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Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools

reviewed by Anthony Edwards - October 18, 2006

coverTitle: Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools
Author(s): Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing (Eds.)
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787972754 , Pages: 318, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Robert Rothman, Editor, Voices in Urban Education, argues that the imperative to educate all students to high standards has challenged educators in virtually every community. While many schools and communities have succeeded in raising performance overall, large numbers of students continue to lag behind. And these tend to be all the same students the education system has historically served poorly—low-income students, students of color, and students with learning needs. Furthermore, Russell W. Rumberger and J. Douglas Willms (1992), in “The Impact of Racial and Ethnic Segregation on the Achievement Gap in California High Schools,” add that one of the major problems facing the educational system in the United States is the widespread inequality in educational achievement among racial and ethnic groups. On a variety of measures—high school completion rates, college participation rates, and standardized achievement tests—minorities have much lower levels of educational achievement than whites. Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing (2006) in their edited volume, Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools, address this ongoing problem of what it will take to fulfill the promise of education reform and educate all students to high levels—using the Berkeley High School Diversity Project as a case study. The editors situate the Berkeley High School Diversity Project in the context of Berkeley’s long-standing reputation for being in the forefront of progressive social change and in a broader national context of efforts to close the racial achievement gap in schools and districts across the United States (p. xii).

William S. Koski and Hillary Anne Weis (2004) argue that the statutory and policy framework for California’s standards-based reform and accountability scheme, not unlike others throughout the country, fails to ensure that all children are provided with the necessary resources and conditions to achieve at the high levels prescribed by the state’s content standards. The central idea that schools might function as agencies for dealing with the reformation of socio-economic problems has been a prime tenet of reconstructionist educational theory. Social reconstructionist thought as an educational policy emerged in the United States from the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s until the Civil Rights period of the 1960s. Many see it as a pre-cursor to critical theory in educational institutions to make critical analyses of culture and uncover social problems, like racism, starvation, poverty, crime, etc., and to construct plans for the resolution of these controversial issues as a means of cultural renewal. Noguera and Wing’s account of the Berkeley High School Diversity Project, with its goal of closing the racial achievement gap, is integral to the ideal school community. This book is about unfinished business—the nation’s as yet unfulfilled commitment to equality and justice for all. The editors focus on the possibilities for achieving these lofty goals through public education, arguably our nation’s most equitable and democratic institution. Public schools have an obligation to serve all children, regardless of race, gender, ability, national origin, religion, or status (p. ix).

George S. Counts, in his (1932) treatise, Dare the School Build a New Social Order, understood the central purpose of American public school education as bringing the immature of society into full maturity as responsible citizens in a democratic social order. The school is but one formative agency among many, and we should give to our children a vision of the possibilities which lie ahead so as to endeavor to enlist their loyalties and enthusiasms in the realization of the vision. Counts strongly believed that the public school and its teachers had a definite role to play in building a new social order (pp. 37-38). Noguera and Wing espouse the need for schools to enable the United States to maintain its economic and technological dominance in the world. Schools should provide students with the knowledge, understanding, and habits of mind to participate intelligently in our democratic society. In essence, schools can serve as the great equalizer of opportunity.

Unfinished Business incorporates the voices and perspectives of educators, students, and parents. The book is a collective product of the individuals who worked on and with the Diversity Project at Berkeley High School, in Berkeley, California, from 1996 to 2002. Their experiences and insights are reflected in the research and organizing to close the achievement gap at Berkeley High School—an integrated public high school that is segregated from within and has been described as “two schools under one roof.” In reporting about the Diversity Project, the chapters of this book are organized under broad themes of the structure and culture of schooling, and agency in the fight for equity. Part One contains research data, analyses, and background information regarding Berkeley High School and the Diversity Project. In Part Two, the voices of teachers, parents, and students who participated as full partners in the work of the Diversity Project are presented. Berkeley’s voluntary desegregation of public schools in 1968 and the conditions that gave rise to the Diversity Project in 1996 provide the theory of change and the organizational structure of the Diversity Project, including its action research and outreach communities that provide the data for chapters in the book (p. xiii).

Chapter 1 discusses the policies, practices, and organization of the high school that contribute to achievement disparities between white and nonwhite, rich and poor, English speakers and non-English speakers, males and females, and to racial separation throughout the school’s academic and extracurricular programs. Chapter 2 examines the ways in which social, cultural, and economic capital greases the track to elite colleges for those with the right connections, knowledge, and private supports. Chapter 3 questions why a high school in a progressive community such as Berkeley produces the same racialized patterns of discipline as seen in the urban schools throughout the country. Chapter 4 traces the Diversity Project’s efforts to use equity-focused professional development and action research by teachers to change teacher practices, improve teacher-student relations, and address the achievement gap inside their own classrooms. Chapter 5 describes the Diversity Project’s role and evolving strategy to organize, mobilize, and empower parents of color, who had historically been marginalized at Berkeley High School. Chapter 6 describes the experience of the Diversity Project’s Student Outreach Committee. In the book’s conclusion, Noguera draws lessons from the shortcomings of the Diversity Project’s strategy as well as the lasting legacy of its work. He acknowledges the limitations of the project and speaks of urgent unfinished business: the ongoing need to work for racial equity in all public schools. Finally, Jabari Mahiri’s epilogue reflects on the first four years of the Diversity Project and bridges to the final two years during which the Diversity Project participated in school-wide parent- and teacher-led reform initiatives to address the widespread academic failure of students of color and to explore the potential benefits of small schools sharing a single campus. He looks into the advances made and the obstacles encountered, and ponders whether our efforts have succeeded in taking us closer to our goals.

Hannah Arendt is a connecting figure in all of my work. Her conception of how we engage in a democratic dialogue by taking the perspective of the other, how we imagine the other, and engage the other permeates throughout. I find this echo in Unfinished Business. According to Noguera and Wing, Unfinished Business was written because of the belief that public education is vital for a healthy democracy and that schools can play a decisive role in making our nation less divided and fractured on the basis of race, class, culture, gender, and language. However, the business remains unfinished. I concur with the authors that people across America must continue to take up this work of making schools more just and equitable. Berkeley High School and the Diversity Project is just the tip of the iceberg.


Counts, G. S. (1932). Dare the school build a new social order. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Koski, W. S. & Weis, H. A. (2004). What educational resources do students need to meet California’s educational content standards?  A textual analysis of California’s educational content standards and their implications for basic educational conditions and resources. Teachers College Record, 106(10), 1907-1935.

Rumberger, R. W. & Willms, J. D. (1992). The impact of racial and ethnic segregation on the achievement gap in California high schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 14(4), 377-396.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 18, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12798, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:40:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Anthony Edwards
    University of South Carolina-Columbia
    E-mail Author
    ANTHONY EDWARDS is Assistant Dean of The Graduate School at the University of South Carolina-Columbia. He is also Assistant Professor (Part-Time) in the Department of Educational Studies. Dr. Edwards is an educational historian who examines the culture of the former black, segregated schools of the South. His research includes the patterns and structures of classroom life, socialization within families and communities, and the positive relationships between the segregated school and the black community it served. His most recent publication is an essay on Oral Histories featured in Darlene Clark Hine's "Black Women in America."
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