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Thursday, October 16th, 2003


No Excuses Closing the Racial Gap in Le

by Abigail Thernstrom

Will Anything Work?

A review by by Nathan Glazer

No Excuses is the good faith follow-up to the Thernstroms' America in Black and White, which appeared in 1997. That massive work presented a solidly documented account of black oppression since the Civil War and then of the civil rights revolution that transformed the condition of American blacks. It went on to analyze the still-substantial differences in the economic and social conditions of black Americans and white Americans, and in its most provocative sections it strongly attacked affirmative action as a method for closing the gaps between black and white.

But if not affirmative action in education, in jobs, in government action, then what? Are we simply to live with these continuing differences? Are we to expect that in time, with direct discrimination against blacks no longer a major factor in their lives, the racial gaps would shrink? The Thernstroms' answer was education. Improve the educational achievement of blacks, they counseled, and the consequences will be to make affirmative action unnecessary and thereby to achieve a society in which we can truly move beyond race. Their new book takes up the challenge that their critical view of race preference raises, the challenge put starkly five years ago by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips in their important book The Black-White Test Score Gap: "If racial equality is America's goal, reducing the black-white test score gap would probably do more to promote this goal than any other strategy that commands broad public support."

This strategy does indeed command broad public support. It is a principal objective of the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001, the latest revision of the almost forty-year-old federal effort to improve the education of poor and black children. The legislation requires all states to administer tests annually to all students in elementary schools, and the results will have to be reported by race.

"It's a remarkable turn of events," the Thernstroms write. "The racial gap — hidden from public view until so recently — has suddenly acquired top billing in the national educational agenda. In 1965, ESEA [the predecessor to No Child Left Behind] was the product of concern about poverty.... By 2001, the White House, members of Congress in both parties, and important players in the business and educational communities had come to view the academic performance of black and Hispanic students as a distinct — and distinctively urgent — problem."

(What more can be done about integration when the public schools of our major cities have huge majorities of minority students?) And so we are left pretty much with the current array of efforts, which have had little effect in closing the huge gap in test scores between white and black in the last ten years, though there was some progress shownNo Excuses is a comprehensive and informed effort to explore the racial gap in education and what can be done about it. The book is based on a scrupulous examination of the current research literature. The Thernstroms could not have expected, I assume, that their examination would lead to the answer, or indeed that there is a single answer or even a group of answers that are strongly supported by social scientific research. They demonstrate that many answers that enjoy wide intellectual and political currency — more money, more racial integration, more minority teachers, better teachers — either have little foundation in research or are enormously difficult or even impossible to implement. in the years before.

While the gap has not quite been "hidden from public view," as the Thernstroms write, it is true that educational leaders, politicians, and scholars have been inhibited from describing the problem in its full dimensions. Anyone who lectures and writes on these topics has undoubtedly experienced a necessary sense of self-imposed restraint in straightforwardly setting forth the utterly devastating scale of black deficiency in educational achievement to an audience with large numbers of blacks. What would be the effect on them of learning, say, that twelfth-grade black students do not do as well in reading or American history as eighth-grade white students, and do rather worse in mathematics, and do catastrophically worse in geography? These facts are set forth in the first chart of No Excuses. The Thernstroms characterize this as a four-year gap in achievement — that is, a full high school education behind.

The most obvious causes will not explain this deficiency. Black students do generally come from poorer families, and their parents average fewer years in school, and it is believed that less public money is spent on their education (though this is hard to demonstrate), but none of these factors explains the gap. As we have recently become aware, though the facts were clear for some time, black children from families with incomes equivalent to whites continue to do worse than whites. And so this is not, or not only, a problem of class, though many an authoritative public statement asserts so. Andrew Hacker, who has been straightforward in reporting on this problem, noted in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books that black students from families with incomes of $80,000 to $100,000 score considerably lower on the SAT than white students from families with $20,000 to $30,000 incomes. Class factors explain something, but they do not explain very much. As the Thernstroms correctly observe, "A number of sophisticated studies of the black-white achievement gap have found that controlling for all the standard measures of socioeconomic status together cuts the black-white achievement gap by only a third." (They are referring to one of the comprehensive analyses in the Jencks-Phillips volume.)

While the Thernstroms do not carry through a full analysis of differences in expenditures in the schooling of black and white children, they give some striking figures from Cambridge, Massachusetts, which show how little high expenditures matter. Currently, they write, the city spends an astonishing average of $17,000 per year on the education of each child, which must be among the highest figures in the nation. (Undoubtedly there are some very well-to-do suburbs that exceed that number.) Cambridge has a ratio of 9.8 students to a teacher, 40 percent lower than the national average. But only 49 percent of black students in Cambridge, which is purportedly one of the more positive environments for blacks in the nation, passed a new state exam in English — lower than the state average for black students, 67 percent. Only 35 percent passed the state exam in mathematics, below the state average for blacks of 55 percent.

The Kansas City, Missouri school district, under judicial supervision since 1985 to respond to segregation, was the recipient of lavish court-ordered state expenditures to upgrade it so as to attract white suburban students and to improve education for blacks. Gary Orfield of Harvard, a leading advocate of strong intervention for desegregation, is quoted as asserting that "they really can't show much of anything, though they spent $2 billion." The Washington Post regularly reports on the efforts of Montgomery County and other liberal and well-to-do suburbs of Washington to address the black-white test score gap, with almost uniformly dismal results. One can multiply these disturbing facts endlessly.

The Thernstroms give no credence as an explanation to the genetic differences in intelligence that were highlighted by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve some years ago. "The assumption that differences in IQ are primarily genetic rather than environmental," they assert, "is one that we reject." They are much more sympathetic to the idea that important differences in culture may explain African American backwardness in education. Culture escapes from the curse of inevitability and unchangeability that is attached to genetic differences; but it is almost as unpopular as biology among liberal analysts of education. For if we say "cultural differences," are we not "blaming the victim"? Nor are the practical consequences of the explanation from culture at all clear. How do you alter a group culture so that its negative effects can be overcome? Is not the social engineering required to change culture as distasteful and as difficult as the genetic engineering that might change genes? But if culture is almost as unchangeable as race, do we not then condemn blacks to a long-term inferiority?

The Thernstroms are not so pessimistic about changing culture, in part because they reduce culture to specific traits that can be taught and inducted into a group. They observe that "'culture' is a loose and slippery term that has been used in a great many different ways. It is sometimes taken to mean a fixed set of group traits that are passed on from generation to generation, an inheritance that is fairly impervious to changes in the social environment. That is not how we use the term." Values, attitudes, and skills are formed in the families in which children are reared, but they "continue to be shaped by children's interaction with their peers, teachers, neighbors and other aspects of their environment." So it is in the schools that one should try to change culture. The College Board, in a report issued by a "National Task Force on Minority High Achievement," refers, the Thernstroms write, to a problem of counterproductive "culturally shaped skills, habits, and styles" that make for underperformance, but they criticize the report for suggesting nothing more than after-school and supplementary programs.

The Thernstroms are impressed rather by those schools — generally charter schools — that get high performance from black students (one can always find such schools, even in the public school system), and they quote the founder of one such school, David Levin, as saying that "we are fighting a battle involving skills and values" and "we are not afraid to set social norms." "To ignore one piece of trash on the floor," the Thernstroms write, "one shirt improperly tucked in, one fight between kids, one bit of foul language, would send a disastrous no-one-cares message." Undoubtedly a distinctive school culture can be created, but this is much easier to do in a charter school, or in a selective school where the children or their parents have volunteered to enter a high-performance environment, than in public schools.

The Thernstroms' most extensive discussion of culture comes in a chapter titled "Asians." I should note here our difficulties in finding the right terms to define the groups most at risk when we consider minority underachievement. This is clearly not an issue for all minorities, or all non-white races. We tend to speak of the problem as a minority problem or a race problem — note the subtitle of the Thernstroms' book, "Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" — but there are only two minorities, as the term is currently used, that show this problem of substantially poorer educational achievement. And even to join these two groups under the rubric of a common problem affecting "non-Asian minorities" obscures a very important difference between Hispanics and blacks. "Hispanics" are a congeries of very different groups, linked only by a common ancestral or parental language. Our statistics generally lump all the groups together and produce an average for all Hispanics, which obscures important differences among them. But more important, even the Hispanic average does not show the same degree of educational deficiency we find among blacks. In almost all racial and group comparisons, in this book and elsewhere, Hispanics regularly do better than blacks, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority are immigrants or children of immigrants speaking Spanish, many of whom face the problem of learning a new language.

The black problem, it appears, is sui generis. It is not an aspect of immigrant difficulties, language difficulties, class difficulties, or income difficulties, all of which are indeed problems but different from the problem that keeps blacks educationally backward. Despite regular references to Hispanics, the issue that mostly concerns the Thernstroms, and should urgently concern the nation, is the educational deficiency of blacks.

We explore Asian American educational performance because here are groups of rather different cultural backgrounds — including Chinese, Japanese, Asian Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and others — that as a whole show high educational achievement, equal or superior to that of whites. And this occurs despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Asian Americans are immigrants or the children of immigrants. To say that their average high educational performance is explained by "culture" seems a bit odd: which culture is it? It is quite a stretch from Korea to India. On the whole, statistics tend not to break down "Asians" to tell us which groups among them turn in the best performance, and we do not know whether it is a few high-performing Asian American groups that bring up the overall Asian American average.

That there is something we can call "culture" behind the educational performance of Asian Americans can hardly be doubted. The epigraph to the Thernstroms' Asian chapter quotes a Sikh immigrant student: "Every day [our parents] tell us: 'Obey your teachers. Do your schoolwork. Stay out of trouble. You're there to learn, not to fight. Keep trying harder. Keep pushing yourself....'" The Thernstroms quote a Chinese parent: "In Chinese culture, parents don't listen to children. They say, 'Do this now.' And kids do....People in America say, 'You should be a friend to your kid.' But, I don't know how to do that. That's not Chinese culture. It's American."

But I believe that the Thernstroms reduce the complexity of culture when they write that the cultural explanation "offers grounds for optimism: Parental pressure to work extraordinarily hard in school — which is the typical Asian story — is a culturally transferable trait. You don't have to be Asian to put time into studying algebra." One can perhaps teach black parents to say the words — they do say them even today; but behind the words is more than a simple assertion or an easy command. The words represent a complex of expectations and acceptances and understandings that is not easily characterized and not easily transmitted.

The full, thorny complexity of the problem would have been clearer if the Thernstroms had gone into more detail on the various groups of Asian Americans. Much can be explained by the high educational and occupational background of many Asian immigrants, but there are Asian groups — the Vietnamese boat people, for example — without educational and occupational advantages who also do remarkably well educationally. And further detail only makes the matter more mysterious. If the Thernstroms had investigated the "culture" of another high-achieving group, the Eastern European Jewish immigrants of the earlier part of the twentieth century, they would have had to explain how the children of workers, many illiterate, many of whom were skeptical of the education of the public schools and thought the only proper education meant traditional texts, and who did not say or expect the same things Asian parents do, nevertheless raised one of the highest-achieving groups in American educational history.

Another aspect of the cultural story that has recently been noted by many social scientists, and which the Thernstroms do not take seriously enough, is the possible effect of aspects of American culture in undermining the cultural orientations that lead to high performance. The notion that Mexican immigrants may be hurt educationally by acculturating to popular American norms is one that has been raised in research by Marcelo and Carola Surez-Orozco. The Thernstroms challenge this argument, but it has much more research support than they suggest. There is also important research by Mary Waters, Alejandro Portes, Min Zhou, and others not cited by the Thernstroms to the same effect — on how black Caribbean and Haitian students, initially with positive attitudes to education, are affected by a powerful American black street culture that undermines their respect for school achievement.

There is the issue not only of the black street culture that can affect immigrants, but also of the culture of the American school more generally. As James Coleman showed forty years ago, the culture of the American school takes athletic and faddish social competition more seriously than academic achievement. And all parents concerned with the education of their children, immigrant and native, try to find ways to protect their children from its influence.

Indeed, when it comes to "what is to be done," the Thernstroms put more faith in schools removed from the American public school system and its characteristics and influences, from its "culture," than in any large institutional reform in the public schools. In recent years great emphasis has been put on setting higher standards in curricula and on creating "high-stakes" examinations which (it is hoped) will raise the ambition and the achievement of students generally. Making curricula tougher is generally frustrated by the educational establishment, which is committed to the softer, student-oriented approaches to education that are now dominant. (Being closer to the students, perhaps they know something that those who want to raise standards do not know.) High-stakes tests run into the inevitable political problem that many students will fail, and not get their high-school diplomas, and a disproportionate percentage of these students will be black.

Despite their support for stronger curricula and high-stakes tests, the Thernstroms are well aware of the problems:

How many youngsters can be kept from graduating high school on the basis of their performance on a statewide test? The question becomes particularly difficult when greatly disproportionate numbers of the failing students are black or Hispanic. The racial gap in academic achievement is, in this sense, itself a road block to change. Further depriving already deprived students is not only politically hard but morally questionable.

The demand for harder courses and tougher curricula has had some positive effects — more students now study mathematics — but it has not resulted in a narrowing of the black-white achievement gap. And it seems clear that tougher curricula and tests lead to more dropouts, who are disproportionately black.

The Thernstroms properly note all the obstacles to true reform: the difficulties in getting better teachers, the controls on principals' freedom of action, egalitarian pay scales that make it impossible to reward better teachers and principals, the politics of school systems (in which racial issues play a very large role), the role of unions (which quite properly protect the teachers and pay less attention to the students). And their answer in the end is not general reform, which they support but about which they must be skeptical. Their answer is escape from the system. They put their hopes in charter schools, or in vouchers permitting choice of schools released from the controls of public school systems, in which principals have freedom of hiring and firing and curriculum-setting, teachers can be chosen more freely, students enroll because of choice (theirs or their parents'), standards can be set and enforced. And they give many examples of such schools in which black students perform well. (Whether such schools actually close the gap between blacks and others is an issue that the Thernstroms do not address.) Not all such schools succeed — not all use freedom well, and there have been a number of scandals affecting charter schools; but an impressive number of them have created an effective school culture and atmosphere.

"Today the roadblocks to real reform are still in place, but NCLB [No Child Left Behind], charter schools, and the small voucher experiments up and running are the first cracks in the edifice — a heartening harbinger, perhaps, of better things to come." So the Thernstroms conclude, and it is a modest and muted conclusion, perhaps kinder to NCLB than it deserves. Identifying "failing schools," which various states now do, does not seem to do much good in improving them, and the right of students from such schools to choose others is not very effective when one considers what there is to choose from.

Escape into achievement for a few, in view of the necessary limits on the number of charter schools and the size of voucher programs, is the best that the Thernstroms have to offer. This does not promise any rapid reduction or erasure of the black-white difference. But nobody has come up with anything more promising. I believe that in time, and even with present programs, so many of which are addressed to raising black educational performance, the gap will shrink. But the reality is that if some groups achieve well above the average — as some groups do — the facts of mathematics and averages mean that others will perform below the average. How a society that is so committed to raising every politically salient group to at least an average performance can live with this result is something that we should grimly ponder.

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