Across the country, progressive leaders are calling for a stronger academic program for K-12 students (www.Edin08. com). At the last presidential debate Senator Obama emphasized that academic achievement, particularly in science and technology, is the driver of innovation. Part of Obama’s vision to unleash innovation is to improve science, math and engineering education.
Obama’s plan for K-12 education highlights the necessity of making math and science education a national priority (www.barackobama.com/issues/education/). The Obama-Biden ticket is committed to recruiting math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession and will support efforts to help these teachers learn from professionals in the field. Obama and Biden will also work to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.
Given Obama’s enthusiastic and public support of more robust academic programs for our nation’s schools, I was distressed to learn recently that Berkeley High School may choose to do away with its honors math program and eliminate the math and science departments at Berkeley High entirely, dispersing math and science teachers among the various small schools and programs. The BUSD math and science curriculum deserves more attention not less, renewal not neglect.
The honors math program in BUSD allows students to take more challenging and rigorous math coursework starting in 7th grade through high school. Interested and motivated students may take Honors classes in geometry, second year algebra, and math analysis. In addition, Berkeley High students may take Advanced Placement (AP) calculus and/or statistics. Many students use the program to complete math through calculus prior to high school graduation. As a result, Berkeley High students may take advantage of the proximity of UC Berkeley to take college-level math courses while still in high school. Instead of disbanding this program, BUSD should be aggressively preparing students in math, particularly underrepresented minorities so that more students have the math foundation to take advantage of this program and are better prepared for undergraduate college majors in math, science and technology. BUSD should be expanding rigorous programs that work and recruiting, encouraging and supporting more students to enroll in these classes.
Berkeley High School once led the nation in its double-period science program and had excellent retention of its qualified and committed science teachers. All students at Berkeley High took science classes for two periods a day (instead of a single period). Students graduating from Berkeley High received twice as many science credits as most other high school graduates. That program was dismantled, despite much opposition in 2002 when the length of the high school instructional day was reduced to the state-mandated minimum. Academic achievement in science has plummeted since then, and the achievement gap between whites and non-whites has increased. In 2002, 64 percent of Berkeley High students scored “proficient or above” on the California Standards Test in chemistry. In 2008, only 38 percent of Berkeley High students were proficient or above in chemistry (http:// star.cde.ca.gov/). In terms of teacher re-tention, this year alone Berkeley High had ten openings for science teachers. District-wide there is a shortage of qualified science teachers.
The National Science Foundation reports that African Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are significantly underrepresented in the sciences. In California our most under-represented minorities in the sciences are African-Americans; Latinos are the second most under-represented group. National research universities such as UC Berkeley and Stanford are developing minority action plans to recruit more under-represented minorities to enroll in graduate programs and careers in the sciences. But recruiting excellent undergraduate and graduate science majors can only be successful if the K-12 education system is producing a pipeline of students with a strong foundation and interest in math and science. And yet Berkeley High is considering doing away with its honors math program and eliminating the school-wide math and science departments and department chairs.
Senator Obama said in the recent debate, “…it’s going to be critically important for us to recruit a generation of new teachers, an army of new teachers, especially in math and science, giving them higher pay, giving them more professional development and support in exchange for higher standards and accountability.” This is the direction that the Berkeley Unified School District should be taking.
As for the elementary and middle school level, Senator Obama also noted at the last presidential debate that investing in our children’s education at an early age reaps great benefits at the high school level. In Berkeley too many of our students arrive at Berkeley High two or more grade levels behind, without the fundamental skills in English language arts, math and science to be successful in completing a rigorous high school curriculum.
Our K-12 curriculum must be integrated and strengthened throughout our school district. BUSD should be creating a Math, Science and Technology K-12 Curriculum Task Force to review and strengthen the K-12 curriculum and strengthen effective programs. We should be hiring and retaining math and science graduates to the teaching profession. We need to be supporting these teachers and math and science department chairs by providing professional development so that they are learning from professionals in the field. We certainly should not be eliminating programs like the Berkeley High honors math program.
This is a time for renewal in Berkeley schools. We need to make sure that a high school diploma ensures readiness for college-level work in English, math and science.
Priscilla Myrick is the parent of two Berkeley High grads and a candidate for Berkeley School Board Director.