The most troubling example of racial inequality in America today is the inner city school. Civil-rights iniquities begin here.
You don't hear the two loudest ecclesiastical divines, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, complaining about self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing teachers whose unions support the cozy status quo. You don't hear the educationist bureaucrats in the big cities, who pull down salaries wildly disproportionate to their talents and responsibilities, crying for the pain of what the schools are doing to black children. White liberals usually don't want to clean up the wreckage because if they did they wouldn't have convenient objects to pity to prove how compassionate they are.
But we're beginning to hear from educators who have looked closely at the data and see a consistent pattern in the awful gap that separates achieving whites and Asians and failing blacks and Hispanics. Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, for example.
Their argument is not original. How they arrive at it is. Unequal skills and knowledge put blacks and Hispanics behind an eight-ball that neither affirmative action and multiculturalism nor increasing school budgets will change. The Thernstroms conclude that equal opportunity can be achieved only when the minority students in the inner cities reach a higher academic achievement.
"The black high school graduation rate has more than doubled since 1960," they write in "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning," a book that fuses analysis and outrage. "And blacks attend college at a rate that is higher than it was for whites just two decades ago. But the good news ends there. The gap in academic achievement that we see today is actually worse than it was 15 years ago."
The problem, the Thernstroms say, is not the lack of a racial mix in public schools. Nor is it the amount of money spent per child or the size of teacher salaries. What's crucial to enabling children to learn is an educational environment that motivates kids to want to work and study hard. Such an environment requires teachers who are imaginative and innovative, whose careers are not governed by rigid union rules and whose hiring and firing is community based, where teachers, administrative staff and parents work together.
The best kept secret in education is that almost all of the achieving inner-city schools are charter schools, operating within the public school system. They're financed by the public and held to public accountability but are freed from the bureaucratic wrangling that strangled the public system. Unfortunately, charter schools require a great deal of time and private energy, and suffer from many of the shortcomings of voucher programs. They draw money away from the vested interests.
But they confer extraordinary benefits. Largely independent of bureaucratic control, they can hire non-union teachers, choose their own textbooks and exert discretionary power over their budgets. When a charter school goes bad, and some have, they're easy to close. Closing a bad public school is difficult.
Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, which opened in 2001, exemplifies what a dedicated group of adults can accomplish for a diverse group of children enrolled in classes ranging from prekindergarten to the eighth grade. The school is small, and its racially diverse student body is composed of a majority of low-income families. Parents choose the school. The staff operates on a theory that emphasizes project-based instruction to help children meet rigorous academic standards. They meet them, too.
I observed 7- and 8-year-olds describe a project for planning a playground. They told me how the models of climbing bars and see-saws were built to scale, learning how one inch on a diagram of the tiny climbing bars was the equivalent of one foot in the real-life playground. They did the math without notes, explaining complex ideas about how the length of the chain of the swing required more space than was available.
The children were eager to talk about the concepts to any adult who would listen. Children at this school show gains each year. No surprise there. But of course this is a young adventure. What was striking was the enthusiasm and animation of all the children - black and white- talking about their work, expressing the joy of learning with the enthusiasm of kids thinking they're only talking about fun and games. This school achieves what elite private schools, which charge tuition of $15,000 a year, achieve.
Charter schools are a compromise between the fat and exhausted public schools and the more controversial vouchers that enable parents to transfer their children from bad to good public schools. Schools that don't shape up fail. Charter schools, like vouchers, are innovative and offer fresh opportunities for turning around the racial gap in learning. They're worth trying and watching. They brook no excuses.