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14th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 14, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning” is destined to become one of the most discussed — and despised — books on the nation’s crisis in education in quite some time. It will be discussed because it calmly, methodically, and honestly describes the distressing problems that surround the gaps in academic performance among racial groups in America’s schools. It will be despised by those unwilling or unable to confront hard and often painful truths. Those who would rather shoot the messengers than address the concerns they raise will find “No Excuses” a convenient target. 

    The authors — Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and her husband Stephan, a Harvard history professor — have individually and together authored a small library of well-regarded books on historical and social issues, including 1997’s “America in Black and White.” The painful and thorny issues concerning race are familiar ground to them. 
    “No Excuses” paints a disturbing picture. The education gap between white children and African-American children is growing, seemingly resistant to the enormous effort and expenditure that has been applied to narrow it. The Thernstroms debunk dozens of the popular notions advanced to explain away the problem and the failures of its supposed cures. They reject the notion that the gap results from “racial isolation” or a lack of school funding. The common prescriptions — smaller class size, and more certified teachers — simply do not work. 

    The belief that merely achieving economic equality will lift the performance of African-American students is, unfortunately, a myth.The reality in schools like those in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent — and integrated — suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, is that moving into the suburbs or achieving middle-class status simply doesn’t free black students from a learning gap that leaves them, on average, with a junior-high level of education even after graduating from high school. 

    In suburbs such as Cambridge, Mass., well-meaning school administrators are so intent to narrow the gap that honors programs — thought to be “segregated by race and class” — are being phased out of the curriculum and replaced with a program that mixes high- and low-performing students together. In other words, if they can’t raise the level of blacks and Hispanics, the alternative must be to lower the potential for whites and Asians. Despite these misguided efforts, despite a huge per pupil expenditure of $17,000 (twice what Boston, just across the Charles River, spends), and despite the second-lowest student-teacher ratio — 12.5 — in the country, blacks in Cambridge lag not just behind whites and Asians but behind the state average for all blacks as well. 

    Many who write about these troublesome issues shy away from the controversial questions surrounding the academic failures of minority children. The Thernstroms forthrightly place the blame and praise on cultural factors such as parental attitudes, peer pressure, and even the relative amount of time children of different backgrounds spend in front of the television set. There is a brutally frank discussion of the behavior problems of black students, beginning as early as kindergarten, as well as the role — or lack of one — that a teacher’s ethnicity plays in the success of the children he or she teaches. 

    While “No Excuses” describes the gap between the performances of black and white children in the starkest possible terms, it also demonstrates that significant gaps exist between white and Asian-American children — with white children more often than not on the short end. But the remarkable achievements of Asians, often sitting next to black and Latino kids in “failing” urban schools, offers clues to a solution: What is required is nothing less than altering cultural attitudes towards education, especially among blacks. This goal that can and is achieved in schools like the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, a school that truly accepts “no excuses”: Dress codes, a longer school day, a longer school year, Saturday classes, summer classes, and plenty of homework are common traits among the schools in this small group of success stories. 

    The Thernstroms also discuss Hispanics — who barely perform better than blacks. But the authors put the problems of this group into a historical context. Hispanic student performance mirrors the experience of Italian-Americans early in the last century. The difference is that the earlier Italian migration came to a halt when open immigration ended in the mid-1920s, while the academic advances of Hispanics are hidden in part by continuing immigration. And the same rigorous approach to changing cultural attitudes that the Thernstroms advocate for blacks would presumably accelerate the gains being made by Hispanic children as well. 
    Part of the value of “No Excuses” is its intellectual honesty. Studies are candidly discussed — even those that may call into question the conclusions of the authors. While the concepts of charter schools and choice are high on their list of strategies that can make a difference, the Thernstroms acknowledge the merits of arguments against them. They don’t deny that, even when charter schools admit students by lottery, the application process can, and is often intended to, serve as a means of self-selection. The dedication of teachers in charter schools is hailed, but the reality that there may be limits on finding teachers who are “running for sainthood” is acknowledged. This is the kind of discussion we need — and so rarely get — about our schools. 

    “No Excuses” asks the tough questions, takes a hard look at the numbers, and comes up with carefully considered, admittedly imperfect solutions to one of our society’s most urgent concerns. It is a book Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein should be reading, as it raises serious questions about the programs they are putting into place. If the Thernstroms are on target, and I believe they are, then Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein are driving the system in precisely the wrong direction.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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