For lousy schools, no excuses

Posted: Oct 21, 2003 12:00 AM

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."

 How come? The authors of "No Excuses" contend that we are making excuses right and left. Excuses for the single-parent families that tend to produce less successful learners; excuses for the iron control exercised by teachers unions over the standards and competency of the profession; excuses for judicial activists who see the racial composition of the classroom as a key index of failure or success; excuses for the mediocrity of well-intended federal programs like Title I; and so on.

 It is acutely modern and chic to argue against "blaming victims." The Thernstroms don't blame the mainly black victims of lousy education and some disabling cultural arrangements. They blame (in an even-tempered, scholarly way, to be sure) those who make excuses for conditions that could be bettered with a little determined effort. One thing this means is setting and maintaining higher standards.

 Texas and North Carolina come in for praise "as models of what can be achieved by raising the bar: setting clear standards, measuring student progress in meeting them, and holding accountable students and schools when they do not meet expectations."

 The Thernstroms argue also in behalf of freedom -- in behalf, that is, of vouchers and charter schools -- and against the educationist monopoly of the teaching profession. Some charter schools, it seems, have enjoyed spectacular success: the one in Los Angeles, for instance, where recently fourth-graders were studying and performing "King Lear." "No excuses," affirm the Thernstroms. "That is the message that superb schools deliver to their students."

 You have to want to hear it, no doubt. It could be -- my own observation, not the Thernstroms' -- that, when it comes to race, American society is demoralized, terrified of the "civil rights" lobby, "the black vote," the Jesse Jacksons, the Al Sharptons, and so on, with their bull-whip rhetoric and smug demands, afraid to peel back the wallpaper and examine the shiplap with attention.

 But the alternative? Hearken to the Thernstroms. "The alternative to a radical overhaul (of public education) is an appallingly large number of black and Hispanic youngsters continuing to leave high school without the skills and knowledge to do well in life ... Is that acceptable? What decent American will say yes?"