The academic gap in starkest black and white

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.

If the devastating test-score gap is not caused by testing bias, racism, funding inequities, low expectations, class size or segregation, then what causes it? Is it IQ, as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein notoriously maintained in “The Bell Curve”? No, the Thernstroms say, the cause is “culture.” This, too, scarcely qualifies as an original observation. Conservatives like Dinesh D’Souza and liberals like Christopher Jencks as well as black scholars like Ronald Ferguson have all examined the difference between black and nonblack values, expectations, child-rearing habits and the like as the source of poor academic and economic performance. But what distinguishes “No Excuses” from other studies is the way the authors go at the subject with their trademark thoroughness and empirical rigor.

The strongest case for culture comes not from the difference between black and white performance but from the difference between Asians and everybody else. The Thernstroms note that “Impoverished Asian students at inferior inner-city schools outperform their black and Hispanic classmates. Same schools, same teachers, different results.” And it’s not just other minority students: Asians are far more likely than whites to take advanced placement classes, to qualify for admission to highly selective universities and to graduate from college. Asianness is a better predictor of academic success than being rich, having an intact family or practically anything else.

But what is Asianness? The answer, it seems, is what used to be known as “immigrant values.” Fear of failure has a lot to do with it. The Thernstroms quote the finding of Laurence Steinberg in “Beyond the Classroom” that Asian students reported that their parents would accept nothing less than an A-; the corresponding figure for white students was B- and for blacks, C-. Asians also believe, unlike other groups, that effort matters more than innate ability. Though Asian kids, just like other children, watch ridiculous amounts of television, they also do a lot of homework.

The Thernstroms are moderately hopeful about Latinos, whom they view by and large as immigrants from a rustic and uneducated world. But their chapter on black culture makes for the most painful reading of a generally painful book. Using recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they find that the gap in reading and math scores not only does not diminish in the children of college-educated black parents -- it grows. That is, having educated parents helps black children do well in school, as it does all children, but significantly less. This explains the phenomenon of Ohio’s Shaker Heights, where virtually no black students pass local proficiency tests with honors. How, then, can one ascribe the academic gap entirely to poverty or to socioeconomic status? Culture must have something to do with it -- a culture that condones a C- and massive television viewing even in 12th grade. The Thernstroms also cite admittedly crude studies that show significantly less “cognitive stimulation” and “emotional support” in the average black household: One study found that the average white kindergartener had more than twice as many books at home as the average black kindergartener. They also describe the powerful, and baneful, grip of peer culture on black children.

Let us grant, then, that the single gravest problem in American life is situated to a significant degree inside the one institution most inaccessible to social intervention, the family. What in the world are we to do? I once posed this question to Jencks, and he said something like, “It might be good if black ministers talked about the value of good parenting practices” -- the intellectual equivalent of a shrug.

The Thernstroms, to their credit, do not shrug. They believe school is the one institution that has the capacity to transform the culture of home and neighborhood, and they cite many inspiring stories of schools that have done just that, such as the famous KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academies in New York and Houston. At these schools, the Thernstroms write, “the day is organized for non-stop learning, and the children generally go home with hefty homework assignments.” An atmosphere of order and civility occurs, teachers set high expectations and children are expected to master what the educational traditionalist E.D. Hirsch calls “a core set of basic academic skills.”

These schools are also, and signally, unambiguous on matters of culture. The Thernstroms quote David Levin, the founder of KIPP, as saying, “We are not afraid to set social norms.” Students learn to internalize the ideas of self-discipline, of respect for adult authority, of opportunity. The school is designed to give children the tools of self-transformation.

The Thernstroms’ bias in favor of educational traditionalism seems like the right one, especially for inner-city students; issuing a decree making Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program the national curriculum does not seem like a bad idea. But how does one persuade progressive educators like Deborah Meier or Theodore R. Sizer, whose idea of effective schooling has more to do with encouraging creativity, with democratic governance, with “portfolios” rather than tests, that this more conservative vision holds the key to success?

The euphoric literature of the effective school was a liberal genre before it was a conservative one; my bookshelves are full of glowing descriptions of radically transformative “child-centered” schools. Do the numbers show that Hirsch and Levin are right, and Meier and Sizer are wrong? If they do, you wouldn’t know it from “No Excuses.” The Thernstroms’ faith in justification through statistics breaks down when it comes to what works: They offer precious little evidence that the practices they champion have been proved to be more effective than those in vogue on the other side of the ideological spectrum, or even that they are generalizable.

Like many conservatives, the Thernstroms do not believe that the public school system, as currently constituted, is capable of producing en masse schools that work. A combination of union rules and bureaucracy, they believe, is bound to stifle serious efforts at reform, including the effort embodied in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. All the individual schools they cite are charter schools; the reason, they say, is that only charters have the autonomy needed to construct a radically different kind of school and to attract the kind of gifted teachers who make such schools work. They believe that school vouchers may be the new frontier of civil rights, while recognizing that the idea remains highly controversial.

“No Excuses” is, in the end, the most closely argued and deeply considered version of a claim that has become increasingly common among conservatives -- that school choice is the best cure for persistent black poverty. It is a claim rooted in a faith in the power of schools that is quite new among conservatives, a faith in marketplace solutions and a skepticism about the wisdom of the state that is pretty much canonical. But where is the proof that school choice galvanizes black academic achievement? I am a somewhat cautious proponent of both charters and vouchers; but so far, at least, the evidence for the academic effect of choice mechanisms is not much more persuasive than that for, say, reduced class size, an expensive nostrum that the Thernstroms fairly effectively demolish.

Where’s the proof that autonomy is, in fact, a precondition to success? As it happens, another study also titled “No Excuses,” published in 2001 by the conservative Heritage Foundation, offers “lessons from 21 high-performing, high-poverty schools,” of which 15 are ordinary public schools, three are private and three are charter. The authors of that study do not seem to believe that these lessons can be generalized only outside the current school system.

Why is it school, and school alone, that we count on to bridge the achievement gap? Coleman was always at pains to observe that school, by itself, could never provide all the “human capital” and “social capital” that some children were not acquiring at home. Coleman was actually a liberal: He believed that to raise black academic achievement, you would have to raise black socioeconomic status. Of course, the large-scale social programs that might accomplish this have long since passed out of vogue. Perhaps, alternatively, we need to expand our definition of “school” to increase the exposure of inner-city children to a powerfully reinforcing culture. Jencks and Meredith Phillips argue that if black children are arriving at school already behind white children, then one solution is to provide far more extensive preschool programs.

But is seven or eight hours a day enough to instill an alternate culture? Perhaps we need inner-city prep schools or even, as Newt Gingrich once suggested, a new kind of foster care. All of these propositions would, of course, compel us to mobilize the state in a way that is both invasive and expensive. School choice has the appeal, especially to conservatives, that it is neither -- but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

In “No Excuses,” the Thernstroms have done an enormous service by tracing the great problem of our time to its root and, at the same time, by clearing out of the way so much of the cant that clutters discussion of school reform. We need to get beyond the sterile debate of more money versus more tests. On the other hand, we may also need to get beyond school. *