Politics & Policy

The Anti-Excusers

No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $26)

Odd that Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom should be considered big conservatives today. Mrs. Thernstrom spent the first part of her career as an earnest liberal, a civil-rightsy liberal. Mr. Thernstrom is a history professor at Harvard, and a winner of the Bancroft prize (the number-one award in the writing of American history). I don’t mean to shock you, but they usually don’t give the Bancroft prize to conservatives. And, indeed, the book for which Mr. Thernstrom won–The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis (1973)–is not exactly a conservative tract.

When I was a student under Mr. Thernstrom in the 1980s, I did not detect a rumbling conservatism. I recall that he said to me one day, “I see that you’re interested in conservatism, Jay–have you tried talking to Ed Banfield?” (meaning, the great political scientist who wrote The Unheavenly City). But Professor Thernstrom was a fair and broad-minded historian and teacher, and he did assign one book by Thomas Sowell. He knew that his students should be familiar with that extraordinary man’s work.

It is, to me, the most touching thing about the Thernstroms’ current book–No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning–that it is dedicated to Sowell: “for his pioneering scholarship and unflagging courage.” It is a perfect dedication, in its wording and in its matching of book to dedicatee.

So, did the Thernstroms move right, or did American politics–particularly the Left–just go sort of crazy on them? Probably some of each. Reagan loved to tell audiences, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party–the Democratic party left me.” That was a little too pat, but there was some truth to it. Both Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom took hard looks at the country as it stood in the ’80s and ’90s and found themselves roughly in the conservative camp.

And I make my usual point that it takes amazingly little to qualify as “conservative” these days. This couple has clung to their old values, in particular their love of E pluribus unum and their hatred of racial inequality. Their passion in this direction is probably more intense than ever. But their analyses and arguments are deeply offensive to the Left as it has developed, and they have therefore been made pariahs by their old crowd.

No Excuses is a follow-on to their monumental America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1997). In it, they explore the awful but critical question of why “non-Asian minorities”–that is to say, blacks and Hispanics, though particularly blacks–lag so far behind others in learning. It is their conviction that “the racial gap in academic achievement is an educational crisis,” and also “the main source of ongoing racial inequality”–which is “America’s great unfinished business.” They say that “for too long,” this gap has been treated as “a dirty secret-something to whisper about behind closed doors. As if it were racist to say we have a problem.”

How bad is it? Extremely bad. By the time senior year in high-school rolls around, black kids “are typically four years behind white and Asian students, while Hispanics are doing only a tad better.” In other words, “these students are finishing high school with a junior high education.”

Oh, they’re receiving a high-school diploma, all right, and they’re enrolling in college-in very large numbers. But because they are ill prepared, a comedown awaits: the misery of failure, resentment, and stunted life opportunities. And the Thernstroms make clear that time alone will not heal this national condition: The racial gap in education has worsened severely over the last decade and a half. Politicians, voters, educators, and parents–and students themselves- will have to make a decision to do better.

The Thernstroms maintain that nothing works like standards, testing, and accountability (which happen to compose a mantra for President George W. Bush). The couple takes on the enemies of testing, who include the education writer for the New York Times who sniffed, “There is no standardized test for tolerance” (“tolerance” being a holy grail in the modern education biz, along with “diversity”). Yes, but there are standardized tests for reading and math, without which life can be intolerable.

Not wishing to paint a picture of total bleakness, the authors devote a section to “Great Teaching”–to schools that should be models for others. All of them involve more instruction, more parental cooperation (or at least non-obstruction), less nonsense. Also, these schools are more orderly-saner even in a physical way. They present an atmosphere conducive to learning. Trash is picked up, graffiti are effaced, and students dress decently. The famous “broken windows” theory applies in education, as elsewhere. Kids are made to look others in the eye, to say “please” and “thank you,” and to be on time. They are required to behave in ways that used to be unremarkable.

Moreover, schools that work-”break-the-mold” schools-teach a real curriculum. They don’t indulge misspelling, they don’t go in for “rain-forest math” (!), they don’t read the Founders–and Lincoln–out of American history. They actually expect students to acquire genuine knowledge, which is viewed by many educators as radical and fanciful.

The Thernstroms devote a chapter to Asians, those great American achievers, “minorities” though they are. They have no secret-”ancient Chinese” or not: They–the parents–simply require their children to work and study hard, with no excuses, and, miraculously, they do. Asians-who constitute 4 percent of American students–constitute about a quarter of the freshman classes at MIT and Stanford, and who knows how much higher that percentage would be if not for hidden, though widely and reasonably assumed, quotas?

We absorb an interesting point about Hispanics: that whatever gains they might make are overwhelmed by the constant flood of Latin American immigration. Hispanics as a group–if you will forgive the group-think–are constantly having to start afresh, so to speak. And unlike Asians, they are often trapped in linguistic ghettos, where they can get by (if only barely) without knowing English.

But it is the story of black Americans that is the most heartbreaking and maddening. Many people, when they look at the numbers-the numbers that reveal this yawning racial gap–want to “run for more comfortable ground”: to economic explanations, to geographic explanations, to class-size claptrap, and so on. None of it works; none of it is right. Black students are lagging far behind whether they’re rich or poor, whether they live in the suburbs or in a city, whether their parents are educated or not. What would help is an end to excuse-making and a renaissance in expectations.

The authors explode the superstition–and the wish-that more money for education is an answer. Billions have been lavished on schools, with no results. Class size is another shibboleth: First, small class sizes do not increase learning, and, second, class sizes have become quite small anyway. More integration? The Thernstroms decline to believe that “a black child must sit next to an Asian classmate in order to learn arithmetic.” What counts in a school “is not the racial mix, but the academic culture.” Interestingly, some activists claim that a) black kids must have black teachers, because others can’t be “role models” for them, and b) they must have white classmates. All of it is phony.

The Thernstroms hold out some hope for the Bush-driven act known as “No Child Left Behind”–at least it will demand accountability for the expenditure of federal money. But there are mammoth “Roadblocks to Change” (the title of their final chapter). It will surprise no reader of National Review that the biggest roadblock of all is the teacher unions. No matter how dim your view of these unions is, it will get dimmer after reading this book. Also, the picture–the picture of why we have had persistent failure–will get clearer.

Starkly put, “the job of unions is to protect the interests of teachers,” and “the job of schools is to protect the interests of students.” It is hard–discouragingly hard–to please unions while serving students. And these unions are scared to death of even the tiny number of charter schools in the midst of all the regular public schools. It is rather like a non-tyrannical Iraq in the Middle East–just one counter-example, and everyone else says, “Uh-oh.”

The Thernstroms have written an important, bracing, and deeply conscientious book. It is a combination of cool scholarship and passionate caring. One word we read over and over again is “appalling”: This statistic is “appalling,” and that rationalization is “appalling.” With unrelenting data, they prove what your intuition and common sense tell you; they confirm that what you know in your bones is true.

Their old friends may despise them, but the rest of us–the nation at large–should be grateful. If this pair has “moved right,” it is perhaps because they recognize that the old barriers to progress have been removed, and that there are now “no excuses.” Lester Maddox doesn’t live here anymore; time to get rollin’. They administer reality checks to liberals–and to everyone else–purveying the facts, weighing the options, and pointing out the way. They write, “A decent society does not turn a blind eye” to gross educational inequality. That conviction shouldn’t qualify as “conservative,” but given the furious resistance to reform from the other side–you wonder.


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