How the Other Half Learns | The Nation


How the Other Half Learns

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As might be expected, the Thernstroms celebrate the high levels of effort and achievement that Asian parents expect from their children. By contrast, first- and second-generation Latino patterns often resemble those of immigrant Italians in the early years of the last century, who expected their children to go to work and sometimes reprimanded children who wanted to better their parents in education. The parallels include not merely the relative low achievement of first-generation children of parents, many of whom came from rural cultures, had little education and planned to go back to the old country--and often did--but also the ultimate success of the third and fourth generations.

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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As thirty-six states contemplate privatization measures, public schools are on the defensive.

Like many other conservatives, the Thernstroms dismiss concerns, like those of Harvard's Gary Orfield, about the re-segregation of schools in part because they dispute his numbers and in part because, as they correctly point out, given the nation's rapidly changing demographics and housing patterns, in most places there simply aren't enough whites around to integrate.

In any case, the Thernstroms really don't think integrated schools make that much difference in the achievement of black and Latino students. Nor, echoing conservative economists like Eric Hanushek of Stanford's Hoover Institution, do they believe that either money or smaller classes, the current popular favorites with teachers, parents and politicians, show benefits anywhere commensurate with their costs, both in dollars and in teacher quality. They argue, correctly for the most part, that California's across-the-board class-size-reduction program (to classes of no more than twenty) in grades K-3 has shown few demonstrable benefits. In some cases, because the program required thousands of additional teachers, it put kids, especially poor kids, into classes with instructors of marginal skills and experience, and sometimes with an endless string of substitutes.

What gets the Thernstroms into deep trouble is their notion that money makes no difference at all. They're right that unless it's properly spent, additional money may simply be wasted--and often is. New Jersey's lavishly funded urban districts, which spend as much, or more, per pupil as affluent suburban systems, have shown no distinctive improvement in student achievement. The same is true for the Washington, DC, schools, where even the Democratic mayor now agrees that vouchers ought to be tried.

But when they argue, correctly again, that schools serving minority students have to teach them not just math and reading (and, one hopes, history, science and civics as well) but need, in Huck Finn's words about Aunt Sally, "to adopt...and sivilize" them, and impart to them the cultural values and habits that will make them committed and effective academic competitors, they ask for something that the schools of the past were never judged by. In the first half of the last century, when, it seems, the Thernstroms believe schools were better, they could simply send their academic nonperformers into an economy with plenty of unskilled jobs.

Which is to say that the Thernstroms want schools serving students, many of whom come from families headed by single mothers and/or homes where little or no English is spoken, to undertake two major tasks simultaneously, one cultural, one academic, for the same--and in many cases less--money and with fewer high-quality resources than suburban schools enrolling middle-class white kids. The fact that some schools can do it--often with self-selected students and parents and highly motivated teachers--doesn't mean they all can. Your local piano teacher probably couldn't write Don Giovanni, either.

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