An Uncomfortable Analysis of the Racial Learning Gap

Published December 1, 2003

In their new book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (Simon & Schuster, October 2003; 352 pages, $26.00; ISBN: 0743204468), Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom confront the bleak reality that black and Latino students continue to trail far behind their white peers in American schools, despite decades of effort and resources directed at reducing that achievement gap.

For those in the education field in particular, this isn’t news, but the Thernstroms’ determination to sort methodically through possible explanations and uncover root causes—no matter how discouraging, uncomfortable, or controversial they may be—is what makes this book a compelling read for anyone concerned with one of the great shames of American education.

“Ignorance is often comfortable ground on which to stand,” the authors assert, “… yet this is a problem that requires the sort of radical reform that only discomfort and anger will inspire.”

Gap Cannot Be Denied

The Thernstroms first lay out the evidence, primarily provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), to show there is no facile way to dismiss the achievement gap: From any angle, black and Latino students are performing at significantly lower levels than their white and Asian peers.

Oft-cited reasons like family income, parental education levels, inequitable school funding, and teacher bias provide some explanation, they argue, but do not begin to explain away the appalling size of the gap nor its seeming intractability during decades of significant social change—including the leveling of many playing fields and upward mobility for blacks in particular—and direct attention paid to the problem, as exemplified by the federal Head Start and Title I programs.

And why is it, the Thernstroms wonder, that Asian minority students are not also trailing white majority students, but indeed are creating an achievement gap stretching in the other direction as their test scores, graduation rates, and entry levels at the nation’s most prestigious colleges rocket ahead of whites? They wonder, “How can that be in an allegedly racist society?”

Importance of Culture

Their answer will make some readers uncomfortable even if it rings true at some visceral level: culture.

“Some group cultures are more academically advantageous than others,” they state.

The Thernstroms contend the Asian-American culture is particularly advantageous, with “Asian parents typically [expecting] their children to work extraordinarily hard in school—and the children do …” They point out Asian-American students spend more time on homework and much less watching television, playing sports, or working in part-time jobs than their peers.

In a study by Laurence Steinberg that is cited in No Excuses, students were asked what was the lowest grade they thought they could receive without their parents getting angry. Asian-American students said, “A-,” white students replied, “B-,” and black and Latino students said “C-.”

In addition to the different parental expectations those answers indicate, the authors contend a variety of other cultural factors keep Latino and black student academic achievement levels down, although the mix is certainly different in each case.

For example, Latinos’ achievement levels as a group reflect not just the constant addition of new immigrant children to the mix, but also reluctance to embrace the English language and even the United States as home. The Thernstroms refer to an “unusually strong attachment of Hispanics to the language of their original homeland” and suggest “they seem to be much more ambivalent than European or Asian immigrants about making a permanent commitment to living in the United States, and are thus more resistant to assimilation.”

For black students, factors discussed include some that are already identified and well-known—like the preponderance of single-parent households and young mothers—as well as some suppositions about parenting practices that are not entirely convincing.

The “astonishing amount of time” black children spend watching television seems to be the primary factor newly unearthed and presented as playing a significant role in black student underachievement. Yet, the Thernstroms also admit television watching “is ubiquitous among American children whatever their race.”

Intriguing, But Unsatisfying

Having taken the dive into such perilous waters, trying to define the cultural behaviors or norms that result in poor student performance, the Thernstroms offer conclusions regarding black students, as well as Latino students, that are intriguing but unsatisfying to this reader. Also unconvincing is the summary dismissal of racism in the classroom—teachers having different expectations for children of different races—or even in the world at large as a possible factor.

Perhaps the answers are impossible to quantify through research. As Donald Hense, founder of Friendship-Edison, the largest charter school in Washington, DC, points out, black children live not only in the wake of the culture their elders carry with them, but also in an American culture that sends many clear messages directly to them.

“Many of our kids have experienced disappointment in ways that you cannot imagine,” says Hense, “so much so that they don’t expect to see the finish line. When the first obstacle appears, they quit.”

The Thernstroms never suggest culture is educational destiny. In fact, they clearly and firmly oppose that conclusion. But they do point out that, if culture does play an enormous role in determining how entire groups of Americans perform in the education arena, as they believe, the fundamental change needed to solve the problem is “much more radical than that contemplated by the most visionary of today’s public school officials.”

This has both the resonance of truth and a ring of prescience. But addressing the daunting challenges that No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning puts forth may require more profound remedies than those supported in the book—better standards and tests, improved teacher quality, and more school choice—which are now almost conventional tools. It is a challenge to the authors, and all of us, to keep digging.

Kelly Amis Stewart is an education consultant and coauthor of Making it Count: A Guide to High-Impact Education Philanthropy with Chester E. Finn, Jr. Her email address is [email protected].