Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
Simon & Schuster, (October 2003)
by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom
Wall Street Journal, 10/9/03
A Lot More to Learn
By Clint Bolick
"We expect," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the recent University of Michigan affirmative-action case, "that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary."
If only. By upholding such preferences in public-university admissions, the Supreme Court put off the day of reckoning. In the meantime, preferences will continue to leap-frog minority candidates into elite colleges and create the illusion that we are closing racial disparities in education when in fact we are not.
The message of Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's "No Excuses" (Simon & Schuster, 334 pages, $26) is that, despite major progress toward racial equality since the 1950s, there is an academic chasm between black and Hispanic children on the one hand and whites and Asians on the other. "The racial gap in educational achievement is an educational crisis, but it is also the main source of ongoing racial inequality," the authors declare. "And racial inequality is America's great unfinished business, the wound that remains unhealed."
"No Excuses" is a follow-up to the Thernstroms' "America in Black and White" (1999), which cataloged the remarkable gains made by American minorities in the past several decades. That book also lamented various persistent problems, most notably in educational achievement. Both books disdain ideological polemics in favor of clear-eyed analysis, buttressing argument with statistics and case studies although never at the expense of interest and prose style.
The education gap cannot be overstated. The average black high-school student graduates at a level of proficiency four academic years below the average white graduate, a gap that has widened over the past 15 years. In five of seven subjects tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a majority of black students scored "below basic," a category reserved for students unable to display even a "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work" in their grade. Other standardized tests have shown a comparable difference in scores.
And the problem doesn't end there. While blacks and Hispanics now attend college at nearly the same rate as whites, only about one in six graduate, and of course income in later life is likely to rise with a college degree. The seeds of failure are planted early, the Thernstroms note. Any real effort to achieve racial equality at the college level must redress grievous deficiencies in our K-12 system.
The Thernstroms painstakingly review possible reasons for this academic gap -- from racial isolation to inadequate spending and disparities in teacher quality -- and conclude that no one reason explains it. As for current reforms, even such popular measures as reduced class size and Head Start have had little effect.
Fortunately, there are other reform ideas. Among public schools serving low-income minority students, the Thernstroms find several -- all of them lightly regulated charter schools -- that do a remarkably good job. They are characterized by a strong sense of mission, disciplinary standards, high expectations and dedicated teachers. In Texas and North Carolina, too, rigorous testing and accountability standards have narrowed the academic gap slightly. And some school-choice programs have allowed low-income children to attend private schools at public expense. As other scholars have shown, school choice can narrow the racial academic gap while prodding surrounding public schools to improve. Accordingly, the Thernstroms urge that "the nation's system of education must be fundamentally altered, with real educational choice as part of the package."
But there are obstacles: burdensome teacher-certification programs, rules that hamper school principals, weak-kneed politicians and powerful teacher unions wedded to the status quo. The biggest obstacle of all may be our collective unwillingness to acknowledge the racial gap in the first place. Right now it is treated by civil-rights leaders, the media and even scholars as "a dirty secret." The Thernstroms mean to bring that secret out in the open.
And thank goodness for that. The racial academic gap is, as they write, "the most important civil rights issue of our time." We can only hope that their analysis, coming on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, will help lead the way toward what that court decision aimed to bring about, equal opportunity for every American child.
Mr. Bolick is vice president of the Institute for Justice and author of "Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle Over School Choice" (Cato, 2003).