sorts. My father was the night school professor for my high school science teachers getting their MS degrees sponsored by grants from the National Science Foundation. (This was decades ago when the federal government used to do useful things like this.) I know that my high school teachers sweated blood to make sure that my classmates and I learned the material and that it was accurate, lest I go home and talk to my father.

    While I did not study science in college, I do know that science is not just an abstract process. There is a “craft” element to it. It isn’t possible to know really “know” physics or chemistry without feeling some what comfortable in the lab. I imagine that the same is true of biological sciences. The practical handwork in the lab and intellectual understanding go hand in hand.

    If the recent BHS graduates don’t feel that the total additional amount of time in high school lab wouldn’t have mattered much to them, maybe this discussion is a waste of time. But if it makes a significant difference, then we need to acknowledge that there is a true cost to making the proposed change.

  6. Dear T. Lord,

    Even if you are technically correct in your clarification of the definition of the achievement gap, I believe this clarification misses the main issue of concern — the diversion of limited resources from one use to another for the sake of addressing the achievement gap. I would add that much of the frustration may stem from the concern that this diversion will likely, in the end, do little to alter the achievement gap. I believe schools have, in general, very limited power to address all the psychological and emotional challenges that students from disadvantaged backgrounds must overcome in order to excel.

  7. Dear cynic:

    The achievement gap we are talking about is not one of deviation from a norm – it’s measurement against some baseline measures of basic competence. If we have a demographic of students who do poorly on certain tests and so forth, then there is a gap. That doesn’t change no matter how many do well on the same tests.

    You could drive out all of the high-performing students tomorrow, so there are none left but low-achieving students — and the achievement gap would not change, as measured.

    Your comment is sadly ignorant of the basic issues in that way.

  8. You know, one way to shrink the achievement gap is to drive out all high-performing students. . . .