Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
Simon & Schuster, (October 2003)
by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom
The Seattle Times, 10/8/03
Stop making excuses: Close the learning gap
by Matt Rosenberg; Special to The Times
THE news is not good for K-12 public education in Washington state.
A new report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation shows Washington ranks 39th out of 50 states in its 2001 high-school-graduation rate, at 66 percent. The report also estimates that a scant one-quarter of 2001 Washington high-school students graduated college-ready. That's very different from merely graduating. The report shows Washington high-school grads' college readiness lags the national average (itself a dispiriting 32 percent), and ties us for third-to-last place with Oregon, New Mexico and California. Only Nevada and Alaska do worse.
In the report, college readiness is defined partly as meaning students have met the reading proficiency cutoff on the widely recognized National Assessment of Educational Progress test.
Another key criterion is graduating with four years of English, three of math, and two each of natural science, social science and foreign language. This is the minimum high-school course load required for applicants to many lower- or mid-echelon public, four-year colleges.
The Gates Foundation-funded working paper is titled "Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States." The lead author is Jay Greene, an education researcher and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Greene notes that while the estimates of 2001 college readiness come from a major federal study done in 1998, he believes no major changes occurred in the interim. He adds the state readiness data is a bit less solid than the regional and national findings. Nonetheless, the West ranks worst by far, and Washington is clearly in the back of the pack.
Greene's report also cross-analyzes the new data by race. Nationally and in many states including Washington high-school graduation and college readiness rates are markedly lower for African Americans and Hispanics versus whites and Asians.
As Seattle grapples to hire a new superintendent, black and Hispanic student achievement is sub-par in the city's public schools. And at some Seattle public high schools, less than a third of all students go directly on to four-year colleges.
Seattle high-school diplomas may be worth even less, now. Franklin High counselors allegedly changed almost 1,000 grades given to students over the past three school years. In some cases, the actions boosted grade-point averages, and graduation prospects. Typically, the district says many of the changes may have been kosher; an investigation is under way.
Making excuses for poor academic achievement is ingrained in our local political culture. Seattle property owners of all colors foot the bill for a system that serves the poor and others poorly. Taxpayers often must pay again, for private schools.
Testing regimens, smaller schools and classes, better teacher salaries and training won't sufficiently transform urban public schools. Seattle's highly decentralized approach, letting individual schools set their own course, requires far tougher standards.
In their new book out next week, scholars Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom highlight the handful of U.S. public schools that turn at-risk minority kids into high achievers. In "No Excuses Closing the Racial Gap in Learning," they report these are predominantly charter schools, with high academic and behavioral standards.
The Thernstroms have authored a landmark volume on race, "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible." She's on the Massachusetts State Board of Education and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; he's a Harvard history professor of immigration, and racial and ethnic groups.
They stress "academic culture and the quality of the teachers, which is not likely to improve unless the rules governing hiring, firing, and salaries, as well as working conditions, are changed."
They report risk factors for academic under-achievement by African-American students include low birth weight, single-parent households, birth to a very young mother, and excessive television viewing.
And the Thernstroms reinforce a well-known, yet vital point: Asian students do better than any others including whites because of resolute family expectations. The Thernstroms say "hard work is a culturally transferable trait."
The Thernstroms urge a daunting overhaul where every urban public school becomes a charter school; longer school days, weeks and years are common; and school vouchers are more broadly available to low-income, urban families.
True, a charter school only works if all players involved are fully committed, the mission ambitious, and accountability unstinting. Funny, that's exactly what's missing in Seattle. Public schools can't improve unless everyone walks the plank together.
The Washington Legislature has failed miserably by not even passing a test-the-waters charter-school bill. Outgoing Gov. Gary Locke must correct that.
If current education-reform efforts fizzle, we'll need a strong "Plan B" to follow immediately. A good place to start is with the lessons from "No Excuses."
Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle writer and regular contributor to The Times' editorial pages. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org