Everyone knows that black students in general do not perform as well in school as white students, much less Asian American students. But few realize how painfully large the gap is. Even fewer know that there are particular black schools, even in low-income neighborhoods, where students perform above the national average.
Discussing racial gaps in education is taboo in some quarters. But this subject is discussed deeply and thoroughly in a new book titled "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" by Abigail Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute and Stephan Thernstrom of Harvard. They are also the authors of the best book on race relations -- "America in Black and White" -- so there are high expectations for this new book.
"No Excuses" lives up to those expectations. If you read just one book about American education all year, this should be the book. It not only goes into the causes and cures of racial disparities in education, in the process it punctures many of the fads, dogmas, and pious hypocrisies of the education establishment.
First, the existing gap: Black high school students graduate an average of four years behind white students in academic skills. In other words, the high school diplomas they receive are given -- not earned -- for a junior high school education.
The excuses for this range across the spectrum from poverty to racism and even innate lack of ability. Yet none of these excuses stands up to the facts.
As the Thernstroms show, there are some schools where the students are equally poor and equally black, where test scores are outstanding. Moreover, such schools seldom get any more money than the schools that are failing.
Some of the most heavily financed schools are doing miserably. Even spending $17,000 per pupil, Cambridge, Massachusetts was still left with a huge gap between the test scores of its black and white students. In fact, black students in Cambridge scored lower than other black students in nearby communities with less than half as much spending per pupil.
Those who believe that money is the answer are not going to be stopped by anything so mundane as facts. To many in politics and in the media -- and to everyone in the teachers unions -- "improving" the schools means spending more money on them. But what is called "investing" in better education could more accurately be called pouring money down a bottomless pit.
Don't suburban schools with high levels of spending do better than other schools with lower levels of spending? Usually, yes. But Olympic-sized swimming pools and tennis courts do not make you any smarter. Nor do generous-sized parking lots for affluent students with fancy cars.
"No Excuses" does not limit its comparisons to blacks and whites. In some cases, the educational performances of Asian American students exceeds that of whites by more than the performances of whites exceed that of blacks.
There is nothing mysterious about any of these differences. Asian students put more time into study and homework and watch less television. They behave themselves in class. Their parents don't tolerate low grades -- or even medium grades.
In those rare black schools where the students follow a pattern similar to that of Asian Americans, they get educational results similar to those of Asian Americans.
What about the role of the schools in all this?
American schools waste an incredible amount of time on fads, fun and propaganda for political correctness. Those students who come from homes with highly educated parents, or parents whose values stress education, get a lot of what they need outside of school, as well as making the most of what they get within the school.
It is those children who do not come from these kinds of homes whose futures are forfeited when class time is frittered away. Low-income black students are the biggest losers when educators fail to educate and when courts create so many legal obstacles to enforcing school discipline that a handful of classroom clowns or hoodlums can prevent everyone else from getting a decent education.
More money won't cure any of this.