Here come Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom again -- opportunely, as is their wont. Few enthusiasts for racial progress challenge the taboos of the race debate with quite the scholarship and spirit of this formidable husband-and-wife team. Among the numerous tabooed topics, one especially needs ventilation: the huge and growing school-performance gap between blacks and whites. Enter, as I say, the Thernstroms.
You wouldn't precisely call "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" an exercise in gooey-sweet racial sentiment. Not a book that declares: "Racial equality will remain a dream as long as blacks and Hispanics learn less in school than whites and Asians. If black youngsters remain second-class students, they will be second-class citizens -- a racially identifiable and enduring group of have-nots." This is significant stuff -- such stuff as the Thernstroms (he of the Harvard history department, she of the Manhattan Institute) brought off in their 1997 attack on racial preferences, "America in Black and White."
The Thernstroms, with statistical precision, point to a growing divide between the educational achievements of whites and Asians and those of blacks and Hispanics. They rightly call this divide "an American tragedy and a national emergency for which there are no good excuses."
"Today," they write, "at age 17 the typical black or Hispanic student is scoring less well on the nation's five most reliable tests than at least 80 percent of his or her white classmates. In five of the seven subjects tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a majority of black students perform in the lowest category -- Below Basic."
And, yes, test scores matter, the Thernstroms declare, in terms of results showing "that some groups are not learning as much as they could and should."
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