- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

As much as I love to argue, especially in front of a vast national television audience, I had to bow out when a popular cable TV talk show recently asked me to debate author Abigail Thernstrom on the delicate topic of the academic achievement gap between black and white students.

Mrs. Thernstrom, a liberal supporter of the civil rights movement for most of her life, has become a leading neo-conservative voice on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission since her appointment by President Bush.

Her latest book, co-authored with her husband Stephan Thernstrom, “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning” (Simon & Schuster), argues that black and Hispanic students do not perform as well as white and Asian students because their parents do not push the value of education on their children as much.

The program’s booker was looking for someone to argue against that position.

“I can’t do that,” I told the booker. “I agree with her position, although I’m sure my 14-year-old son would have another view.”

There was a brief moment of silence on the other end of the line. I felt my shot at the national limelight evaporate, and they were not interested in booking my son. That’s show biz.

The program needed an argument — Sparks. Fire. Invective. — not a discussion. Yet, ironically, reasoned and candid discussion is precisely what the persistent racial achievement gap needs.

One of the most disturbing disappointments in the years since the 1960s civil rights revolution is that the black-white academic performance gap (as much as four years by the time they graduate high school) persists, even among children of the new black middle class.

For that reason, whether I agree with everything the Thernstroms have to say or not (and I have disagreed with them regarding the merits of affirmative action), I appreciate their contribution to an issue that has, by no means, been overdiscussed. In fact, if we could solve the racial academic achievement gap, our need for affirmative action would evaporate with it.

Yet, whites are not the top performing group. As the Thernstroms point out, the gap between white and Asian-American student performance is actually wider than the gap between blacks and whites, with Hispanics performing about as poorly as blacks.

Among the most intriguing possible reasons for this disparity is a difference in the way students measure their family’s “trouble threshold,” according to one study that the Thernstroms cite. The “trouble threshold” is the lowest grade students think they can receive before their parents go volcanic with anger and start clamping down on TV time and other privileges.

In the survey by Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University social scientist, published in his 1996 book, “Beyond the Classroom,” most of the black and Hispanic students surveyed said they could avoid trouble at home so long as their grades stayed above C-minus.

Most of the whites, by contrast, said their parents would give them a hard time if their children came home with anything less than a B-minus.

Most of the Asian students, whether immigrant or native-born, said their parents would be upset if they brought home anything less than an A-minus.

Unlike most non-Asian parents, who tended to think of academic success in terms of innate ability, good fortune, teacher bias or other matters “outside their personal control,” Mr. Steinberg found Asian parents tended to believe academic performance depended entirely on how hard they worked.

Is that standard too harsh? I don’t think so, despite the contrary view of certain teenagers I know. Instead, I am startled by another study that the Thernstroms’ cite, which found that nearly a third of black 12th graders spent five or more hours in front of TV sets — on school nights. Some called it their “social homework.” Whatever they may call it, their TV viewership was 5 times that of whites and more than twice that of Latinos.

Another study found the average white kindergartner had 93 books at home, twice the average in their black classmates’ homes. The result, as Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson found a few years ago, is that almost half of the black middle and high school pupils in 15 affluent school districts said they “completely” understood the teacher’s lesson only “half the time or less” — almost twice the figure for whites.

“Black folks don’t want white folks coming into their communities and saying, ‘You ought to be more like us,’ ” said Mr. Ferguson, who is black. Yet, he insists, the point needs to be confronted.

He’s right. Before we lose another generation, we need to have higher expectations for our children and their schools. No excuses.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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