No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning

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The racial gap in academic performance between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and Latinos and blacks, on the other hand, is America's most urgent educational problem. It is also the central civil rights issue of our time, say Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. Unequal skills and knowledge are the main sources of ongoing racial inequality, and racial inequality is America's great unfinished business.
A wide and tragic gap in learning is evident in affluent suburbs as well as inner cities. But great schools are scattered across the country, as described in inspiring detail by the Thernstroms. These schools are putting even the most highly disadvantaged children on the American ladder of economic opportunity.
There are no good excuses for the perpetuation of long-standing inequalities, the Thernstroms argue eloquently. The problem can be solved, but conventional strategies will not work. Fundamental educational reform is needed. Carefully researched, accessibly written, and powerfully persuasive, this book offers both a close analysis of the current landscape and a blueprint for essential and overdue change.

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About the Author:

Abigail Thernstrom is a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York. She is the author of Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights and, with her husband, Stephan, of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

There's nothing the school can do.

Latisha Robinson, a black eighth-grader in Elk Grove, California

You've got to have to want to do better.

Kiarra Gibson, her classmate

The student body of Cedarbrook Middle School in a Philadelphia suburb is one-third black, two-thirds white. The town has a very low poverty rate, good schools, and a long-established black middle class. But an eighth-grade advanced algebra class that a reporter visited in June 2001 contained not a single black student. The class in which the teacher was explaining that the 2 in 21 stands for 20, however, was 100 percent black. A few black students were taking accelerated English, but no whites were sitting in the English class that was learning to identify verbs.

The Cedarbrook picture is by no means unique. It is all too familiar, and even worse in the big-city schools that most black and Hispanic youngsters attend. This is an American tragedy and a national emergency for which there are no good excuses.

The racial gap in academic achievement is an educational crisis, but it is also the main source of ongoing racial inequality. And racial inequality is America's great unfinished business, the wound that remains unhealed. Thus, this is a book about education, but it also addresses the central civil rights issue of our time: our failure to provide first-class education for black and Hispanic students, in both cities and suburbs.

The black high school graduation rate has more than doubled since 1960. 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 fifteen years ago. In the 1970s and through most of the 1980s, it was closing, but around 1988 it began to widen, with no turnaround in sight.

Today, at age 17 the typical black or Hispanic student is scoring less well on the nation's 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. The result: By twelfth grade, African Americans are typically four years behind white and Asian students, while Hispanics are doing only a tad better than black students. These students are finishing high school with a junior high education.

Students who have equal skills and knowledge will have roughly equal earnings. That was not always true, but it is today. Schooling has become the key to racial equality. No wonder that Robert Moses, a luminous figure in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, is convinced that "the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961." Algebra, he believes, is "the gatekeeper of citizenship."

Literacy, too, is a "gatekeeper," and the deadline for learning is alarmingly early. "For many students...the die is cast by eighth grade. Students without the appropriate math and reading skills by that grade are unlikely to acquire them by the end of high school...," a U.S. Department of Education study has concluded.

Race has famously been called the "American dilemma." But since the mid-1960s, racial equality has also been an American project. An astonish-ing, peaceful revolution in the status of blacks and the state of race relations has transformed the country. And yet too few Americans have recognized and acknowledged the stubborn inequalities that only better schools can address.

Even civil rights groups have long averted their gaze from the disquieting reality. "You can have a hunch that black students are not doing as well, but some of this was surprising," A. V. Fleming, president of the Urban League in Fort Wayne, Indiana, said, as the picture of low black achievement began to emerge in the late 1990s. In Elk Grove, California, an affluent suburb of Sacramento, black parents were shocked, angry, and in tears when they learned of the low test scores of their kids. "People know that this is an important issue, and they don't know how to talk about it," said Philip Moore, the principal of the local middle school, who is black himself.

For too long, the racial gap in academic performance was treated not only by civil rights leaders, but by the media, and even by scholars, as a dirty secret -- something to whisper about behind closed doors. As if it were racist to say we have a problem: Black and Hispanic kids, on average, are not doing well in school.

Suddenly, however, this shamefully ignored issue has moved to the front and center of the education stage. In part, the new attention is simply a response to an altered economic reality. A half century ago, an eighth-grade dropout could get a secure and quite well-paid job at the Ford Motor Company or U.S. Steel. Today, the Honda plant in Ohio does not hire people who cannot pass a test of basic mathematical skills.

Demographic change, too, has forced Americans to pay attention to an educational and racial catastrophe in their midst. Fifty years ago, Hispanic children were no more than 2 percent of the school population. Today, a third of all American students are black or Latino. In California, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas white schoolchildren have become a numerical minority. These numbers, in themselves, drive home the urgency of educating all children.

The unprecedented sense of urgency is unmistakable in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 version of the nation's omnibus 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The central aim of the revised statute, as its preamble states boldly, is "to close the achievement gap...so that no child is left behind." Closing the gap is the core purpose of the legislation -- and the test of its eventual success.

Thus, the act requires all states to test children in grades 3-8 and report scores broken down by race, ethnicity, and other demographic characteristics associated with educational disadvantage. Each group must show significant annual progress. Affluent districts will no longer be able to coast along, hiding their lower-performing black and Hispanic students in overall averages that make their schools look good. A bucket of very cold water has been poured on educators -- and particularly those who have been quite complacent. NCLB has been an overdue attention-getter. At a well-attended national meeting on education in September 2002, the audience was asked to name the most important new policy requirement in No Child Left Behind; closing the racial and ethnic achievement gap was the clear winner.

Indifference to minority children who arrive in kindergarten already behind and continue to flounder is no longer an option for schools. The problem has been acknowledged -- and thus must now be addressed. 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.

Certain assumptions and arguments run through this book. We list some of the most important here as a guide to our readers, with references to the chapters in which they first appear.

· Before we discuss remedies, we must outline the problem (which we do in Chapter 1). Only if the full magnitude of the racial gap is understood will Americans begin to appreciate the need for a radical rethinking of what counts today as school reform. The racial gap is not an IQ story; this is not a book about innate intelligence. The bad news that we discuss simply means we must work harder and smarter at delivering better education.

· Test scores matter (Chapter 2 argues). They tell us precisely what we need to know if we have any hope of reforming education and closing the racial gap in academic achievement. Good tests measure the knowledge and skills that demanding jobs and college courses require. When black and Latino students leave high school barely knowing how to read, their future -- and that of the nation -- is in jeopardy. Our sense of danger and moral outrage should be particularly strong when so many of these students are African Americans -- members of a group that suffered the brutality of slavery, legally enforced segregation, and racial exclusion.

· Terrific schools that serve highly disadvantaged minority kids do exist. There just aren't enough of them. (We take a very close look at some of them in Chapters 3 and 4). These schools are not waiting until the day social and economic disparities disappear. "No Excuses" is their relentless message. Every student is expected to work hard to acquire the skills and knowledge that tests measure. These are schools with great leaders and great teachers who have high academic and behavioral standards, and the schools provide nonstop learning through longer school days, weeks, and years.

· These schools also aim to transform the culture of their students -- as that culture affects academic achievement (we argue in Chapter 4). "We are fighting a battle involving skills and values," David Levin, founder of the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, New York, has explained. This is a fight that all good schools must engage in. Those we came to admire set social norms that create effective learning environments. Students learn to speak politely to the principal, teachers, and strangers; they learn to dress neatly, to arrive at school on time, to pay attention in class, finish homework, and never waste time. Teachers work hard to instill the desire, discipline, and dedication -- the will to succeed -- that will enable disadvantaged youth to climb the American ladder of opportunity. These are essential ingredients in the definition of effective education for high-need kids.

· When it comes to academic success, members of some ethnic and racial groups are culturally luckier than others. "Culture" is a ...

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