Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have long been pillars of highbrow conservatism in America. Their massive, optimistic 1997 book, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, was an extended defense of laissez-faire progress in US race relations; an attack on liberals and civil rights activists who, in their view, vastly exaggerate the effects of the nation’s residual racism; and a repudiation of affirmative action or, indeed, any other legal effort, other than laws against discrimination, to further racial equality.
In its philosophical posture, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning is obviously intended as an extension of the earlier book. But in broad respects, it’s more a refutation than an extension. In their recognition of the continuing and widely documented differences in school achievement between African-American and Latino children, on the one hand, and white and Asian kids, on the other, the Thernstroms try to address an issue that has defied not only the kind of public policies and programs that they like to disparage but the evolutionary, untouched-by-human-hands progress that is at the core of their argument in the earlier book.
As their title implies, the Thernstroms–she’s a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; he’s a historian at Harvard–believe the gap can be closed. They cite the achievement of one Los Angeles teacher and of a handful of schools–all charter schools, one in Newark, another in the Bronx, a third in Boston–that, in their telling, have produced remarkable results with low-income black and Latino students. What those schools have in common, they argue, is a determination to teach not only the academic skills that are the conventional measures of educational success but the cultural values–hard work, persistence, courtesy, appropriate dress, etc.–that middle-class whites tend to take for granted. Those “great schools alter the cultural patterns that inhibit academic accomplishment.”
The Thernstroms recognize that these are special schools. The vast majority of public schools, they say, fail their disadvantaged students. But the essence of the disadvantage, they contend, has little to do with poverty or even economic class: The children of middle-class black professionals in affluent suburbs like Shaker Heights, Ohio, trail their white classmates by almost the same margins as black students trail whites nationally. The black-white gap in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is actually larger among children of college graduates than it is in the population as a whole. The black-white gap for twelfth-grade children of high school dropouts is still three years. Nor, for similar reasons, they contend–challenging Jonathan Kozol’s claims in his much-quoted book Savage Inequalities–does the gap have much to do with school funding, class size or such conventional criteria as credentials or advanced degrees as indicators of teacher quality. As they and many others point out, some of the nation’s highest-spending schools and districts perform no better, and sometimes worse, than lower-spending districts.
The real problem, they suggest, lies in some combination of school inertia, failure to insist on high standards and the learning-resistant cultures, inherited from “a long history of racial oppression,” that students come from. If this book had a mantra, it would be “culture matters.”