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Racial Politics and The Elusive Quest
for Excellence and Equity in Education

-- Part 3 --
Making Steps Toward Educational Equity

Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.
  • Two Schools in One: Sorting Students at BHS
  • Conclusion: Making Steps Toward Educational Equity By Overcoming the Institutional Obstacles

  • Part 2: The Role and Significance of Race in the Achievement Gap
  • Part 1: Introduction / The Minority Student Achievement Network
  • Click here to open a second browser window to view all footnotes and references cited.

Two Schools in One: Sorting Students at BHS

Although BHS is a relatively large school with approximately three thousand students and nearly two hundred teachers, counselors and administrators. According to the district's data, approximately 40% of the students at BHS are White, 40% are African American, 10% are Latino and 10% are Asian American (Berkeley Alliance 1999). These numbers may be inaccurate because approximately 10% of the students who responded to a survey administered by the Diversity project to the class of 2000 identified themselves as mixed race (Diversity Project Final report 2000). Racial differences tend to correspond closely to class differences. The vast majority of White students reside in middle class and affluent neighborhoods in the hills and north Berkeley, while the majority of African American and Latino students come from low income communities in the flatlands of south and west Berkeley. Additionally, approximately 25% of students do not reside in Berkeley at all. They enroll in BHS either through inter-district transfer or by surreptitiously claiming Berkeley residence, and the vast majority of these are Black students from poorer neighborhoods in Oakland (Diversity Project 1999).

On the basis of almost every significant indicator, BHS is a school that does not serve its Black and Latino students well. Nearly fifty percent of Black and Latino students who enter BHS in the ninth grade fail to graduate, and among those who do graduate, few complete the course requirements necessary for admission at the University of California, or the state college system (Berkeley Alliance 1999). African American students constitute the overwhelming majority of students who are suspended or expelled from the school for disciplinary reasons (Diversity Project Final Report 2000), and they comprise the majority of students enrolled in special education classes. Finally, the English as a Second Language (ESL) program functions as a distinct school within the larger school, and its students, most of whom are Latino and Asian, are effectively denied access to college preparatory classes and resources available at BHS.

In contrast, for most White and some Asian students, BHS is a highly successful school offering a vast array of educational opportunities and enriching experiences. The vast majority of White students graduate and matriculate to four year colleges and universities, and a significant number are admitted to Ivy League colleges and the University of California (1996 Report on College Admission). BHS consistently produces several national merit scholars, most of whom are White, and the Jazz band, debating club and school newspaper (all of which almost exclusively White), have received several national awards. With its rich and innovative curriculum, BHS is one of few public schools that actually draws White students away from private schools. ( 10 ) Their parents, many of whom are professionals with advanced university degrees, know a good thing when they see it, and as a result many have refused to abandon this urban public school in the way that many White middle class families have done elsewhere (Nocera 1991). In fact, many White parents and students perceive the diversity of the school as an added benefit, and some regard sending their children there as an inherently progressive political act. ( 11 )

When Berkeley schools were desegregated in 1968, issues related to race and schooling seemed so simple and clear cut, that the advocates for de-segregation merely argued that "it was the right thing to do"(Kirp 1982:67). However, addressing racial disparities in the post-integration period has been far more difficult. With the advent of Black nationalist movements in the 1970s, "the right thing to do" became more ambiguous. In 1969 Black students at BHS demanded and were granted the first African American Studies department established at a high school in the United States. The logic behind this concession was rooted in the notion that separate and distinct approaches to educating Black and White students were necessary and desired. Such thinking led to the creation of several smaller separate high schools in the mid 1970s, including the Umoja House for Black students seeking a culturally defined educational experience, and the Raza House for Chicano students seeking something analogous for themselves. Ultimately, these experiments in racial separation were brought to an end by the US Department of Education, which determined that maintaining racially separate schools was a violation of several civil rights statutes, and was therefore illegal. ( 12 )

Despite this setback, the underlying philosophical premise that produced the racially defined schools retained its influence. Over time, BHS effectively became two schools within the same facility: an elite college preparatory school serving affluent White students, and an inner-city school serving economically disadvantaged Black and Latino students. Officially, there was only one school, with one principal, one faculty, one football team, etc. But for students and anyone else who spent their days at the school, the fragmented nature of BHS, where divisions occurred along racial and class lines, was evident and ever-present in nearly every aspect of the school.

Patterns of racial separation are most evident when one enters the school grounds at the beginning of the school day. Across the sprawling campus, students can be seen huddled in racially distinct groupings. Black students congregate in front of the administration building congregating near a map of Africa that has been painted on the asphalt. White students gather on the steps of the Community Theater. Along Martin Luther King Way on the periphery of the campus, groups of Latino students come together near and around a Mexican mural. Smaller groups of Asian students find their place along a wall adjacent to the Science Building. Each grouping is racially distinct but the lines between them are permeable as can be seen from the significant number of students who mingle in mixed groups or who cross over to interact with individuals from another group.

While this form of separation may be most noticeable, and such voluntary associations create the sense that this is what students prefer, the separation that occurs in classrooms throughout the school are largely involuntary and substantially less visible, yet their impact on student outcomes is far more profound. During the course of a four-year study carried out at the school, ( 13 ) the Diversity project analyzed course enrollment patterns and the trajectories they create for students. Our analysis of the data revealed that White students are concentrated in the honors and college track courses while African American and Latino students are predominant in less demanding remedial courses. These patterns are set in place start from the time a student enters the school in the ninth grade, and for this reason this is where our initial research efforts were focused.

Since 1993, reports on the number of the "D's" and "F's" received by students in major courses were produced and released to the public at the end of each semester. Because these reports disagregated the student population by racial status, release of the reports tended to elicit considerable controversy and finger pointing. Underlying the controversy were profound disagreements over the causes of academic disparities. Finger pointing by those who attributed the problem to indifferent teachers, negligent parents, lazy and unmotivated students, or even society as a whole, only contributed to further paralysis and inaction. More significantly, the lack of change in student outcomes over time contributed to a perception that racial dichotomies in patterns of student achievement were normal or even "natural", and their consistency gave them a fixed and unchangeable quality.

To challenge assumptions about the link between race and school performance within the school and community the Diversity Project utilized two research strategies: an annual survey administered to students in the class of 2000 (approximately 750 ninth graders who entered BHS in the Fall of 1996), and an analysis of grades and course selections made by the same ninth graders utilizing student records as the data base. The purpose of choosing these two data collection strategies was to find ways to show the school and community how students were being separated as they entered BHS.

Over the course of the 1996-'97 academic year, data on course enrollment and student perceptions of their BHS experience was collected and analyzed. Once this process was completed we contemplated ways of presenting the data to the school's faculty for a discussion of the issues related to student achievement. Our goal was to move the conversation beyond an assignment of blame to a more constructive focus on potential solutions. To facilitate such a discussion, the faculty was divided into four groups and assigned to rooms where large graphics were displayed which illustrated findings from our investigation. In the first room the charts illustrated how the assignment of students to math courses in the ninth grade influenced their trajectory into other academic courses and electives within the school. For example, it showed that students who were placed in honors geometry, 87% of whom were White and who disproportionately had come to BHS from private schools, were on track to complete the advanced math and science courses needed for admission to the University of California. We also displayed graphics that showed these students were more likely to be enrolled in a higher level foreign language courses, (e.g. second year or above French or Spanish, or first year German or Latin) and honors biology.

In contrast, another set of graphics showed that students who had been placed in the lowest level pre-algebra class, 83% of whom were African American and Latino, were not on track to complete the university's science and math requirements. With nearly 80% of the students who had been enrolled in this course failing it in the Fall semester of 1996, the graphics made it clear that it would be highly unlikely that more than a handful of these students would be able to complete the math and science course sequence needed to fulfill university entrance requirements. Moreover, students placed in pre-Algebra were not likely to be enrolled in a college prep science course, and if they had a foreign language class it was most likely to be beginning Spanish or Swahili.(Diversity Project Progress Report 1999) Most surprising of all was the fact that nearly all of the students who had entered BHS through inter-district transfer or under "care giver status", had been assigned to pre-algebra.

The course enrollment charts were followed by the presentation of a map of the city of Berkeley broken down by zip code. Within each zip code, the average grade point average (gpa) for students residing within the area was indicated. As might be expected, the map revealed a clear and distinct pattern: students from homes in south and west Berkeley, the poorest sections of the city with the highest African American and Latino populations, had the lowest gpa's, while students in north Berkeley and the affluent Berkeley hills, had the highest gpa's. Interestingly, though the map revealed patterns that anyone associated with the school would expect, reaction to the map was striking. Teachers viewing the map were amazed by the consistency of the pattern and wondered aloud why such a pronounced trend existed. The comment of one veteran teacher captured the sentiment of many of the teachers: "I expected kids from the poorer sections of the city to do less well but I'm amazed that its this blatant. Something must be going on." (5/2/97) The map turned out to be such a powerful illustration of the relationship between social class and academic achievement, that the San Francisco Chronicle , featured a copy of the map in a front page article describing the research that was done by the Project (SF Chronicle June 16, 1997).

As teachers discussed the findings from the research no one argued about the accuracy of the data, nor did the conversation about the data deteriorate into a debate over who was to blame for these patterns. Instead, those present wanted to know more about what could be learned from the data, and they asked questions to further probe the information that had been collected. How did the grades students obtained in math compare to those in English and History? How did a students' grades correlate with their attendance in school? How effective were the academic support programs that had been set up to help students that were struggling academically?

There were similar reactions to the data derived from the survey that was presented in another classroom. The survey data provided information on what students liked and disliked about BHS, as well as information about how often they studied, whether or not they were employed and for how many hours a week, and where they went when they needed academic support. Many teachers reacted with surprise when they discovered that a majority of students indicated that the diversity of the student body was one of the things that students liked best about their experience at BHS. Students also expressed considerable support for the "freedom" they enjoyed at BHS, which they identified as the opportunity to set your own course schedule and the ease with which they were able to cut classes without being caught.

Discussion of the data generated from the student survey and course enrollment patterns opened the door to a more difficult discussion about the implications of the findings for students and the school as a whole. Confronted with evidence that course assignment in the ninth grade would determine the trajectory students were on over the next four years, some teachers began to question the fairness of the course assignment process. As teachers learned that course assignments in math were made by counselors who based their decision on a review of student transcripts and without a formal assessment of student ability, questions about the fairness of the process were raised. Concerns about the lack of structure at BHS (e.g. the absence of a coherent tardy policy, and the inconsistent application of penalties for cutting) led to a discussion about the permissive culture of the school which effectively allowed large numbers of students to fail and slip through the cracks.

The presentations in the third and fourth rooms focused on how patterns of separation extend beyond the classroom and show up in those areas of the school where membership is based upon voluntary association. Our data showed that nearly every club, sports team and extracurricular activity offered by the school had a racially exclusive make-up. Even more disturbing was the fact that any activity that might be regarded as having the potential to enhance one's academic performance (e.g. academic clubs, the debating team, etc.) was comprised almost exclusively of White students.

Because they have been in place for so long, such patterns of separation have been rationalized as the product of choices made freely by the students. Some adults at the school consciously condone these practices as a way of accommodating the diverse cultures and interests present within the school, and argue that these patterns of separation provide a form of cultural affirmation. However, what some regard as a benign and voluntary form of racial separation actually masks the ways in which these patterns reinforce the racialized nature of academic failure and success at the school. Because many students and teachers have come to accept this form of racial separation as voluntary and therefore unavoidable, there has been relatively little willingness to take responsibility for the wide disparities in academic outcomes and the social tensions that accompany these patterns. Nor has there been much acknowledgement that these patterns profoundly influence the future opportunities available to students once they leave BHS.

Several studies on extra curricular activities have shown that students who are involved in sports, music, the arts, and other clubs, generally perform better in school than students who are uninvolved (Steinberg 1996). Students who participate in extracurricular activities are also more likely to be engaged academically. In this way, school activities often counter alienation, anti-social behavior and an orientation toward school which devalues the importance of academic pursuits. Additionally, students who are involved in extracurricular activities are more likely to feel connected and identify with their schools. Studies have shown that the psychological effects of such a connection can positively influence academic performance (Steele 1992).

Our discussions with teachers about the factors that produce racially distinct clubs and sports teams made it possible for the adults who had long come to accept these patterns as unavoidable to consider actions that might be taken to alter them. Perhaps with some encouragement, Latino students who frequently can be seen playing soccer on their own time in unstructured pick up games, could be recruited to the school's soccer team? Similarly, with a concerted outreach plan and even some arm twisting, minority students could be recruited to write for the school newspaper, try out for a part in a school play, or to join one of the predominantly White athletic teams such as golf, fencing or tennis. It was acknowledged that in order to increase minority student participation it might also be necessary to be open to their suggestions for how these activities might become more appealing to their interests and tastes. However, given the social benefits the school might gain from improved inter-group relations, and the long term academic benefits that might result from increased student engagement, several of those participating in the discussion indicated a willingness to take extra steps to make increased involvement from minority students possible.

Conclusion: Making Steps Toward Educational Equity By Overcoming the Institutional Obstacles

As is true in society, the other side of racial inequality at BHS is racial privilege. Just as certain institutional practices contribute to the concentration of African American and Latino students at the bottom rungs of educational performance, other policies and practices work to insure that high achieving, upper middleclass White students retain their academic advantages. Of course a key point to be made here is that institutional bias is generally not based upon overtly racist behaviors and intentions on the part of school personnel. Rather, the policies and practices that reinforce academic disparities appear on the surface to be race neutral, even though close analysis of their impact reveals clear and distinct costs and benefits that break down along racial lines.

At BHS, and at most schools, disparities in student achievement are most likely to be attributed to factors related to student motivation. The various ways in which the operations of schools serve to reproduce and maintain racial disparities in academic achievement are less likely to be considered in discussions about the achievement gap. Unless educators are willing to examine organizational practices that facilitate the perpetuation of the gap in academic opportunities, and unless they are willing and able to take actions to undo them, reducing the racial gap in student performance will not be possible.

This is obviously easier said than done, for the structural mechanisms through racial inequality is reproduced tend to be subtle and complex. This is especially likely to be the case in the schools within MSAN where the official discourse consistently appears to support efforts to raise the achievement of minority students. Until educators in these districts are willing to move beyond good intentions to address the institutional practices which reward academically motivated students and harm the interests of underachieving students, little progress can be made.

At the schools within MSAN and in many others as well, there are undoubtedly numerous ways in which race and class differences are maintained within the organizational culture and structure. At BHS, the Diversity Project initiated conversations with teachers first and used research to create a context in which the structure of opportunity could be discussed and challenged. However, even at BHS, changing these practices has been difficult. The difficulty comes from the fact that those who benefit most from existing institutional practices are generally able to mount fierce resistance to any effort aimed at reducing the benefits they enjoy.

To counter such a reaction at BHS, the Diversity Project found ways to provide Black and Latino parents with information about how the school operates so that they could be a in a better position to advocate effectively for the educational rights of their children. Organizing African American and Latino parents was not an easy task because these parents have historically not been involved in making decisions at the school. To increase the involvement of Black and Latino parents and bring greater balance to the political forces that exert pressure on the school and District, the parent outreach committee of the Project organized a series of focus group discussions for Latino and African American parents designed to elicit their views on the school. Specifically, we wanted to know what concerns they had about the education their children were receiving, what kinds of obstacles parents encountered when interacting with school officials on behalf of their children, and what kinds of changes they felt would help make BHS more receptive to their concerns.

Over the course of six months over seventy focus groups were conducted with over four hundred parents. To insure that maximum opportunity was provided for open communication, all of the sessions with Spanish speaking parents were conducted in Spanish. Food and childcare were also provided as an added incentive to attract high levels of participation. The parent outreach committee also recruited parents to join them in conducting the focus groups and carrying out the research. This was important because the core group of the committee is now playing an active leadership role at the school. As a result of these efforts, the parent outreach group has already gotten the BHS administration to designate a surplus classroom for use as a parent center, and with the support of grants from foundations, two part-time parent organizers have been hired.

Confronted with the demands of an organized constituency, administrators at the school and the District have been forced to find ways to respond to the educational needs of under-served students. In the Spring of 2001, Black parents succeeded in getting the administration to establish a new section of Algebra classes for students who had failed the subject in the first semester. Though the initial reaction was that such an intervention would be too costly, when confronted by sustained pressure from organized parents, the administration eventually gave in and found a way to support the new initiative.

Much more must be done before a genuine balance between academic excellence and equity can be achieved at BHS, but for the time being at least there is a climate in which a debate over these goals can occur. An active debate in which the concerns of all parties can be aired and openly discussed is undoubtedly the most that can be hoped for at this time. In an ideal situation, excellence and equity would not be regarded as competing goals. However, for now the history of polarization on these issues makes it unlikely that a broad consensus will be achieved any time soon. The debate has at least allowed the school and district to move beyond the paralysis that previously characterized discussions of these issues; a paralysis that leaves so many other schools mired in acrimony and trapped in a zero-sum framing of the issues.

Even with changes intended to promote equity underway, it will undoubtedly take some time before significant reductions in the achievement gap are evident. Still to be addressed are the more difficult to address cultural factors that influence the orientation students adopt toward school. Primary among these is student motivation. Even as new tutoring and support services are provided to low achieving students it is not clear that students will seek these out, nor is it clear that they will enroll in more challenging courses once the opportunity is provided. Student motivation does have an impact on student achievement, and while it is essential that opportunities to learn are expanded, it is also necessary for schools, parents and the community to find ways to motivate students who have come to see schooling and education generally as unimportant. Additionally, it will take some time before we know if efforts to change BHS succeed in removing the rigid connection between racial identity and school performance that exist in the minds of some students of color. If students regard Blackness as being equated with playing basketball and listening to rap music but not with studying Geometry and Chemistry, then it is unlikely that changing the school alone will do much to change achievement outcomes for students. Certainly it would help if similar efforts to change the structure and culture of school were initiated in the lower grades when students are more impressionable. But it is also important to recognize that in their efforts to challenge the insidious relationship between racial identity and academic performance, schools are up against powerful cultural forces in the media that often reinforce the opposite message (McCarthy and Crichlow 1993 xxii-xxiv).

Despite the odds against success, the challenge that has been taken on by the fourteen districts in MSAN is extremely important, not just for the schools involved, but for public education in the United States generally. Throughout the country integration as an ideal and practice is under attack. Over the last twenty years, the courts have steadily weakened the legal basis for desegregation, and several communities have withdrawn their commitment to its goals (Orfield and Eaton 1996). The failure of MSAN to produce significant improvements in minority student performance would further undermine support for the goals of school integration.

Yet, the experiences of places like Berkeley High School offer a glimmer of hope. When educators demonstrate a willingness to accept responsibility for their role in maintaining school structures that foster inequality, and when local discussions of these issues move beyond a search for blame to a search for concrete solutions, the possibility for genuine progress in raising student achievement can be significantly increased. Of course, even that possibility must eventually yield measurable results, and obtaining these results will take much more than good intentions.

  • Part 1: Introduction / The Minority Student Achievement Network
  • Part 2: The Role and Significance of Race in the Achievement Gap

Published in In Motion Magazine September 30, 2001
Article # ER010930002

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