Education's Division Problem

Abigail Thernstrom is co-author, with her husband, historian Stephan Thernstrom, of "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Where's the outrage?

By the nation's most reliable tests -- the National Assessment for Educational Progress -- 75% of California's African American fourth-graders and 64% of their Latino classmates are rated "below basic" in math. These minorities lack even "partial mastery" of the expected knowledge and skills. In reading, African Americans look a tad better, but Latinos do not. By eighth grade, reading has slipped for both groups, whereas math looks much the same.

The assessment doesn't test students at the end of high school, but there is no reason to believe these youngsters suddenly catch up to their white and Asian American peers, who are less than half as likely to score at the very bottom of the scale.

Moreover, California scores are worse than those for the nation as a whole -- although the national numbers are also appalling. In fourth grade, 61% of blacks nationwide are "below basic" in math. By the time these students are ready to graduate, only 0.2% have "advanced" skills in that subject.

Again, Latino scores look only slightly better. Across all subjects, these youngsters are moving into the workplace or on to further education with junior high school skills and knowledge.

This is a heartbreaking picture, and it should have all Americans up in arms.

Unequal skills and knowledge are the main source of ongoing racial inequality today. And racial inequality is the nation's great unfinished business, the wound that remains unhealed.

And yet on the Web sites of the California branches of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the teachers union United Teachers-Los Angeles, there is nary a word about the problem. Are they averting their gaze from a too-painful reality?

It's true that, after decades of disgraceful silence in the public square, the federal government has finally addressed the situation. The central aim of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act is, as the preamble states, "to close the achievement gap."

It's also true that the Los Angeles Unified School District board has not been ignoring the issue. In December 2002, for the second time, it approved a resolution directing Supt. Roy Romer to come up with a plan to close the gap. A plan was developed and has been implemented, the district says. There has yet to be an evaluation.

Plans are easily devised. Moreover, politically palatable proposals that only tinker around the edges of educational reform will not do. Students radically disengaged from school need radical intervention. For example, the standards-based testing and rather weak accountability measures in the federal No Child Left Behind Act are necessary but insufficient steps down the road to closing the gap. More is needed, especially for the country's most disadvantaged youngsters.

At a minimum, these kids should have schools with superb curricular materials and more time "on task" -- longer school days, weeks and years. They need teachers who have a rock-solid understanding of their subject matter and how to teach it. They need principals who have the autonomy, authority and skill to shape their budget priorities, excel as instructional leaders, hire and fire teachers and assume responsibility for both academic quality and the culture of a school. They need schools where there is zero tolerance for violence, erratic or tardy attendance, inappropriate dress, late or incomplete homework, incivility toward staff and other students, messy desks and halls, trash on the floor and other signs of disorder.

All this is easier said than done. The landscape of educational reform is littered with daunting obstacles to real change -- ranging from collective-bargaining agreements that prohibit higher salaries for the most-wanted teachers to regulations that stop principals from removing disruptive students from regular classrooms.

It's no accident that in the course of searching the country for terrific inner-city schools almost all of the ones that I found were part of the charter movement -- in the public system but freed from many bureaucratic constraints in exchange for greater accountability. There are lousy charter schools, but they're easy to shut down. Good charter laws guarantee not quality but opportunity -- the freedom to create excellent schools, especially for the high-needs kids who are learning little in traditional settings.

Richard Lowenstein is a founder of an academically rocky charter, the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, where participation in street protests is a high priority. The students march to support sweatshop workers in the garment industry and farmworkers urging a boycott of Taco Bell. But Lowenstein does know the bottom line.

"We can go to all the protest marches we want, but if we can't read, write, think critically and do math," then it's all useless, Lowenstein has said.

Right. Lowenstein might do well to forget about Taco Bell and organize his students and their families to march for better schools -- for schools that will promise the students a better future than toiling as a no-skills sweatshop worker. Good schools that can truly close the racial gap in academic achievement are the nation's most important civil rights cause.

If we don't close that gap, the U.S. will continue to create racially identifiable educational have-nots who have little chance of thriving in an economy that handsomely rewards skills and knowledge. If the picture in California and across the nation does not change, racial inequality will remain a stubborn fact.

Anger is long overdue.

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