No excuses

Posted: Oct 22, 2003 12:00 AM

 "Excellent schools deliver a clear message to their students: No Excuses. No excuses for failing to do your homework, failing to work hard in general; no excuses for fighting with other students, running in the hallways, dressing inappropriately and so forth."
That's part of the prescription for ending educational mediocrity discussed in Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom's new book, "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" (Simon & Schuster, 2003). <see the new book review from>

 It's no secret that, as the Thernstroms point out, the education achieved by white students is nothing to write home about. In civics, math, reading, writing and geography, nearly a quarter of all students leave high school with academic skills that are "Below Basic." In science, 47 percent leave high school with skills Below Basic, and in American history it's 57 percent. Below Basic is the category the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) uses for students unable to display even partial mastery of knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at their grade level.

 As dismal as these figures are, for black students it is magnitudes worse. According to NAEP findings, only in writing are less than 40 percent of black high school students Below Basic. In math, it's 70 percent, and science 75 percent. Blacks completing high school perform a little worse than white eighth-graders in both reading and U.S. history, and a lot worse in math and geography.

 The Thernstroms report, "In math and geography, indeed, they know no more than whites in the seventh grade." From these facts, the Thernstroms conclude, "The employer hiring the typical black high school graduate (or the college that admits the average black student) is, in effect choosing a youngster who has made it only through the eighth grade."

 At the other end of the NAEP academic scale, Proficient and Advanced, nearly half of all whites and 40 percent of Asians score in those categories in reading, compared to less than a fifth of blacks. In science and math, 3 percent of black students display more than a partial mastery, in contrast to seven to 10 times as many white and Asians.

 The dismal performance of black students translates into at least two devastating consequences. First, glaring racial double standards are needed if more than a handful of black students are to attend the nation's most prestigious universities. Second, if one hasn't mastered high school pre-calculus, high-paying careers such as engineering, medicine and computer technology are hermetically sealed for life.

 These outcomes are not preordained, and the solution is not more money, as the educationists would have us believe. Were that the case, academic achievement wouldn't be a problem. In the last two decades, educational expenditures have doubled, yet academic performance has declined.

 The route to greater academic excellence is nearly a no-brainer. There are three vital inputs to education: parents, teachers and students. You tell me: How much money does it take for teachers to assign homework, and for parents and teachers see to it that it gets done? How much money does it take to see to it that kids get a good night's sleep, come to school on time, don't fight in school,and respect authority? If these no-brainer things aren't accomplished, there's no amount of money that's going to make much of a difference.

 The education establishment likes to blame poor parenting and rowdy and lawless students for educational mediocrity. Without a doubt, that's part of the problem, but incompetent, uncaring teachers are also a part of the problem.

 The NAEP findings clearly point to one fault that lies solely at the feet of the education establishment -- that's the granting of fraudulent diplomas. After all, isn't it fraud to confer a high school diploma upon a student, attesting that he's mastered a 12th-grade level of education, when in fact he hasn't mastered a seventh or eighth-grade level?