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The academic gap in starkest black and white

No Excuses Closing the Racial Gap in Learning Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom Simon & Schuster: 334 pp., $26

November 02, 2003|James Traub | James Traub is the author of several books, including "City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College" and the forthcoming "The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square."

The single most devastating statistic in American life is this: The average black high school senior reads at the level of the average white eighth-grader. This, more than anything else, explains why race remains such an overwhelmingly salient fact in American life. It explains why affirmative action is, or at least appears to be, necessary. It explains to a very large degree why blacks continue to lag so far behind whites in income and socioeconomic status.

And, as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom demonstrate with remorseless lucidity in "No Excuses," their latest exploration of the causes and consequences of persistent black failure, the gap cannot be explained away by racism, testing bias, inequitable resources or even by poverty itself. The gap is not only an incontrovertible fact but a fact rooted in black experience and behavior. The Thernstroms do not believe that school is the cause of black failure, but they insist that, given the right innovations, school can be the solution to black failure. Readers may find it hard to believe that a problem so deeply rooted can be cured with such a straightforward and inexpensive application of reform.

The Thernstroms have been accused in the past of relishing, rather than ruing, the bad news they deliver on, say, affirmative action or welfare. In their previous book, "America in Black and White," they seemed to take great pleasure in putting liberal noses out of joint. But they deserve at least equal credit for venturing fearlessly where more cautious scholars fear to tread and taking the considerable flak that comes with it. "No Excuses" is also not likely to be welcomed in the hallways of our great foundations or in graduate schools of education.

The essential piece of bad news the Thernstroms deliver here is that none of the conventional explanations for the academic gap hold much water, and thus neither do the conventional solutions. They challenge the view, most fervently advanced by Jonathan Kozol in "Savage Inequalities," that schools with large minority populations are systematically denied resources. This is one of those common-sense perceptions that turns out on close examination, they say, to be false.

As far back as 1966, in what came to be known as the Coleman Report, sociologist James Coleman concluded that the difference in resources between largely white and largely black schools was much smaller than widely believed and in any case had little effect on educational outcomes. The Thernstroms cite Coleman, as well as U.S. Department of Education figures from 1989-90, showing that the spending gap is marginal, even after adjusting for the higher costs in big cities where minority students are heavily concentrated, and for extra spending on special education. Spending, the Thernstroms point out, has only grown more egalitarian in recent years. In any case, they point out, pace Coleman, per-pupil spending has almost doubled over the last 30 years without having any appreciable effect on outcomes.

What about the argument that black students tend to get stuck in overcrowded classrooms? Not demonstrable, it turns out. What about the impact of "low expectations"? Again, little evidence, and surveys have found that black students themselves believe their teachers have high expectations of them. A shortage of black teachers? True, but the evidence that black students benefit from black teachers is scanty, and data from a battery of tests administered to prospective teachers show that black candidates fail at a much higher rate than whites.

"No Excuses" also grapples in great and sometimes obscure detail with the subject of segregation. This would seem to be a dead letter, since mandatory desegregation plans are a thing of the past, but progressive scholars such as Richard D. Kahlenberg have claimed that "voluntary" plans, which assign students to schools based on elaborate mechanisms, can work wonders. The Thernstroms argue that desegregation has little or no effect on black academic performance, though the evidence seems a bit more favorable than they acknowledge, especially regarding impoverished children. I have trouble believing that growing up, and being schooled, in a world of intensely concentrated poverty is anything other than a formula for failure -- but it's also true that the kind of social engineering required to break up the isolation of the black poor is just not in the cards.

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