No Excuses
Closing the Racial Gap in Learning

By Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom


List of Figures

  1. The Problem
    One: Left Behind
  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



There's nothing the school can do.
Latisha Robinson, a black eighth-grader in Elk Grove, California

You've got to have to want to do better.
Kiarra Gibson, her classmate

The student body of Cedarbrook Middle School in a Philadelphia suburb is one-third black, two-thirds white. The town has a very low poverty rate, good schools, and a long-established black middle class. But an eighth-grade advanced algebra class that a reporter visited in June 2001 contained not a single black student. The class in which the teacher was explaining that the 2 in 21 stands for 20, however, was 100 percent black. A few black students were taking accelerated English, but no whites were sitting in the English class that was learning to identify verbs.

The Cedarbrook picture is by no means unique. It is all too familiar, and even worse in the big-city schools that most black and Hispanic youngsters attend. This is an American tragedy and a national emergency for which there are no good excuses.

The racial gap in academic achievement is an educational crisis, but it is also the main source of ongoing racial inequality. And racial inequality is America's great unfinished business, the wound that remains unhealed. Thus, this is a book about education, but it also addresses the central civil rights issue of our time: our failure to provide first-class education for black and Hispanic students, in both cities and suburbs.

The black high school graduation rate has more than doubled since 1960. And blacks attend college at a rate that is higher than it was for whites just two decades ago. But the good news ends there. The gap in academic achievement that we see today is actually worse than it was fifteen years ago. In the 1970s and through most of the 1980s, it was closing, but around 1988 it began to widen, with no turnaround in sight.

Today, at age 17 the typical black or Hispanic student is scoring less well on the nation's most reliable tests than at least 80 percent of his or her white classmates. In five of the seven subjects tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a majority of black students perform in the lowest category -- Below Basic. The result: By twelfth grade, African Americans are typically four years behind white and Asian students, while Hispanics are doing only a tad better than black students. These students are finishing high school with a junior high education.

Students who have equal skills and knowledge will have roughly equal earnings. That was not always true, but it is today. Schooling has become the key to racial equality. No wonder that Robert Moses, a luminous figure in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, is convinced that "the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961." Algebra, he believes, is "the gatekeeper of citizenship."

Literacy, too, is a "gatekeeper," and the deadline for learning is alarmingly early. "For many students...the die is cast by eighth grade. Students without the appropriate math and reading skills by that grade are unlikely to acquire them by the end of high school...," a U.S. Department of Education study has concluded.

Race has famously been called the "American dilemma." But since the mid-1960s, racial equality has also been an American project. An astonish-ing, peaceful revolution in the status of blacks and the state of race relations has transformed the country. And yet too few Americans have recognized and acknowledged the stubborn inequalities that only better schools can address.

Even civil rights groups have long averted their gaze from the disquieting reality. "You can have a hunch that black students are not doing as well, but some of this was surprising," A. V. Fleming, president of the Urban League in Fort Wayne, Indiana, said, as the picture of low black achievement began to emerge in the late 1990s. In Elk Grove, California, an affluent suburb of Sacramento, black parents were shocked, angry, and in tears when they learned of the low test scores of their kids. "People know that this is an important issue, and they don't know how to talk about it," said Philip Moore, the principal of the local middle school, who is black himself.

For too long, the racial gap in academic performance was treated not only by civil rights leaders, but by the media, and even by scholars, as a dirty secret -- something to whisper about behind closed doors. As if it were racist to say we have a problem: Black and Hispanic kids, on average, are not doing well in school.

Suddenly, however, this shamefully ignored issue has moved to the front and center of the education stage. In part, the new attention is simply a response to an altered economic reality. A half century ago, an eighth-grade dropout could get a secure and quite well-paid job at the Ford Motor Company or U.S. Steel. Today, the Honda plant in Ohio does not hire people who cannot pass a test of basic mathematical skills.

Demographic change, too, has forced Americans to pay attention to an educational and racial catastrophe in their midst. Fifty years ago, Hispanic children were no more than 2 percent of the school population. Today, a third of all American students are black or Latino. In California, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas white schoolchildren have become a numerical minority. These numbers, in themselves, drive home the urgency of educating all children.

The unprecedented sense of urgency is unmistakable in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 version of the nation's omnibus 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The central aim of the revised statute, as its preamble states boldly, is "to close the achievement that no child is left behind." Closing the gap is the core purpose of the legislation -- and the test of its eventual success.

Thus, the act requires all states to test children in grades 3-8 and report scores broken down by race, ethnicity, and other demographic characteristics associated with educational disadvantage. Each group must show significant annual progress. Affluent districts will no longer be able to coast along, hiding their lower-performing black and Hispanic students in overall averages that make their schools look good. A bucket of very cold water has been poured on educators -- and particularly those who have been quite complacent. NCLB has been an overdue attention-getter. At a well-attended national meeting on education in September 2002, the audience was asked to name the most important new policy requirement in No Child Left Behind; closing the racial and ethnic achievement gap was the clear winner.

Indifference to minority children who arrive in kindergarten already behind and continue to flounder is no longer an option for schools. The problem has been acknowledged -- and thus must now be addressed. Racial equality will remain a dream as long as blacks and Hispanics learn less in school than whites and Asians. If black youngsters remain second-class students, they will be second-class citizens -- a racially identifiable and enduring group of have-nots.

Certain assumptions and arguments run through this book. We list some of the most important here as a guide to our readers, with references to the chapters in which they first appear.

• Before we discuss remedies, we must outline the problem (which we do in Chapter 1). Only if the full magnitude of the racial gap is understood will Americans begin to appreciate the need for a radical rethinking of what counts today as school reform. The racial gap is not an IQ story; this is not a book about innate intelligence. The bad news that we discuss simply means we must work harder and smarter at delivering better education.

• Test scores matter (Chapter 2 argues). They tell us precisely what we need to know if we have 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. Our sense of danger and moral outrage should be particularly strong when so many of these students are African Americans -- members of a group that suffered the brutality of slavery, legally enforced segregation, and racial exclusion.

• Terrific schools that serve highly disadvantaged minority kids do exist. There just aren't enough of them. (We take a very close look at some of them in Chapters 3 and 4). These schools are not waiting until the day social and economic disparities disappear. "No Excuses" is their relentless message. Every student is expected to work hard to acquire the skills and knowledge that tests measure. These are schools with great leaders and great teachers who have high academic and behavioral standards, and the schools provide nonstop learning through longer school days, weeks, and years.

• These schools also aim to transform the culture of their students -- as that culture affects academic achievement (we argue in Chapter 4). "We are fighting a battle involving skills and values," David Levin, founder of the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, New York, has explained. This is a fight that all good schools must engage in. Those we came to admire 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 never waste time. Teachers work hard to instill 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.

• When it comes to academic success, members of some ethnic and racial groups are culturally luckier than others. "Culture" is a loose and slippery term, and we do not use it to imply a fixed set of group traits, but rather values, attitudes, and skills that are shaped and reshaped by environment. Asians (at whom we look in Chapter 5) are typically more deeply engaged in academic work than their peers, cut classes less often, and enroll in Advanced Placement courses at triple the white rate. The explanation: family expectations. These relative newcomers belong to the group that has most intensely embraced the traditional American work ethic. But their story contains good news: Hard work is a culturally transferable trait. Their success can be replicated. Culture matters, but it is also open to change.

• Family messages don't always mesh well with the objectives of schools. The Hispanics who are flooding into American schools today (the subject of Chapter 6) 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; time had a salutary effect. Hispanics are also making real gains over generations -- gains obscured by a continuing influx of new immigrants. There are thus historical and demographic reasons why so many Latino children are not faring well academically. Those reasons do not let schools off the hook; they can do better. Some cultures are academically advantageous, but neither poverty nor culture is educational destiny.

• Black academic underachievement (the subject of Chapter 7) has deep historical roots. The first signs of underachievement appear very early in the life of black children, and although scholars have not been able to pinpoint the 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. African-American children not only arrive in school less academically prepared; they also tend to be less ready to conform to behavioral demands. They watch an extraordinary amount of television -- essential to belonging to the peer culture, they say. The process of connecting black children to the world of academic achievement isn't easy in the best of educational settings. But the good schools we describe in Chapters 3 and 4 show that it can be done. Not without fundamental change in American public education, however.

• Greater school funding could be put to good use; racially integrated schools are desirable; and teacher quality is a real problem in too many schools -- particularly in those serving the children who most need an excellent education. But the usual reasons given for the racial achievement gap -- a shortage of money, racial isolation, markedly worse teachers by the usual criteria of education school credentials, and the like -- do not in fact explain the skills and knowledge gap between the average Asian or white student and the typical black or Hispanic youngster. (This is the argument we make in Chapters 8, 9, and 10.) It does not cost more to raise academic and behavioral standards, and money, per se, is no panacea. Additional funding poured into the existing system will not solve the problem of underachieving black and Hispanic students. Schools are not becoming "resegregated"; they cannot, in any case, magically become racially balanced given existing residential patterns. Most important, what matters in a school is not the racial mix but the academic culture and the quality of the teachers, which is not likely to improve unless the rules governing hiring, firing, and salaries, as well as working conditions, are changed.

• Since 1965, the federal government has poured money into Title I and Head Start in an effort to close the poverty -- and, indirectly, the racial -- gap in academic achievement. The returns have been crushingly disappointing (the subject of Chapter 11). Head Start remains the right idea; whether it can be translated into a truly effective program remains uncertain. In 2001 the secretary of education described Title I as a $125 billion program with "virtually nothing to show for it." When the provision was first being debated in 1965, Senator Robert F. Kennedy turned to the U.S. commissioner of education and said: "Look, I want to change this bill because it doesn't have any way of measuring those damn educators like you...." Kennedy got his way only on paper. Measuring schools by student results goes against the grain of the traditional educational culture, but the newest revision of Title I -- in 2001 -- insists on it. It's a long-overdue change. Student results are the educational bottom line.

• Starting in the late 1980s, a movement for testing, standards, and accountability began to sweep the states, and in January 2002, the president signed into law the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. (Chapter 12 reviews this history.) Closing the racial gap is its central aim. Will mandatory testing, scores broken down by race and ethnicity, an insistence on "adequate yearly progress," and various sanctions for poor performance finally level the academic playing field? If the record of two model states, Texas and North Carolina, is any measure, the prospects are not good. The much-celebrated efforts in those two states did improve the knowledge and skills of all students, but the racial gap did not narrow. White scores went up and black scores went up, but the difference between them remained about as wide. Closing that gap is the acid test of educational reform.

• 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 limited appetite for true reform, and, in any case, the roadblocks to fundamental change are formidable. (Chapter 13 reviews those obstacles.) 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 teachers unions stops almost all real change in its tracks. No Child Left Behind was envisioned as a means of circumventing these obstacles to reform. It contains promising steps in the right direction, but closing the racial gap in academic achievement will demand more. It is no accident that the revolutionary schools we describe in Chapters 3 and 4 are outside the traditional public system. These are schools that students, parents, and staff have chosen, and choice is integral to their success. The forces of opposition to more school choice are powerful; on the other hand, the lure of charter schools and perhaps vouchers may prove irresistible if No Child Left Behind fails to close the racial gap in academic achievement, as we predict it will.

In its call for drastic action to overcome a national crisis, this is a book with a tough message. That message is directed not only to schools, but also to students and their families. In our epigraph, Latisha Robinson is wrong, but her classmate Kiarra Gibson is right. In fact, schools can do much to close the racial gap; students, however, have to do their part: coming to school on time, attending every class, listening with their full attention, burning the midnight oil.

A letter to The New York Times in June 2002 asked: "Why bother to learn in school if there is no advantage, no opportunity after, and nobody cares?" No advantage? No opportunity? Today? It's a familiar but misguided and dangerous claim -- particularly dangerous when delivered to school-age kids making often irrevocable decisions about who they are and where they're going. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The best schools deliver quite a different message. At North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey, the students in the morning circle often chant answers -- with claps and stomps and fists held high -- to a series of questions posed by one of the codirectors: Why are you here? To get an education. And what will you have to do? Work! Hard! Work, work, work hard! Work! Hard! Work, work, work hard! And what will you need? Self-discipline Why? To be the master of my own destiny!

You can become the master of your own destiny: It's the most important message that schools like North Star deliver. A sixth-grader defined success "as having the freedom to decide what you want to do in life instead of someone choosing your path, because when someone chooses your path, you're going to get something probably that you don't want."

For too many years, too few black and Hispanic youngsters -- particularly those in urban public schools -- have acquired the skills to choose their own path. It is time to bring an end to that heartbreaking story. But a new beginning will require radical change in America's schools. Our hope, in writing this book, is to do our small part in turning that vision into an idea whose time has come.

Copyright © 2003 by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom

articles        books        other       media        biographies        contact         home

Copyright © 2005 Stephan & Abigail Thernstrom All rights reserved.
Site design Academic Web Pages