Harvard Educational Review
  1. Unfinished Business

    Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools

    Edited by Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing

    San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006. 318 pp. $24.95.

    Berkeley High School (BHS), recognized as a progressive public school that is attempting to address the well-publicized issues of race and class existing within its own walls, serves as the setting for Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools. As editors Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing suggest, the Berkeley area presents the ideal opportunity to explore the complexities of producing “equitable schools in a society premised on inequality,” as even this idealistic and integrated California community struggles mightily to overcome racial achievement gaps. Why does a progressive school like BHS reproduce the racial achievement gaps found in schools across the nation? Why does the school struggle to unravel the complexities that contribute to long-standing inequalities?

    In Unfinished Business, Noguera and Wing join a diverse group of BHS stakeholders to address these questions through a synthesis of the initiatives and results of the six-year, school-based Diversity Project. Through this research endeavor, members of the BHS community investigated the school’s racial and class inequalities, not only revealing differential levels of access, achievement, and opportunity, but also exploring and evaluating efforts to affect the inner workings of race and class in the school. Throughout the text, the passionate voices of students, parents, teachers, researchers, and activists paint a picture of a complicated web of structures, expectations, and experiences that render real progress in closing achievement gaps difficult at best.

    The first part explores various components of the school’s racial achievement gaps, looking particularly at structural elements that may contribute to differential levels of success in high school and beyond. In this section, entitled “The Structure and Culture of Inequality in Schools,” authors present information on grade point averages, advanced course placements, rates of eligibility for the state university system, participation in extracurricular activities, and disciplinary records to demonstrate how BHS falls short of creating an educational environment that serves all its students well. In their investigation of these achievement gaps, the authors find fault with the course selection process, unsatisfactory levels of teaching and learning in lower tracked classes, course pathways that favor students in advanced math classes, and incomplete integration of English-language learners in the day-to-day life of the school. What is most striking about the exploration of these barriers is that many privileged families successfully circumvent the structures designed to promote equitable education for all BHS students to ensure the best outcomes for their own children. The book includes an excerpt from a powerful open letter from “Teacher X,” who criticizes parents who manipulate the school’s structures for their own children’s success at the expense of others. Teacher X goes on to assert that parents need to work with the school and its teachers — not against them — to provide equitable education for all students.

    In Part Two, “Agency in the Fight for Equity,” the authors explore specific initiatives designed to actively engage students, teachers, and parents in the Diversity Project’s ambitious work. Reflections from the project’s Professional Development Committee and participants in its workshops include insight on the project’s efforts to address teachers’ personal beliefs and expectations through training, discussions, and action research. By encouraging teachers to actively research and reflect on their professional experiences, the project hoped to educate and motivate critical constituents in the quest to achieve racial equity in the school. Teacher contributors share their successes and frustrations, conveying stories of personal growth and illumination challenged by the reality of a school community unable — or unwilling — to tackle the sensitive issues that divide it. Additionally, the voices of poor parents and parents of color who served as leaders and activists who participated in the project through the Parent Outreach Committee add a layer of depth to the BHS story, revealing their struggles to become resources for the school and supporters of their children’s academic endeavors.

    Unfinished Business ends with an honest assessment of the Diversity Project’s triumphs and downfalls, including explanations for why this six-year initiative failed to close racial achievement gaps at BHS. Despite the end of the project and many of its organized efforts, the lessons learned and lives changed by involvement in its initiatives around research, reflection, and action bode well for the future of BHS. While the project did not fulfill its ambitious goal of closing the school’s achievement gaps, Unfinished Business serves as a temporary bridge, shedding insight into the problems and exploring the possibilities for a truly equitable school. Teachers, researchers, students, parents, and administrators alike can all learn from the project’s stories and the voices of the book’s contributors.

    S.T.H
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    Book Notes

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    To Remain an Indian
    By K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa L. McCarty

    Self-Taught
    By Heather Andrea Williams

    Unfinished Business
    Edited by Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing