The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely re-arranging their prejudices."...  ...William James.

Commentary of the Day - November 11, 2003:  Harsh Advice.  Guest commentary by Conrad Geller.

Education has always been the core of the American Experiment.  Schools, we are confident, are the engines that drive our famous upward mobility, the keys to realizing our dream of equality, perhaps even the balm for all our social ills.  That education hasn't benefited everyone equally, especially not black Americans, is a shameful reality that has too often been only glancingly acknowledged.

No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom (Simon & Schuster, 2003), looks squarely at the problem, reviews the dismal record of accomplishment in this area, and proposes solutions.  Unfortunately, the wisdom of the solutions doesn't match the meticulous scholarship of the exposition.

Black students, urban, rural, even those from the affluent suburbs, continue to lag behind their white peers in all academic areas as measured by standard test like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  These discrepancies don't seem to have been lessened by massive programs like Title I, which since 1965 has allocated billions in an effort to upgrade urban education, nor by smaller classes, new facilities, or upgraded technology.

For example, in the most recent assessments for twelfth graders, between 1998 and 2001, black students scored "Below Basic" at two to three times the rate for whites in all areas: reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, civics, and geography.  Hispanics failed at about the rate for blacks, while Asians' scores were comparable to that of whites, and actually better in math.

The Thernstroms, whose earlier America in Black and White broke somewhat the same ground, reject offhand the notion that innate differences between the races explain any part of the difference in academic performance.  Instead, they focus on some schools that seem to have succeeded.

It is culture and expectations, they find, that account for both the gap in the general population and for the accomplishments of the few schools cited.  Parental attitudes are crucial; as one Asian parent remarked, "Parents who say, " 'Obey your teachers,' 'Do your schoolwork,' 'Keep trying harder," and kids who actually follow parental orders: what an advantage when it comes to academic achievement!"  One significant measure of the way parental involvement affects student achievement,  the authors discovered, was the "trouble threshold" -- the grade below which the student reported that he would "get in trouble" with his parents.  That threshold was found to be, on average, C- for blacks, B- for whites, and A- for Asians.
In sum, the authors concluded that  ". . . it was a student's family -- parental education, occupation, income, and race -- that made the real difference.  Compared to these huge influences, none of the school-related variables counted for very much."

By way of contrast with what they see as the general mediocrity of American schools, the authors chose several schools, all supported by public money -- some charter schools, the so-called KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) academies in the South Bronx and elsewhere, and one isolated classroom with an unusual teacher, Rafe Esquith, who teaches fifth grade in an otherwise undistinguished central Los Angeles public school.

These exemplary islands of excellence, for their part, maintained a school culture that didn't tolerate disruptive classroom behavior, demanded preparation, and created an expectation of success.  In all of them, parents and children must agree to the rules, as well as learn the expectations.  Once enrolled, the students are indoctrinated vigorously into academic values, sometimes, Mao-like, chanting the school's slogans in unison.  Finally, perhaps most important, they can always leave if they can't or won't comply.  As one administrator told incoming students, "See that back door?  See any locks on it?  Is this a prison?  Am I forcing you to be here? . . . If you cannot live by our rules, if you cannot adapt to this place, I can show you the back door."

The title of the book, in fact, and to a large extent its theme, come from this attitude of demanding attention and hard work from students: No excuses, no second chances.  The authors say, finally, "Schools cannot do their job unless students get to school on time, attend classes faithfully, work hard, finish their homework, pay attention to their teachers and honor the rules governing civility and decorum."

So far, so good.  But In the last chapters, unfortunately, when the authors make suggestions for change, they reveal biases that make their solutions less than helpful.  Abigail Thernstrom is a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, and so she seems to have an understandable bent toward believing that good administrators, free to fire teachers at will, can fix everything.  In this vein they see teacher unions, along with tenure laws and a lack of merit pay, as a big part of the problem, impeding reform.  Too often they find the virtue of charter schools not in their ability to attract interested students and parents, not in their no-nonsense approach to learning,  but in their freedom from union contracts. They ignore, for example, such counter-examples as the Boston Latin School, a thoroughly unionized part of the Boston Public School System, that in response to court-ordered integration has performed magnificently in bringing its black students up to its very high academic standards.

This book, in any case, is well worth the time of anyone interested in bringing out the academic best in all students, even if the reader doesn't believe, as they authors seem to, that teachers without contracts will lead to students without boundaries.

©2003 Conrad Geller
Conrad Geller taught high school English for more than 40 years.  His writing on education and other subjects has included numerous book, drama, and film reviews.

The IP comments:  Much of what the Thernstroms have to say about the cultural factors that affect student performance makes sense.  However, as Conrad correctly observes, their proposed solutions reflect their preconceived biases.  Both Thernstroms are senior fellows of The Manhattan Institute, which is a well-known conservative "think tank" whose board of trustees reads like a who's who of New York financial interests.  Unlike some other conservative think tanks, there is nothing shoddy about the scholarship that goes into the book projects (such as No Excuses) that the Manhattan Institute supports.  However, one of the IP's close friends always reminds him to "follow the money".  And, the solutions proposed by the Thernstroms to the ethnic gaps in student performance sound too much like the Manhattan Institute "party line" to qualify as objective scholarship.  With that in mind, read the book anyway.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.