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No Excuses

Closing the Racial Gap in Learning

Written By: Abigail Thenstrom and Stephan Thenstrom

To purchase a copy go here: No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (Simon & Schuster, October 2003)

To read a 2003 interview with Abigail Thenstrom, go here.

Table of Contents

Each link above contains selected paragraphs to cover the author's point of view.

1 The Problem

One: Left Behind

Two: Tests Matter

2 Great Teaching

Three: Building Academic Skills

Four: Not by Math Alone

3 Culture Matters

Five: Asians

Six: Hispanics

Seven: Blacks

4 The Conventional Wisdom

Eight: Send Money

Nine: Racial Isolation

Ten: Teacher Quality

5 Serious Effort, Limited Results

Eleven: Congress Strikes Out

Twelve: Raising the Bar

Thirteen: Roadblocks to Change


Chapter 1: Left Behind

The racial gap is not an IQ story; this not about innate intelligence. The bad news discussed means we must work harder and smarter at delivering better education.

The average black and Hispanic student at the end of high school has academic skills that are about the eighth-grade level. In fact, on most NAEP tests, the majority of black students in twelfth grade have scores Below Basic.

This record of the recent past offers no ground for complaceny. Time alone will not solve the problem. Nor will the usual educational strategies - smaller classes, more money, standards, testing, accountability, and so forth. We are not opposed to additional funding for schools, but the dollars must be used wisely. And we are not opposed to smaller classes, although we do not see reducing class size as the best use of scarce dollars. We see standards, testing and accountability as important but insufficient steps in the right direction.


Chapter 2: Tests Matter

Tests us precisely what needs to be know if there is any hope of reforming education and closing the racial gap in academic achievement. Good tests measure the knowledge and skills that demanding jobs and college courses require. When black and Latino students leave high school barely knowing how to read, their future -- and that of the nation -- is in jeopardy.

Confronted with the evidence of a glaring racial gap in skills raises uncomfortable about the educational system, some educators, parents, and students have responded by attacking the tests themselves. Blaming the messenger, or at least denying the validity of the message, is far easier than figuring out how to deal with the problem that the test scores have identified.

Students need to learn basic skills in language and math and how to think liguistically and mathematically. There is a seamless web between the two, and a really good test assesses both. If students are being taught "to think" they should be able to demonstrate the quality of their thniking in a test situation.


Chapter 3: Building Academic Skills

Terrific schools that serve highly disadvantaged minority kids do exist. There just is not enough of them. Scattered across the American landscape are what some call "brea-the-mold" schools - hihg-poverty schools with students who score well on statewide tests. Theren't many of them, and all are atypical within their own districts. Nevertheless, their record of success suggests that truly radical educational innovation can change the lives of inner-city students, whatever their race and ethnicity. The goal is clear. But how to get there? The road is littered with obstacles.

The days are too short, the year is too short, instructional time is wasted, the classrooms are chaotic, the academic expectations are woefully low, basic skills are not taught, intellectually sophisticated and stiumlating material is not offered, tests are viewed as antithetical to education, and equity and excellence are seen as incompatible.

Is that too harsh a judgment? Perhaps, but the differnce between the schools described in Chapter 3 and the typical urban school is like night and day.


Chapter 4: Not by Math Alone

Terrific schools also aim to transform the culture of their students -- as that culture affects academic achievement. Schools set social norms that create effective learning environments. Students learn to speak politely to the principal, teachers, and strangers; they learn to dress neatly, to arrive at school on time, to pay attention in class, finish homework, and nver waste time. Teachers work hard to install the desire, discipline and dedication - the will to succeed - that will enable disadvantaged youth to climb the American ladder of opportunity. These are essential ingredients in the definition of effective education for high-need kids.


Chapter 5: Asians

Asians are typically more deeply engaged in academic work than their peers, and enroll in Advanced Placement courses at triple the white rate. The explanation: family expectations. Whlie relative newcomers, Asians most intensely embrace the traditional American work ethic. But their story contains good news: Hard work is a culturally transferrable trait. Their success can be replicated. Culture matters, but it is also open to change.


Chapter 6: Hispanics

Family messages don't always mesh well with the objectives of schools. The Hispanics who are flooding into American schools are very much like Italian immigrants circa 1910. For those Italian peasants, school was not a high priority; they expected their children to take a job as soon as possible. But over the generations, academic success rose in importance. Hispanics are also making real gains over generations - gains obscured by a continuing inlfux of new immigrants.


Chapter 7: Blacks

Black academic achievement has deep historical roots. The first signs of underachievement appear very early in the life of black children, although scholars have not been able to pinpoint precise reasons, they can identify some of the risk factors that seem to be limiting their intellectual development. Among them: low birth weight, single-parent households, and birth to a very young mother. Afro-American children not only arrive in school less academically prepared; they also tend to be less ready to conform to behavorial demands. They watch an extraordinary amount of television. The proces of connecting black children to the world of academic achievement isn't easy in the best of educational settings. But good schools described in Chapters 3 and 4 show that it can be done. Not without fundamental change in American public education, however.


Chapter 8: Send Money

Is there, in fact, a strong casual link between school resources and disproportionately low black and Hispanic test scores? We do not dismiss the good uses to which money can be used wisely, but the racial gap in academic achievement cannot be traced to school funding, we argue.

"Its money, money," the former chancellor of the New York City schools has said. Undoubtedly, he speaks for most eudcators - particularly those in charge of big-city school systems where levels of student performance are abysmally low. But insufficient funding does not explain the racial gap in academic achievement, and money, per se, is no pancacea. It does not cost more to raise academic and behavioral standards and to create a culture of learning. And when money can't be used wisely, education suffers. The people in charge of mangaging our public schools lack the basic tools of management every business has: the discretion to reward their best staff with higher pay, to fire those who are imcomptent, to allocate funds in ways that will have a maximum impact on student achievement.

But money does matter - sometimes. It matters when used well. Money could help in attracting exceptionally dedicated and gifted adminisitrators and teachers to education, for instance. But they are unlikely to come in the numbers needed without competitive salaries based on merit and other fundamental reforms.

Additioanl funding poured into the existing system will neither improve our schools in general nor solve the problem of underachieving black and Hispanic students specifically.


Chapter 9: Racial Isolation

We strongly prefer racially integrated classrooms ourselves, although we have never thought that denying parents access to neighborhood or other schools of choice was intellient public policy. In this chapter, we explore the relationship between "segregation" (as it's commonly defined) and student performance. Are black and Hispanic children typically learning less than they could and should because most are attending schools in which only a minority of pupils are white?

Schools are not"segregated". They are racialy imbalanced, and that imbalance reflects the fact that members of racial and ethnic groups are not randomly distributed across the nation. Desgregation progams have historically changed the racial composition of schools without changing the academic profile of the children attending them. Who sits next to whom in a classroom does not determine how children learn. The racial composition of schools does not explain the racial gap in academic achievement. What matters in a school is not the racial mix, but the academic culture, and a culture that nutures learning.

Even if all schools could magically become racially balanced - solving the problem of racial and ethnic clustering - different classrooms within those schools have different demographic profiels. No one should be complacent about the disproportionately hihg number of non-Asian minority kids in the lowest tracks, or the high number of black children in special education. It is prowerful evidence of the problem to which we are calling attention. When students lack the foundation to do the work, they can not take Advanced Placement courses. Closing the racial gap, however, will take better schools, and better schools means more good teachers. A topic covered in chapter 10.


Chapter 10: Teacher Quality

If there is a consensus on anything in the education community, it is on the dire need of urban districts for better teachers. In fact, inadequate funding, racial isolation, and low teacher quality are the three reasons most often cited for the racial gap in academic achievement.

We agree that weak teacher lead to weak learning. A comprehensive study of teachers in Tennessee had demonstrated that students with teachers who rank in the top quartile in effectiveness make gains over the school year that is quadruple those of the students with the least effective 25 percent of teachers. Studies in other states have reached the same conclusions.

Better teacher are needed in urban schools, but who qualifies as "better"? Teachers with more in the way of standard credentials and with more experience, the conventional wisdom runs. We challenge that view in this chapter.

High need children need high-quality teachers. But the argument about inadequate teachers as a major source of the racial gap in achievement, as it is commonly framed, cannot withstand critical scruntity. There is, to begin with, the problem who qualifies as an excellent teacher. The standard measures of excellence do not tell much, and by those standard measures black and Hispanic students are not notably disadvantaged. The standard arguments about the contribution of low teacher expectations to the racial gap in academic performance are not supported by the evidence.

Having more black teachers in our public schools would be desirable - other things being equal. But all children learn most from those with the most to teach, it appears. Skills and knowledge matter, and an all-out effort to recruit more minority teachers will not close the racial gap in student performance if teacher selection standards are thereby lowered. At the moment, that is the trade-off, largely because successful black students have an abundance of other career choices.


Chapter 11: Congress Strikes Out

Since 1965, Title I funds of $125 billion have been on education with "virtually nothing to show for it". The returns have been curshingly disappointing. Head Start remains the right idea; whether it can be translated into a truly effective program remains uncertain. Measuring schools by student results goes against the grain of the traditional educational culture, but the newest version of Title I (No Child Left Behind) - insists on it. It's a long-overdue change. Students results are the educational bottom line.


Chapter 12: Raising the Bar

Starting in the late 1980's, a movement for testing, standards, and accoutability began to sweep the states. In 2002, No Child Left Behind (No Child Left Behind) became law. Closing the racial gap is its central aim. If results from Texas and North Carolina are any indication, the prospects are not good. While the knowledge and skills of all students improved, the racial gap did not narrow. Closing the gap is the acid test of educational reform.


Chapter 13: Roadblocks to Change

Americans are educational reformers, but in fact little has changed despite much activity, particularly in the last quarter century. That's not surprising. "Reformers" have had a limited appetite for true reform, and, in any case, the roadblocks to fundamental change are formidable. The teaching profession does not reward imaginative, ambitious, competitive innovators. Big-city superintendents, as well as principals, operate in a straitjacket. The politics of school reform often have little to do with kids. Most important, the enormous power of teacher unions stops almost all real change in it tracks.



The racial gap is the most imporant civil rights issue of our time. If Americans care about racial equality they must demand more than the current reform movement is offering - standards, tests, some consequences of educational failure, and limited public school choice. The nation's system of edcuation must be fundamentally altered, with educational choice as part of the package.

The alternative to a radical overhaul is an appallingly large number of black and Hispanic youngsters continuing to leave high school without the skills and knowledge to do well in life; the perpetuation of ancient inequalities. Is that acceptable? What decent American will say yes?


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Last modified: July 27, 2004

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