More than 80 percent of Berkeley students in grades seven through 12 are happy at their schools, but nearly half of them said they would put little effort into class work if not for the need to get “good grades”.
These are some of the findings of a Youth Culture Survey released by the Berkeley Unified School District last week, part of a long-term effort to address the achievement gap between white students and students of color in Berkeley schools.
Last year, only 55 percent of African American graduates from Berkeley High met the academic requirements to be eligible for the University of California or California State University systems, compared with 78 percent of white graduates, to cite just one measure of the achievement gap.
After years of innovative programs failed to have the desired impact on the achievement gap, the Berkeley school district joined a consortium of 15 urban-suburban school districts in February of 1999 known as the Minority Student Achievement Network.
A group of districts with connections to major research universities – and more financial resources than the average school districts in their respective states – the consortium aims to pool research to better address the achievement gap.
The Youth Culture Survey is a critical first step, according to a report by BUSD staff, because it helps identify the different variables that affect the academic achievement of students of color from one district to another; variables such as peer culture, teacher expectations, parent involvement and curriculum design.
Working with MSAN “has enormous potential to help us get some perspective on the achievement gap issues that we have in our community,” said Berkeley school board Vice-president Shirley Issel in an interview last week.
“What are attitudes about learning? What are the aspects of youth culture that lead some kids to commit to a high achieving academic path?”
One of the most disquieting findings of the Youth Culture Survey in Berkeley, said Issel, was that more than 45 percent of respondents cited as a reason for not working hard in school: “I could get a good grade without studying.”
Forty-six percent of all students surveyed said their minds “wander” in class “often,” “usually” or “always”.
If it is true, as these responses suggest, that nearly half of Berkeley students in grades seven through 11 are only marginally engaged by the school curriculum, then the school board needs to learn who these students are and find ways to address their needs, Issel said.
Other survey findings may trigger debate among school administrators during the months ahead.
At a time when assaults and fights at Berkeley High have become a community focus, the survey found that only 23 percent of students agreed with the statement “I do not feel safe in this school.”
In the area of curriculum and grades, only 28 percent of students said they believed all their teachers knew how well they were capable of doing academically.
While 44 percent of students said their English teachers managed to make the subject interesting more than 65 percent of the time, only 27 percent of students felt the same way about their math teachers.
In a finding that will no doubt concern librarians, nearly 40 percent of survey respondents said they spend more than three hours a day “watching TV, listening to music, or playing with video games”.
Other findings in the survey suggest, however, that Berkeley students feel little peer pressure not to do well in school. Asked how often they “didn’t try as hard as (they) could at school because (they) were worried about what (their) friends would think,” nearly 80 percent of the survey respondents marked “never.”
As reasons for working hard, 59 percent of students cited wanting to “impress” their parents, compared to just 39 percent who said the subject was “interesting” to them.
In Berkeley, 2,899 out of 3,745 students in grades seven through 11, or 77 percent, completed the survey. One hundred and fifty-eight Berkeley High seniors completed the survey.
The survey respondents were 49 percent white, 37 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian and 11 percent Native American.
Berkeley High and Berkeley middle schools are already using the survey results to help with strategic planning. A comparative analysis of survey results from different MSAN districts will be presented at the consortium’s annual conference in Cambridge, Mass. this summer.
But Berkeley school board director John Selawsky warned last week that the board needs to determine which students make up the 23 percent of seventh through 11th graders who failed to respond to the survey before they give too much weight survey’s findings.