BHS science labs not just for the ‘privileged’

Amy Hansen is a long time science teacher at Berkeley High School. When she read Rick Ayer’s opinion piece on the science lab controversy, she felt compelled to send a letter to the school board rebutting Ayers’ charges. This is a copy of the letter.

Contrary to Mr. Ayers assertion, it is not a privilege to take challenging college preparatory or Advanced Placement classes. Neither is it true that these classes are for only white students. In Academic Choice, Advanced Biology is taken by 95% of our freshman and enrollment matches the demographics of the school.

It is not a “privilege” for students to expect to be prepared to do college level work. In fact, it is our obligation as teachers to teach the state standards and more. It is, in fact, our solemn duty is to teach all students, those academically prepared and those underprepared.

Mr. Ayers is wrong to say that nothing has changed. In the last six years, Mr. Slemp has instituted four small schools and is about to add another. Mr. Ayers correctly points out that the achievement gap is still there. In fact, it has gotten worse in the last six years. In 2003 28% of African-Americans were proficient in 11th grade English Language Arts but in 2009, it was 14%. Proficiency in chemistry dropped from 20% to 4% during this same period. (As a side note, in 2003 the district dropped double -period science classes.)

Small schools may have been conceived as a way to integrate classes but they in fact are more segregated than the large school. Academic Choice is 24% African-American but  the small school population is 43% African-American. (The total African-American population for the entire school is 28%.)

Mr. Ayers claims that a 20-34% cut in science instruction is not an issue. In terms of science instruction, the College Board as well as many other institutions, recognize the need to provide extended time for science. It doesn’t matter what time of day science is taught, but the hands-on activities require deconstruction and analysis. This simply requires more time. President Obama has urged educators to make “a national commitment to science education and training”. A 20% cut in instructional time means a 20% loss of content for 95% of our students, just the opposite of what our nation’s leadership is calling for.

Mr. Ayers states that false claims have been raised to obscure the facts. However, small school “cheating” is not a false claim. It is in fact true that failing students were given passing grades in an alternative science classes (an “F” grade in chemistry was replaced by a “C” grade in physical science; an “F” in honors human anatomy was replaced with a “C” in integrated science). The Principal has admitted publicly that this “irregularity” existed and there are transcripts that prove it.

It is in fact true that grades in the small schools are inflated. Look at the data. 75%  of students in the Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA)  have an “A” or “B” grade in chemistry but only 15% demonstrate proficiency on the STAR exam. Let me cite a few specific examples. Students earning “A” and “B” grades in calculus in Community Partnership Academy (CPA) earned “1” on the AP calculus exam [grades range from a low of "1” to a high of "5”]. A current student in AHA enrolled in AP English  received a “C” grade but has not yet passed the English Exit exam. Grades in Communication Arts School (CAS) are the highest in the school yet the performance on the STAR exam shows 73% below or far below basic in English Language Arts and 64% below or far below basic in math. The performance on AP exams in the small schools averages around “1” (the lowest ranking) while in AC  it is a “3” (a passing score).

Mr. Ayers speaks of equity. Mr. Slemp speaks of equity. But their equity is a prescribed “equity of outcomes”. They don’t speak up for equity of instruction across the curriculum. In fact, Mr. Slemp supports the right of each small school to teach whatever curriculum they see fit. Their actions imply that students of color cannot meet the same expectations as their white peers. This is racism plain and simple. It is a wonder that the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has not recognized the inequality in the curriculum across Academic Choice and the small schools.

Those of us who are fighting to preserve an extra hour of instruction in science and to preserve our AP Science program believe that students can and should make this extra commitment to their education because we believe that more learning is better than less. We believe that African-American and Latino students can master difficult and challenging content. We believe that students who come to BHS with gaps in the their educational preparedness can close the gap. But this will take extra effort on their part. It is not right for those who have been given a mandate to teach to lower expectations for any of our students. It will take a coordinated, sustained effort to improve instruction. Teachers will need to work closely together to evaluate student progress, not “do their own thing” as small schools are doing now.

We can close the achievement gap. It has been done in other urban schools. The focus has to be on improving teaching and raising expectations for all us.

Amy Hansen has worked in education for 25 years and is currently teaching science at BHS