Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley. Kamala Harris was bused to the school (since rebuilt) in the 1960s.

Fifty years after Sen. Kamala Harris was bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary School from her home in the Berkeley flatlands, the district is still grappling with persistent racial and ethnic disparities that decades of concerted efforts have failed to eliminate.

The latest effort came in 2008, when the city formally adopted a sweeping initiative, called 2020 Vision for Berkeley Children and Youth, “to end the disparities in academic achievement that exist along racial lines among children and youth in Berkeley” — by next year.

But Berkeley is nowhere close to achieving that goal. In fact, it has one of the largest racial and ethnic achievement gaps in the nation, according to research by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon and his colleagues.

Sen. Kamala Harris

The ongoing gaps represent a profound challenge to progressive communities like Berkeley that have done more than most districts to institutionalize racial and ethnic diversity, and make closing the achievement gap a top priority. Notwithstanding Harris’ rise to the highest ranks of American politics, it also underscores that busing may be a necessary but not sufficient condition to promote success of all students in racially segregated districts, as Berkeley once was.

The demographics of Berkeley have changed significantly over the past half century. Today, largely as a result of rising housing costs that over time have forced out black residents, only 14 percent of the district student enrollment is black, compared to 42 percent in 1968. Now the largest racial and ethnic group other than whites, who comprise about 40 percent of the student population, are Latinos, who make up 24 percent of the student body.

Some children are still bused in Berkeley, but its ambitious citywide program ended in the 1990s and was followed by numerous other efforts to ensure diversity in its schools and to promote the academic success of its most disadvantaged students.

In the mid-1990s, the district reverted to K-5 elementary schools, in lieu of the K-3 and 4-6 schools under the busing program. It set up a complicated enrollment system with enrollment zones that stretch from the hills where more affluent residents live to the flatlands. The city was divided into hundreds of “planned areas” that are assigned a diversity category based on the demographics of each neighborhood.

The system is still in place today. Busing is still available for some students. Families can choose up to three schools in order of preference, then a computer program assigns their children to a school, taking their preferences into account. But a family can be living within blocks of their  first choice, but the student might be assigned to a school further away as a way to ensure racial and ethnic diversity in that school.

The city’s 2020 Vision initiative was superimposed on that integration model. Its goal was to ensure that all children, regardless of race, ethnicity and income, who enter Berkeley schools beginning in 2007 (and remain in the district) will achieve equitable outcomes with no proficiency differences by the time they graduate in June, 2020.

The initiative has involved multiple city departments, UC Berkeley, Berkeley City College (the local community college) and numerous other institutions.

It encompasses more than 50 programs and activities, such the Berkeley Promise program, offering free tuition to attend the local community college, as well as a “trauma informed” pilot program that connects students to mental health services in the city.

Among its specific goals are:

  • All children will enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • All children will read proficiently by the end of the 3rd grade.
  • All children will attend school.
  • All children will graduate from high school.

Some progress has been made, including students beginning kindergarten better prepared, improved 3rd-grade reading and higher graduation rates. However, with a year to go, wide disparities remain in multiple areas, as measured by test scores, chronic absenteeism rates, college and career readiness and other indicators.

City officials acknowledge that “while the 2020 Vision partnership has made progress … the initiative will not achieve educational equity by June 2020, the graduation date of the inaugural kindergarten class of 2020 Vision.”

This is happening in the context of a district that is generally doing well when looking at the student body as a whole.

On the color coded set of indicators on the California School Dashboard, recently developed by the state to provide a way to assess schools on multiple measures, the district as a whole gets three “green” ratings (just one below the top “blue” rating) and no red ones, which means that it is not failing in any area.

Financially, the district is doing better than most in the state. Berkeley Unified last year spent an average of $15,476 per student, over $3,000 more than the state average of $12,068. Earlier this year, it had to cut $2 million from its budget, but compared to many districts, its finances are relatively stable, helped by a generous parcel tax on real estate approved by voters.

These extra funds have kept class sizes generally small in the elementary grades and underwritten numerous programs across the district, including Berkeley’s famed music program, which reaches thousands of children each year.

But dig deeper into the performance of different subgroups of students and the picture is far more troubling.

Stanford’s Reardon points out that one reason that the racial and ethnic gaps in Berkeley are so high is that white students on average are doing exceptionally well, not that black and Latino students are doing exceptionally poorly, at least compared to their peers in other school districts.

Sean Reardon

In that sense, Berkeley is not that dissimilar to other communities which are also home to world-class universities, like Palo Alto, Chapel Hill and Evanston, IL, where achievement gaps are also very large.

“Some of it is that white families in those places tend to have higher incomes and education levels than black and Hispanic families, who have fewer socioeconomic resources to use to provide educational opportunities for their children such as high-quality preschool,” Reardon said.

But this is not sufficient to explain all of the gap, he said. “Clearly other educational opportunities are not equally distributed within those communities.”

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, a longtime Berkeley school board member, said the district must do a deeper analysis to ensure that students lagging behind take advantage of all the support services and other initiatives that the school district and the city offer.

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler

She also suggested that the district needs to look at the extent to which “implicit bias” — attitudes that predispose people to be biased against some people or groups without being aware of it — are affecting Berkeley’s efforts.

A Berkeley resident for decades, Leyva-Cutler is also executive director of the Berkeley-based BAHIA, Inc., which runs a pioneering bilingual preschool and after-school program. In that role she has closely observed — and served — generations of children from all socioeconomic backgrounds at the beginning of their academic careers.

She said the district is now doing an assessment of students who aren’t in the district’s special education program, but may be dyslexic, as one possible explanation for poor reading scores.

UCLA professor of education Pedro Noguera, who was a Berkeley parent and a member of the Berkeley school board in the 1990s, painted a complex interaction of race and class in the schools. Echoing Reardon’s observations, he said working class and poor black and Latino children are more dependent on the schools than affluent parents whose children are destined for college “from the time they are born,” almost regardless of what schools they attend.

Pedro Noguera

But the schools, even in places like Berkeley, “are more likely to cater to the needs of the affluent children,” said Noguera, faculty director for UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools. “That’s because their parents demand it — they are watching and unlike parents of color they are less likely to trust the schools to serve their kids well — and because affluent children are easier to serve.”

Looking at districts that implemented court-ordered busing program, Rucker Johnson, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, says that attending integrated schools has long-term positive consequences on average for African-American students, including better education outcomes, a higher likelihood of attending college, including more selective colleges and higher wages throughout their lives.

“Integration when implemented in a holistic fashion has the power to break the cycle of poverty and can benefit all groups, regardless of race and ethnicity,” Johnson wrote in his recently published Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works. At the same time, he said, “integration alone is insufficient to achieve the kind of educational equality Thurgood Marshall and his allies sought.” To be optimally successful, he says, school integration should be accompanied by high-quality early childhood education, access to health care, more funding and reforms in housing policies.

In a presentation to the city council last fall, those overseeing the Vision 2020 initiative said Berkeley needs to “analyze gaps,” “refine approaches,” “strengthen community contracts” and “develop strategies for community engagement.”

Despite its decades of efforts, and the successes of students like Harris, Leyva-Cutler said the district can’t give up. “We have been doing the same things and for some of our students, getting the same results,” she said “We have to do things differently.”

Above all, she said, “we have to recommit.”

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  1. Dan Plonsey 4 months ago4 months ago

    I'm a math teacher at Berkeley High, so I read this article and the comments with great interest, and then disappointment. I have read research by Sean Reardon which shows that parents' income and education are the main factors in predicting student success. I have read Pedro Noguera's work from 20 years ago in which he identified ways in which privileged families run this district to benefit their kids. I see their conclusions validated in … Read More

    I’m a math teacher at Berkeley High, so I read this article and the comments with great interest, and then disappointment. I have read research by Sean Reardon which shows that parents’ income and education are the main factors in predicting student success. I have read Pedro Noguera’s work from 20 years ago in which he identified ways in which privileged families run this district to benefit their kids. I see their conclusions validated in my classroom over and over, in all sorts of ways. I don’t understand why they curiously diminish their own work here.
    When the subject of Berkeley’s especially terrible achievement gap comes up, people are quick to blame the students, the parents, and the teachers – as is done here. Our country’s enormous, catastrophic economic inequality – which happens to be worse in Berkeley than in almost any US city – is forgotten. And when anyone brings it up, they’re told that they’re “making excuses.” It can’t be that capitalism is to blame. It can’t be that the game is rigged. It’s the kids and the parents and those lazy, inept teachers and their unions. It is discouraging to read this article, and read the comments, which amount to making excuses for capitalism, which is doing exactly what it was intended to do.

    Replies

    • Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

      While capitalism may play some role in whether or not students of color achieve, the primary variable that supports student achievement is the teachers that they encounter and the administrators who support these students. Let us assume that we randomly select 100 students of color within the BUSD system. One can argue that a given combination of teachers and administrators working together can bring these students to a middle of the road achievement level. Another group … Read More

      While capitalism may play some role in whether or not students of color achieve, the primary variable that supports student achievement is the teachers that they encounter and the administrators who support these students.

      Let us assume that we randomly select 100 students of color within the BUSD system. One can argue that a given combination of teachers and administrators working together can bring these students to a middle of the road achievement level. Another group of teachers and administrators could bring the students to the highest level of achievement. Another group of teachers and administrators could keep these students at the lowest level of achievement. If this premise is true, then the achievement that these 100 students rise or sink to is primarily a factor of the caliber of teachers and administrators that they encounter in their educational careers. Their academic success can be primarily attributed to the quality and caliber of teachers and administrators that they work with.

      It is truly an adult performance problem and not a student problem. Best to raise our professional practices game so that we can bring our students to the highest achievement levels possible. Our attitude should be bring it on. We can handle it and make sure all students achieve. It’s on us. While capitalism clearly will play a role in who gets access to the best schools, teachers, and administrators, we need to make sure that all of our students have access to high caliber teachers and administrators within the K-12 system especially our students of color who depend most on their teachers. Let’s quit making excuses and change the things that we can change to enhance the learning for our students!

  2. Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

    Noguera has it right. Children of color are most sensitive to quality instruction. Most teachers coming out of the colleges of education are not prepared for the actual rigors of the classroom especially in challenging classroom situations. Yet governance and district administrators through policy assign novice and Teach For American teachers to the neediest classrooms while reserving the most qualified teachers to the affluent predominantly white schools. An evaluation of small schools that I led … Read More

    Noguera has it right. Children of color are most sensitive to quality instruction. Most teachers coming out of the colleges of education are not prepared for the actual rigors of the classroom especially in challenging classroom situations. Yet governance and district administrators through policy assign novice and Teach For American teachers to the neediest classrooms while reserving the most qualified teachers to the affluent predominantly white schools.

    An evaluation of small schools that I led in Oakland Unified School District demonstrated very inconsistent academic growth in the small schools. This initial study was covered over by a glitzy evaluation report by Linda Darling-Hammond that provided cover for the ineffective small schools movement in OUSD promoted by totally politicized OUSD governance!

    If you want to see improvement in the academic performance of children of color, you must energetically and with monitoring and support improve the instructional practices of the teachers with fulsome district administrator support for the teachers.

    The sanctimonious veneer of equity propounded by BUSD only improves the self-image of BUSD governance and disrupt administrators! It does almost nothing to improve achievement!

    The gap is in adult professional practices not the students. Stop blaming the victims and start looking in the mirror. The kids are generally fine. It is the adults who are screwed up.

  3. W Goodkind 5 months ago5 months ago

    Several items worth noting: 1. 'Only 14 percent of the district student enrollment is black, compared to 42 percent in 1968." At some point well after 1968 the option to self-describe as "two or more races" was instituted and many students who had formerly been counted as African -American, such as Kamala Harris, were now counted as what they actually were, which was mixed race. So you cannot help but compare apples to oranges with this … Read More

    Several items worth noting:
    1. ‘Only 14 percent of the district student enrollment is black, compared to 42 percent in 1968.” At some point well after 1968 the option to self-describe as “two or more races” was instituted and many students who had formerly been counted as African -American, such as Kamala Harris, were now counted as what they actually were, which was mixed race. So you cannot help but compare apples to oranges with this one.
    2. The district is “now doing an assessment of students who aren’t in the district’s special education program, but may be dyslexic,” due to a large group lawsuit by parents of dyslexic students, because for years – decades – BUSD has routinely turned those students down for services including IEPs. The parents of dyslexic children who had the resources spent personal funds making sure their kids could learn to read. Less fortunate students were out of luck and many were then often turned down for 504s later, also routinely. No services, no accommodations – it was a travesty that happened often. Students whose parents did not know how to fight city hall on this one were out of luck.
    3. Huge numbers of elementary school children are still bused and the elementary schools are quite balanced racially. The zone plan drives people nuts but it does achieve racial balance.
    4. In other districts close by, if a young student is not reading at grade level, that might be all they need to be offered services. In Berkeley they have to beg for testing and are then are routinely turned down for support anyway.
    5. BUSD seems unable or unwilling to fix its problems. It has known that math is an enormous problem at all levels, especially high school, but there it sits. Lacking vision, data, analysis, or creativity, there is little or no progress. Even the abject failure of math in the small schools has not moved BUSD out of its allegiance to those programs.
    The 2020 Vision was just that – a vision. It always lacked a spine and a financial commitment to getting it right, getting it done. The best the high school could do was to crush the top a bit – get rid of some AP history, shrink an excellent Latin program and other routes for kids at the top to excel even more. They played it like a zero sum game, which it does not have to be.
    The very large and searing consultant’s report on special education is worth a read.

    Replies

    • tom 4 months ago4 months ago

      Interesting comments W Goodkind, and Issaq AH about the BUSD lack of action on 504s and other actions that would be responsive to students. Whenever there is a monopoly on anything and there is no alternative, bad things usually result - basic economics. Am wondering why parents have not voted to try other options, e.g. charter schools like so many other districts in California and the nation for that matter. Hey … Read More

      Interesting comments W Goodkind, and Issaq AH about the BUSD lack of action on 504s and other actions that would be responsive to students. Whenever there is a monopoly on anything and there is no alternative, bad things usually result – basic economics. Am wondering why parents have not voted to try other options, e.g. charter schools like so many other districts in California and the nation for that matter. Hey maybe Kamala Harris would address this instead of sucker-punching Biden over busing?

      $15k per student would go a long way for a charter, and if it doesn’t raise achievement, close it down. Parents owe it to their kids, and their future, to be more aggressive in their demands. It’s their kids and their money that funds these schools.

    • Dan Plonsey 4 months ago4 months ago

      I’m curious: when you write, “It has known that math is an enormous problem at all levels, especially high school,” what, exactly, do you mean? What is the “enormous problem?” And what solution do you propose?

  4. Wayne Bishop 5 months ago5 months ago

    Yes, recommit, but not to more of the same Common Core Standards, SBAC, and color-coded, meaningless school assessments. Return to the product of the Standards Commission, CSTs, and publicly accessed and compared grade-level school data. Beyond that, make sure that students meet a reasonable level of competency before advancing. Ridiculous social promotion all the way through high school graduation has killed our schools and especially so for low socioeconomic minority children. … Read More

    Yes, recommit, but not to more of the same Common Core Standards, SBAC, and color-coded, meaningless school assessments. Return to the product of the Standards Commission, CSTs, and publicly accessed and compared grade-level school data. Beyond that, make sure that students meet a reasonable level of competency before advancing. Ridiculous social promotion all the way through high school graduation has killed our schools and especially so for low socioeconomic minority children. Nicely promoting first graders who can’t read, third-graders who don’t know arithmetic of positive integers, sixth-graders who don’t know arithmetic of ordinary fractions, decimals, and percent is (statistically speaking) the end of student’s academic opportunity.

  5. isaac abdul haqq 5 months ago5 months ago

    BUSD is one of the most racist districts in the state. 70% of its teachers are white, virtually double the student population. Urbane and sophisticated, the district talks a great diversity game, but plays a bad hand. Its 'small school' system at its high school segregates like Mississippi; whites from private K-8 schools fill its "International School" and take APs, while blacks from the flats and Oakland go to the non AP … Read More

    BUSD is one of the most racist districts in the state. 70% of its teachers are white, virtually double the student population. Urbane and sophisticated, the district talks a great diversity game, but plays a bad hand. Its ‘small school’ system at its high school segregates like Mississippi; whites from private K-8 schools fill its “International School” and take APs, while blacks from the flats and Oakland go to the non AP ‘schools.’ A black student can do well in BUSD, but the parent has to ride the campus like a horse.