Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
Simon & Schuster, (October 2003)
by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom
Wall Street Journal, 5/1/03
When the College Board released its most recent data on SAT scores, most of the attention zeroed in on the jump in the math averages to a level that we haven't seen in three decades. Certainly that's welcome news. But the same data also show that a stubborn racial gap in academic achievement persists. Even worse, it's widening.
A decade ago, black students taking the SATs typically scored 153 points below the national average and 187 points below the white average. Today the gap has expanded to 163 points and 206 points, respectively. But instead of working to close this gap in the places where it starts -- primarily, our lousy inner-city public school systems -- the education establishment tries to sidestep the whole thing by lowering the bar at the college level. Which is why affirmative action admissions programs periodically wind up in the Supreme Court.
If America were really serious about closing this gap, instead of squabbling over entry to, say, the University of Michigan law school, we'd be redressing the inner-city K-12 system that is so conspicuously failing to educate black children. Black moms and dads understand this, which is why overwhelming majorities continue to tell pollsters that they favor vouchers and other forms of school choice. Unfortunately, their political representatives tend to be folks allergic to any reform that involves actually holding the public school systems accountable.
In the introduction to their forthcoming book, "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning," Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom suggest that the learning gap today is America's main source of ongoing racial inequality. "Students who have equal skills and knowledge will have roughly equal earnings," write the Thernstroms. "That was not always true, but it is today." In other words, if you want racial equality, fix the schools. And until we begin to close the racial performance gap at its source, we shouldn't be surprised at the mess it continues to create later on.