- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning

by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephen Thernstrom

Simon & Schuster $26, 274 pages

Study the problems of the public schools long enough and you find the same questions remain unanswered year after year: Why do our students do so badly? Why can’t they perform better on tests? What can be done to make sure that students come to school ready and eager to learn?

Such questions are especially pertinent for blacks and Hispanics. Numerous studies have shown that, on average, blacks and Hispanics don’t learn as much as whites and Asians do, leaving them ill-prepared to do well in college, get good jobs or succeed in life.

Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom are both fellows at the Manhattan Institute (for which I am a consultant). They have studied education issues for many years, and Mrs. Thernstrom is a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education. In “No Excuses,” their provocative and timely new book, they conclude that excellent schools have a few simple (and old-fashioned) rules. The best schools are places where the principal is clearly in command, and has the power, among other things, to freely hire and fire staff. Teachers should have a deep knowledge of the subjects they teach. And students should be prepared to work hard in and out of school, and should be doing more homework and watching less TV.

These principles are, of course, not new. But they don’t guide many of our public schools. The Thernstroms are at their best when showing the reasons why most education reforms don’t work. Among them:

• More federal money. The largest federal education program for the poor, Title I, has pumped a great deal of aid to low-income schools since its creation in the 1960s. But even Secretary of Education Rod Paige admits that “after spending $125 billion of Title I money, we have virtually nothing to show for it.” The evidence that the second-largest federal education program, Head Start, helps children learn is weak and inconclusive at best.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Title I money is supposed to be withheld from districts where students are not proficient in learning by 2014. But the act does not define what “proficient” means, leaving plenty of opportunity for administrators to fudge results. Moreover, the Thernstroms argue, an analysis of the records of Texas and North Carolina, two states that served as models for the No Child Left Behind legislation, suggests that the new law’s consequence will be that all student test scores show some improvement. Despite this, the authors predict the student test score gap between blacks, Hispanics and everyone else will not be closed by the No Child Left Behind Act.

• Forced busing. The authors quote school busing experts David J. Armor and Christine Rossell, who wrote in 2001 that “there is not a single example in the published literature of a comprehensive racial balance plan that has improved black achievement or that has reduced the black-white achievement gap significantly.” A comprehensive study conducted by the National Institute of Education in 1984 found that African-American students who were bused did no better in math and very slightly better in reading than did students who remained in their neighborhood schools.

• Reducing class size. In 1996, California launched a $4 billion effort that reduced class sizes in kindergarten through third- grade classes from an average of 29 students in the 1995-1996 school year to 19 by 1999-2000. But many of the 25,000 new elementary school teachers hired under this program were poorly qualified (even by the low standards of schools of education), and most of these bad teachers were sent to inner-city elementary schools. The result: California’s education costs increased by as much as 30 percent, and black and Hispanic students did as poorly on tests as they did before this hugely expensive change was instituted.

The authors found several charter schools that offer inspiring examples of places where blacks and Hispanic children succeed. These include the North Star Academy in New York City and the KIPP (Knowledge is Power) chain. But these schools are relatively rare; KIPP is one of the largest charter school chains with only about 30 schools. The goal of education reformers should be to “make the extraordinary become the usual.” To do that, the Thernstroms contend, school choice programs need to be extended, charter school laws must be liberalized and the power of education unions to prevent sensible reforms must be curtailed.

The reader of the Thernstroms’ forceful book will leave it with a question for the countless ticket punchers who block education reform — the well-paid union leader who spends her days negotiating inordinately complex contracts, the burnt-out teachers who drift along until retirement. Are these bureaucrats willing to allow another generation of black and Hispanic students to fail? Or will teachers, school superintendents and union leaders stop offering excuses and do their part to ensure that all students succeed?

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