No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom
Simon & Schuster. 334 pp. $26.00

In one of the most remarked-upon passages of the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the affirmative-action program of the University of Michigan Law School, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor looked ahead to the day when “student body diversity” could be achieved without resorting to special admissions procedures for black and Hispanic applicants. As she wrote, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” Unfortunately, judging by the strong consensus that has emerged among researchers of all political stripes in recent years, there is little likelihood that Justice O’Connor’s hope will be realized unless there are major changes in the educational environment of minority children.

The latest study to reach this conclusion comes from Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, scholars who have devoted most of their careers to analyzing problems of race and ethnicity in the United States. (Both are now senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute in addition to their posts, respectively, on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and in the history department at Harvard.) No Excuses assembles an impressive array of evidence to demonstrate that the “typical” (in the statistical sense) black or Hispanic child in the U.S. enters school behind, and stays behind. Recent books from liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institution have reached similar conclusions. What makes the Thernstroms’ contribution distinctive and valuable is that they also identify a path forward, a way to begin tackling what they aptly call “the most important civil-rights issue of our time.”

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As the Thernstroms show in their first chapter, drawing extensively on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the average minority student in the U.S. now leaves high school performing at a level approximately four years behind his white and Asian peers. A majority of black twelfth graders, they note, have scores ranking them “below basic” in five of the seven subjects tested by the NAEP. Moreover, since narrowing in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the academic-achievement gap has grown. This disparity not only makes it less likely that black and Hispanic students will succeed in higher education but, more broadly, blights their economic and social prospects, which increasingly depend on possessing marketable skills and knowledge.

As the Thernstroms see it, none of the usual explanations—differences in family income, in public spending on schools, in heredity—is sufficient to explain the racial disparities in achievement. What matters most (along with how schools are run) is the cultural background that students bring with them to class, especially their attitude toward learning. Devoting a chapter to the educational ethos of each of the country’s three largest minority groups, the Thernstroms show that Asian children tend to approach school with the kind of outlook they need to succeed, while black children—including those whose parents are relatively educated and well-off—typically do not, a finding also true of the offspring of the more recent waves of Hispanic immigrants. The underlying problem, in short, is one of family upbringing, usually reinforced by the expectations of friends from similar homes.

Although the role of culture remains a sensitive subject among education scholars, there is now considerable agreement that such factors have a lot to do with achievement. This was not always the case, as the Thernstroms note. When the sociologist James S. Coleman, in his landmark 1966 study, Equality of Educational Opportunity, concluded that family mattered more than school spending in explaining the educational level of minority students, his work was denounced and virtually ignored. Numerous studies since then, however—not to mention the meager results produced in the intervening years by substantial increases in education spending—have generally substantiated Coleman’s once-heretical conclusion.

The Thernstroms do not pretend to have a program for changing these deeply ingrained patterns, but they believe that schools themselves can do far more to instill students with a “culture of success.” Some public schools, in fact, are already doing well at closing the racial gap in achievement, and, like Tolstoy’s happy families, they have a great deal in common.

The main thing they have in common is that they are charter schools—public schools freed from many of the usual rules and regulations and chosen by the parents whose children attend them. These schools often have high expectations for learning and a willingness to demand the sacrifices (by parents, as well as by students) necessary to meet these expectations. They carefully select teachers who share their philosophy and give them extra training and support. Not least, many charter schools emphasize content-rich curricula over the lighter subject-matter associated with “progressive” education, and they also stress discipline. The Thernstroms’ foremost model of this approach is an effort called the “Knowledge Is Power Program” (KIPP), which they discuss at some length, in part to show how successfully it has been replicated in a variety of urban settings.

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Skeptics will point out that few charter schools have been around long enough to be carefully evaluated. Also, the Thernstroms dismiss perhaps too quickly the charge that these schools succeed in some measure by “creaming” off the most motivated parents and students. As for the case the Thernstroms do make for charter schools, it would have been strengthened by reference to another finding from James Coleman’s study. He showed that, in addition to family and peer group, a key influence on how minority children perform in school is their “sense of control of the environment.” I suspect that charter schools, like the parochial schools that participate in voucher programs, succeed with black and Hispanic city children in part because they are able to implant in them a sense of personal and social confidence, a feeling that they have a part to play in a shared mission. Such schools create hope, even faith.

Where No Excuses succeeds admirably is in making its central point: that schools can make a big difference in how much children learn, even children whose families give them little academic support. The yet-to-be-answered question is how many more students can be expected to gain access to—and benefit from—the sort of schools described by the Thernstroms.

Expanding the “culture of success” will require, they write, a “fundamental change in the structure of American education.” The testing and achievement standards set out by the Bush administration in the “No Child Left Behind” act are just a start. The real problems, the Thernstroms believe, lie far deeper, in the inflexibility and inertia of our state and big-city public-school bureaucracies, where the teachers’ unions hold powerful sway. More latitude for schools and their administrators (and perhaps more money, too); more charter schools and voucher experiments; more activism and involvement on the part of disgruntled urban parents—these are the necessary ingredients of future success in bridging the racial achievement gap.

Will any of it happen? The Thernstroms are encouraged by what they see happening around the country—“the first cracks in the [public-school] edifice”—but they are also realistic. Unlike Justice O’Connor, they understand that, when it comes to reversing the cultural deficits of America’s most disadvantaged students, 25 years is distressingly little time indeed.

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