No Excuses

No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
By Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2003

Published newspaper and magazine reviews of No Excuses, though generally favorable, did not appreciate fully two of Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s major accomplishments.

The first, and to my mind remarkable, accomplishment of their study was to avoid getting lost in the mountains of data on American primary and secondary education that they summarize. Recall the story about Winston Churchill at the dinner table: “Take this pudding away--it has no theme." Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom did better than Churchill’s chef; they had a theme integrating their discussion of a more complex entity than a pudding: the American public education system. They tell us that public schools should be and can be capable of reducing the racial and ethnic disparities in educational achievement in the United States. Every part of the book contributes directly or indirectly to elucidating that issue. No Excuses has the suspenseful plot of a novel.

Thus, their first chapter shows how far Blacks and Hispanics are behind Whites and Asians in school. Their second chapter demonstrates that national standardized tests are necessary to warn “students, their families, and their schools that more effort is needed” (p. 39). Chapters 5-7 show how the family cultures of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students provide distinctly different levels of support and encouragement for consistent effort at school. Chapters 8-10 discuss three purported remedies for ethnic and racial disparities in educational achievement that the Thernstroms reject: (1) spending more money for schools; (2) attempting to reduce racial, ethnic, and social class segregation; (3) providing better teachers. They show why such proposed remedies are inadequate. For example, they point out that the Los Angeles Unified School District has such a large proportion of minority students that the only conceivable way to have its schools reflect the country’s ethnic and racial composition would be to bus White children in by airplane (p. 187).

Their second notable accomplishment is to suggest what the educational system can do to reduce disparities of ethnic and racial educational achievement. In Chapters 3 and 4 the Thernstroms describe their visits to a handful of remarkably successful public schools, successful in the sense that their Black and Hispanic students from poverty backgrounds “score well on statewide tests” (p. 43). These schools are admittedly an atypical sample of the schools in America’s 15,000 school districts. All are charter schools, which means that the children and their parents were concerned enough about the education they had been receiving to apply for admission to these schools. But the Thernstroms argue, rightly in my view, that whatever is, is possible. Since these schools work superbly, other schools could work far, far better than they do now.

What about the problem of possible “creaming”? Could such schools succeed at the expense of the public schools where weaker students are left behind and thereby receive a worse education because of the outflow of more able students who might serve as role models? Possibly. However, there are two reasons for believing that “creaming” is not the main explanation for the success of these schools and a reason for believing that whatever creaming that occurs is benign; it is a mechanism for school improvement, not a threat to public education. Consider first why creaming is not the main explanation for the success of the schools that the Thernstroms suggest are models of excellence: (1) The students who enroll in these good schools were not selected on the basis of test scores, grades, or even teacher recommendations; they were ordinary school performers in the neighborhoods from which they came (p. 47). (2) They did not have more affluent parents than classmates in the schools they left or parents with greater education.

Consider also why such creaming as does occur is benign. Other studies than those conducted by the Thernstroms have shown that charter schools and voucher programs do not hurt the sending public schools by siphoning off students who could make them work better, which is what some teachers and their union leaders fear. To the contrary, competition from such programs appears to stimulate the sending schools to improve educational services. True, the students in the exemplary schools that the Thernstroms would like to see emulated must want to be in them and must have made a judicious choice of parents, parents who aspire to giving their children an education that will provide entry into the middle class. The Thernstroms would surely agree that good schools have to cream in this limited sense. They would probably go further: They would probably admit that it will take decades for the contagious examples of excellent schools to spread--and thereby to enable otherwise trapped Black and Hispanic children to escape the underclass. Convincing parents that school failure is avoidable won’t happen overnight.

But, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, nothing that is worth doing can be completed in a single generation. The Thernstroms say that closing the racial gap in learning can be done and is worth starting on. It will take time, yes. They want us to begin.

Jackson Toby is an NRI visiting scholar.

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