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How the Other Half Learns | The Nation

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How the Other Half Learns

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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.

About the Author

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.

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."

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.

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.

Because No Excuses often seems more like a disjointed series of sections--on the successful schools, on the academic problems and achievements of various ethnic groups, on money, on the effects or non-effects of racial isolation, on the elusive question of teacher quality, on standards and accountability--the Thernstroms never confront their logical difficulties, and while they seem to have visited the handful of schools they cite as models, they seem only barely cognizant of the problems of other schools and children.

Similarly, the Thernstroms' tone of sweet reasonableness conceals their lack of nuance. It's true that one-size-fits-all class-size-reduction programs like the hastily conceived one in California (it was designed by then-Governor Pete Wilson to punish the teachers union) have had no appreciable impact. But in experiments like Wisconsin's Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE)--where smaller classes are targeted to at-risk students, teachers are trained to take advantage of them and students get extra training before and after school, precisely the kind of things the Thernstroms admire in their charter schools--achievement is going up.

The Thernstroms reiterate familiar arguments, often true, about the ineffectiveness of many conventional teacher training and credentialing programs, and about the bureaucratic barriers to people who don't fit the conventional mold. But they don't provide even a clue about how to attract the hundreds of thousands of able, dedicated teachers--the "imaginative, ambitious, competitive innovators" they like so much--to the high-poverty schools that so desperately need them.

Nor do they understand that if the barriers are bureaucratic, they're often created in response to strong community and political pressure. Most places want safe teachers who don't mess too much with secular humanism, witch tales and evolution, or ask too many searching questions. And despite all the talk about high standards, most parents are confident their kids do fine and don't want them treated too harshly by demanding schoolmasters, preferring schools that retain traditional anti-intellectualism and regard jocks at least as highly as brains.

The policy solutions the authors still seem to love best are "choice" and vouchers, but other than declaring that they're a matter of "basic equity," giving low-income children some of the same options that the affluent already have, the Thernstroms don't grapple with any of the tougher fiscal, regulatory and political questions they entail. The academic race gap, as they say, is "the most important civil rights issue of our time," but it's inconceivable that it will be closed without the commitment--in teachers, facilities, materials, health, counseling and preschool programs--that this so-far-intractable challenge requires.

Ever since the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, conservatives have tried to persuade Americans that there is no major social problem that the schools can't fix. And maybe they can indeed do it--in part by broadening their mission to include the cultural agenda the Thernstroms focus on. But that, in effect, is to take on social tasks that in most other countries begin long before a child starts school and extend far beyond it. To suggest that schools don't need more resources for that is absurd.

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