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Lessons in achievement.


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Peter Kirsanow

The just released No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom promises to do for education what Edward Banfield’s Unheavenly City did for social/political science in general: Skewer shibboleths and inject some common sense into the discussion.

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The Thernstrom’s landmark book addresses the various reasons for the enormous gap in academic achievement between black and Hispanic students on the one hand and whites and Asians on the other. (The average black student graduates from high school with the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.) Some of the reasons are complex and sophisticated; others are not. And race/ethnicity is not the issue. Rather, it’s a host of other factors that largely revolve around attitude, culture, school structure and pedagogical approach.

Two of the book’s findings seem to confirm what many would consider no brainers: Kids who spend a lot of time on homework uninterrupted by TV tend to do better than those who don’t; and kids whose parents demand academic excellence generally do better than kids whose parents aren’t as demanding.

While these findings aren’t exactly startling revelations, many in the educational establishment don’t seem to get it. Over the last two generations, enlightened parents and educators have voiced concerns that kids are doing too much homework and are under too much pressure to succeed.

Popular media has eagerly seized upon these concerns. Reports of crushing homework schedules and blinding school stress have been commonplace over the last decade. Educators worry that kids are becoming too regimented, with the pressure to succeed beginning as early as preschool.

The problem is that these reports have little to do with reality. Sure, some overachievers work like crazy. But that’s been the case for generations. Several recent reports reveal that the homework burden has remained virtually flat over the last 50 years.

A RAND study, “A Nation at Rest: The American Way of Homework,” determined that the typical American high-school student spends only about five hours a week on homework. A Brookings Institution review of several studies on the homework levels of the top 20 industrialized countries shows that students in the U.S. rank near the bottom in the amount of homework done on a daily basis.

Some educators, however, are impervious to facts. The trend at many schools is to assign less homework. Some schools go so far as to discourage their teachers from assigning more than “manageable” amounts of homework–which often means that students are homework-free several times per week.

Of course, everyone knows there’s a big difference between how much homework is assigned and how much is actually done. And then there’s the matter of concentration: Even the Gettysburg Address can seem interminable when interrupted by long stretches of Monday Night Football or CSI.

The Thernstroms note that National Assessment of Educational Progress (“NAEP”) data reveal Asian-American students spend more time on homework than black, Hispanic, or white students. Interestingly, the amount of time spent each day on homework by the latter three groups is roughly the same. But, an NAEP study of TV watching habits shows that almost half of black fourth graders spend five hours or more watching TV on a typical school day. Nearly a third of black twelfth graders watch five hours or more of TV a day. That’s five times the proportion among whites and more than twice that for Hispanics. This vast amount of TV watching by black students might explain another finding noted by the Thernstroms: Harvard economist Ronald F. Ferguson’s survey of students in 15 affluent school districts shows that black students “were 20% less likely to complete their homework each night.” Ferguson also reports that nearly half of all black students state that most of the time they don’t understand their reading assignments very well–nearly twice the rate of non-comprehension for white students.

The Thernstroms also cite Laurence Steinberg’s analysis regarding the “trouble threshold”–the lowest grade students can receive before getting in trouble with their parents. For Asian-American students, that point is an A-; for whites, a B-; and for blacks and Hispanics, a C-. It stands to reason that students who get in trouble for getting a B+ will work a bit harder than students who can skate until they bring home a D+. The former are more likely to turn off the TV and concentrate on their studies. They’ll make sure they not only finish their homework, but understand it.

Several commentators have observed that the racial gap in academic achievement is today’s most important “civil-rights” issue. Closing the gap won’t be easy. But it starts with something as simple as turning off the TV and doing your homework.

Peter N. Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.



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