Public Comment

Peeling the Academic Achievement Onion

By Santiago Casal and Michael Miller
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 10:08:00 AM

It is a pleasure to report that the Berkeley School Board on June 11, and the Berkeley City Council on June 24, unanimously adopted the 2020 Vision For Berkeley’s Children And Youth. These two resolutions are a commitment to partner with United In Action and our entire community, to make student academic success a community priority and further, to actively engage in eliminating any and all barriers to success. So begins an amazing journey that we should all be very proud of. 

The resolutions are the result of a unique coming together of representatives from the City, BUSD, Berkeley Alliance, United In Action (“UIA”), Berkeley Public Health Department and others, to explicitly eliminate barriers to educational success and to develop ways to institutionalize positive and pro-active support for all our youth.  

The impetus for such a partnership is the 2020 Vision, a working document crafted by UIA that calls for a total community approach to supporting the success of all Berkeley students. Year 2020 is when our students who entered kindergarten in the Fall of ’07 will walk the graduation stage. We will know that we have succeeded when all students, graduating on that day, will have successfully completed their K-12 requirements, and the typical disparities referred to as the “achievement gap” will no longer be a mainstay in the BUSD.  

UIA’s Total Community Approach recognizes that student success is a community value—it is bigger than the school district and requires the participation of all stakeholders actively working to ensure the success of each student. This approach identifies and builds on existing efforts in the district, city, and Berkeley Alliance, and sets the stage for being more strategic about those efforts and the total youth services resources that we have at our disposal.  

This effort, however, begs the question of ownership. Who owns this strategy? Who is in charge? Who is to be held accountable? The more important point is that we all win when we are successful. We all must take ownership for this community-wide effort to gain the level of success that our students deserve. Not one of us holds the entire truth, but each of us comes with a piece of that truth. It is only by working together that we will find the answers we need. Let’s continue to be mindful of that. 


The Academic Achievement Onion 

The analogy of peeling an onion and finding yet another layer is very useful in looking at this work, but it does not capture the depth of work that is required. As we peel back layers, each requires thoughtful reflection and dialogue. There are some root causes of disparities in achievement that need to be named and understood. There are also some fundamental ideas about relationships that are important here. And finally, the institutionalized nature of our education system has to be part of the conversation. The history of the concept of an “achievement gap” is one that places blame at the student’s and family’s feet. One belief is that there is something the student isn’t doing or a level of support the family is not providing that creates this problem.  

We are all part of the problem! We are all culpable! As we peel back this onion, it is important to reflect on what each of us is doing, as individuals or part of organizations or part of a culture that creates the conditions of disparities. As we look at these layers, we see: 

• Institutionalized racism. 

• Cultural deficiencies. 

• Low expectations. 

• Deficit modeling. 

• Peer pressure. 

• Feelings of hopelessness. 

• Alienation and disenfranchisement. 

• Racism and bigotry. 

• Winners and losers mentality. 

• Family dysfunction. 

• Internalized racism. 

Some of this list applies to each of us. Our collective and individual work requires that we unearth these “gatekeeper” ideas and beliefs in our community and in ourselves. This is critical!  

Just as important, we are part of the solution! This is the point at which we are asked to suspend judgment and try, as best we can, to hear what is being said about the nature and history of disparities. It is not an easy conversation, but if we don’t have it, we are not doing the necessary work. This is the conversation that presidential candidate Obama is urging us to have. As we peel these layers and unearth these issues, there will be pain, guilt, anger, shame and resentment; but there will be hope and triumph as well. Our commitment to our children will get us through these conversations. Our children and community are worthy of this journey together. 


Making the vision real 

• Coming together at a common table is the first step. We also need to identify all other community partners who need to be at the table.  

• Next is identifying those who are already doing this work or who have a strategy that has been proven effective. An All City Equity Task Force can take leadership here. 

• Then there will be creating our community vision that encompasses how we work together and what is required of each segment of our community. The greatest level of buy-in will create the most significant results. 

• Then, we work together to turn our vision into measurable actions that net results we want. 

• Finally, we celebrate as we see some amazing changes in our community that will include broader student success; fewer discipline issues, fewer social conflicts, greater participation of communities of color and a healthier and more culturally enriched community. 

Everyone in our community has a stake in the health and well-being of our children. This effort will require the engagement of our best thinking, listening and action. Each of us will need to be mindful of how we can contribute in positive, compassionate and authentic ways.  


Santiago Casal and Michael Miller  

are members of United In Action, representing Latinos Unidos (LU) and  

Parents of Children of African Descent (PCAD).