The most important book of the year

Mona Charen

10/24/2003 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen

Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom have produced a book that should rock the nation. "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" is an absolutely brilliant analysis of what ails American education today. Though the Thernstroms will doubtless receive a certain amount of abuse for tackling this sensitive subject, no fair-minded person reading this scholarly and lucid book can fail to recognize their good faith. It is hard to imagine a more necessary book about domestic policy.

The Thernstroms deserve the title "civil rights activists" more than any other living Americans because they are outraged about the greatest obstacle to full racial equality -- poor educational performance by black and Hispanic kids. They begin with an unflinching look at the data. The average black 17-year-old scored in the 23rd percentile in reading in 1999, compared with the average white at the 50th percentile.

"That means," write the Thernstroms, "that 77 percent of white students today read better than the average black student. And conversely, only 23 percent of blacks read as well or better than the average white."

In math and science, things are even worse. The average black student was at the 14th percentile in math, behind seven out of eight whites. And in science, the black average was at the 10th percentile, behind nine out of 10 whites. "The average black and Hispanic student at the end of high school has academic skills that are at about the eighth-grade level."

Twenty-five years ago, the gap was even larger. But there is little comfort in that, because after progress during the 1980s, the gap began to widen again during the 1990s, so that all of the earlier gains were wiped out.

"No Excuses" next demolishes the conventional wisdom about failing kids and failing schools. Is it lack of funding, crumbling infrastructure, lack of textbooks, racist teachers or culturally biased tests? No. For 25 years, we've been lavishing money on education with very little to show for it. The imagined contrast in spending between rich and poor neighborhoods turns out to be illusory. Schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment spent nearly as much ($4,103) per pupil as those that were nearly all white ($4,389) in 1989-1990. And even comparing wealthy suburban schools to inner city ones, the differential turns out to be only about 5 percent.

-----------read's new review of "No Excuses"----------

Textbooks? Balboa High in San Francisco was sued by the ACLU for failing to provide its students with textbooks. But the principal explains that the funds are available, it's just that teachers fail to place timely orders, companies are slow to ship the books and students lose them. The place "hemorrhages" textbooks, one teacher complains.

Even the black children who attend wealthy suburban schools perform extremely poorly on academic tests, below the level of poor whites. So what to make of it?

Hispanic students suffer from the recent immigrant handicap. But for blacks, the answer lies partly in the realm of culture. Black parents simply do not demand as much academic rigor as whites and Asians. Black students who reported that they were "working just as hard as they could" spent 3.9 hours per week on homework. For whites, the figure was 5.4 hours, nearly 40 percent higher. And for Asians, the figure was 7.5 hours.

Black kids spend more than twice as many hours a day watching television as whites. And when students were surveyed about the lowest grade they could receive without getting into trouble with their parents, Asians said A-, whites said B-, and blacks and Hispanics said C-.

This is not to let schools off the hook. Parents and the home environment are important but not the whole story. The Thernstroms take the reader to a number of innovative charter schools in poor neighborhoods that are taking average kids from less than ideal homes (no "creaming") and producing highly successful pupils.

Among the roadblocks to reform are teachers unions that strenuously resist merit pay, competency tests, alternative certification and choice. "Unless more schools are freed from the constraints of the traditional public school system," the Thernstroms write, "the racial gap in academic achievement will not significantly narrow, we suspect. Indeed, every urban school should become a charter. States must insist that schools meet rigorous academic standards, and student results on statewide standards-based tests should be the most important measure of success."

The motto of one of the schools the Thernstroms admire is "No excuses." It is staggering to consider that so many have been content for so long to excuse the scandal of failing schools in America. This learned and deeply humane book shines a spotlight on them and points the way to a better future.