Race and Education: An Exclusive Interview with Abigail Thernstrom

Published October 1, 2003

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which allows an applicant’s race to be considered as a factor in college admission decisions, raises profound policy questions about American K-12 education: What causes the racial gap in academic achievement? Can it be closed, or will black, Hispanic, and Native American students–on average–always score lower than their white and Asian counterparts?

Those are questions Manhattan Institute scholar Abigail Thernstrom was inevitably led to during her work over the past two decades on race and racial inequality in American society. She and her husband, Harvard University historian Stephan Thernstrom, are coauthors of a timely new book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (Simon & Schuster, October 2003). Their earlier book, Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, 1997), was named one of the notable books of 1997 by the New York Times Book Review.

A decade earlier, Ms. Thernstrom’s book, Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights (Harvard University Press, 1987), was named the best policy studies book of the year by the Policy Studies Organization, an affiliate of the American Political Science Association. The book garnered four other awards, including the American Bar Association’s Certificate of Merit and the Anisfield-Wolf prize for the best book on race and ethnicity.

A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, Thernstrom also is a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and a commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. She serves on several boards, including the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Institute for Justice. She received her Ph.D. in 1975 from the Department of Government at Harvard University.

Thernstrom was one of three authors chosen by President Bill Clinton to participate in his first Town Meeting on race in Akron, Ohio, on December 3, 1997, and she was part of a small group that met with Clinton again in the Oval Office on December 19. She has appeared frequently on Fox News Sunday, Good Morning America, and This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Thernstrom’s work appears regularly in a variety of journals and newspapers, including The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Public Interest. She recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become interested in education reform?

Thernstrom: I’m a political scientist by training, and American constitutional law is my field, but I quickly moved into writing almost exclusively on issues connected to race and ethnicity. Going down that road inevitably led me to the question of education and the disparate performance of different racial and ethnic groups. I also wrote a little book called School Choice in Massachusetts, which brought me to the attention of Governor Weld, and he appointed me to the state Board of Education here in Massachusetts.

Clowes: The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger centered on affirmative action. How did the Court resolve the issue?

Thernstrom: The issue in both cases was racial preferences in higher education. Gratz involved undergraduates at the University of Michigan. The question in Grutter was the University’s law school admissions.

In the admission process for undergraduates, the college was actually assigning points for the color of the applicant’s skin. On a 150-point scale, a student automatically got 20 points if he or she was black, Hispanic, or Native American. Asians did not count for the purpose of preferences, even though they’re a racial group that historically suffered from severe discrimination.

The law school had a more deliberative, individualistic process–in theory. In fact, a former admissions officer acknowledged, as the process wore on, the admissions office looked daily at how the number of black students stacked up–whether the school was getting what it regarded as a “critical mass.” If it wasn’t, the criteria for admission were adjusted.

And thus the two admissions processes were not very different. The law school engaged in a race-driven process that was a little more camouflaged than that of the undergraduate college, but, as Justice Scalia suggested, both so zealously pursued the aim of creating a “critical mass” as to erase the distinction between a quota and a permissible goal.

In Gratz, the Supreme Court ruled that actually assigning 20 points for skin color was a bit over the line, and the plaintiffs prevailed. But in Grutter, the Court found the Law School’s allegedly more “individualistic,” more “holistic” system constitutionally acceptable, and Grutter is the important decision. Gratz is not consequential. Every selective school in the country can hide its effort to meet de facto quotas by claiming to look at each applicant’s individual strengths and weaknesses, while in fact making race or ethnicity the determinative factor in its ultimate decision to accept or reject a student.

And indeed, the new University of Michigan undergraduate application both asks students to identify their race or ethnicity and to write an essay on diversity. The college has clearly found a way to maintain its racial and ethnic quotas without its old point system. Every student has to demonstrate his or her commitment to “diversity,” whatever that means. It’s a political test for admissions, and a way of identifying all black and Latino applicants for the purpose of race-driven admissions.

The High Court, in these two decisions, broke new constitutional ground in declaring diversity to be a “compelling state interest.” And in doing so, it has given a green light to racial double standards–to different criteria depending on the racial identity of the applicant. It is now constitutionally permissible to admit some students on the basis of their race, which means that others will be rejected for the same reason, as Michael Kinsley has argued in a splendid Washington Post op-ed. The admission of a student is a yes or no question, and the racial identity of a student either changes the result or doesn’t. The whole point of identifying non-Asian minority applicants is to ensure a certain racial mix in the student body.

Clowes: Didn’t the university admission standards include a cut-off for the minimum level of academic proficiency required to be able to do law school work?

Thernstrom: Neither the college nor the law school admitted students who had no hope of surviving, and thus they settled for less than racial and ethnic representation in proportion to the overall population numbers. Proportionality–by the standard of national population figures–would have meant admitting a student body that was 12 percent black, but the university could not find a sufficient number of academically qualified African-American students to meet that goal. The pool of high-performing black students is tragically too small–which is the real civil rights crisis of our day.

But in its determined search for non-Asian minority students who could survive, it admitted blacks and Hispanics by very different academic criteria than those which whites and Asians had to meet. And thus, 83 percent of black and Hispanic students applying to the law school whose grades and LSAT scores put them into the 30th percentile of all applicants were admitted, while the school took only 1 percent of the whites and Asians who fell in that percentile rank. That’s called racial double standards.

Clowes: Doesn’t the 14th Amendment have something to say about this?

Thernstrom: These were both 14th Amendment cases. The 14th Amendment provides equal protection of the laws. Racial classifications are “constitutionally suspect.” Properly so, I might add.

The Court has always distinguished racial classifications from those based on any other characteristic–age, gender, and so forth–because of the nation’s long and ugly history of distributing burdens and benefits on the basis of the color of an individual’s skin. All racial sorting, the Court has held, has to be narrowly tailored for a compelling state interest. That has been a tough test to meet. The amorphous, undefined “interest” in diversity was never held to be “compelling.”

Twenty-five years ago, in The University of California v. Bakke, involving racial preferences in medical school admissions, Justice Powell was alone in finding diversity to be a compelling state interest. Now, however, Powell’s view is that of a majority of five on the Court. Justice O’Connor said she hoped racial preferences wouldn’t be necessary in 25 years, but preferences are likely to be an entitlement by then. And what will be the test of sufficient “diversity”? How will we know when that undefined goal will have been reached?

Clowes: So the Grutter decision didn’t really address the issue of how well different racial groups are prepared for college work?

Thernstrom: No, it papers over it. The ruling implies that, without racial preferences, blacks and Hispanics will sink because they just can’t meet white and Asian standards. American educators constantly and rightly bemoan the low academic expectations that many K-12 schools have for non-Asian minority children, but this Supreme Court ruling, in effect, sanctions those low expectations and writes them into 14th Amendment law.

A typical black student in 12th grade is reading at an 8th-grade level, and Hispanics don’t do much better. In most subjects, the majority of black students by the end of high school do not have even a “partial mastery” of the skills and knowledge that the National Assessment of Educational Progress–called NAEP–says are “fundamental for proficient work.”

In math, only 0.2 percent of black 12th-graders score at the advanced level, which is NAEP’s highest achievement rank. The figure for whites is 11 times higher, and for Asians it’s 37 times higher. Hispanic scores are not significantly different from those of blacks.

About the same percentage of blacks and whites go on to college–approximately two-thirds–but they’re not equally prepared. Many blacks enter with extremely weak academic records and a high percentage end up taking remedial classes. Only one in six blacks actually finishes college, compared to about one in three whites.

Clowes: What do we need to do to improve the academic proficiency of non-Asian minority students?

Thernstrom: Teach the kids! This is not–I cannot emphasize too strongly–an IQ problem. Over the past two decades, we’ve had a lot of programs and we’ve thrown a lot of money at the problem, but the solutions have been woefully inadequate. The picture is changing for the better–states are setting standards and requiring students to pass high school exit exams, and the No Child Left Behind Act requires testing in grades 3-8, with the scores broken down by race, ethnicity, and other factors. Districts with a high number of academically skilled students who are white and Asian will no longer be able to hide the racial gap in academic achievement behind the overall averages.

We need to set high academic standards and high behavioral standards in all our schools. We need order and civility in the classroom so that teachers can teach. We need teachers who really know math and know how to teach it. The list of needed reforms is long.

Everyone agrees that we must have better teachers, but we won’t get them unless we restructure the nature of the job and the salary scale. Schools must be able to pay differential salaries depending on the job teachers do and the quality of their work, as most sectors of the economy do. There needs to be a professional ladder so that ambitious teachers who do not want to go into administration aren’t doing precisely the same thing at age 60 that they were doing at age 25.

We are not going to get better teachers until we really change the job. Who’s becoming a teacher these days? With very few exceptions, it’s not the academically skilled students. For example, if you were to do a survey of Harvard graduates, you would find that hardly any of them of them choose to become teachers.

Parents must have more of a say in the school their children attend. Quality schools are usually ones in which both teachers and students want to be there. In addition, one definition of belonging to the middle class is the ability to pick a school for your children–either by choosing a place of residence or paying tuition. As a matter of basic equity, that should be an entitlement of low-income parents, too.

No middle-class parent would ever stand for getting a computer printout from the school district, saying her three children were being assigned to three different schools across the city somewhere, none of which she would have chosen, given a chance to do so.

Within the limits of space available, parents should decide where their children go to school. Their options should include public schools, charter schools, parochial, and private schools. Some of the best schools in the country operate under charters and are free of the collective bargaining agreements that prevent, for instance, differential salaries for teachers.

Clowes: Some say the achievement gap comes from urban school systems not spending as much money on the education of non-Asian minorities as suburban school systems spend on white and Asian children.

Thernstrom: That’s factually incorrect. Overwhelmingly minority districts do not have significantly less money than heavily white suburban ones. And the modest difference cannot explain the racial gap in achievement.

Money can be used well, but money per se does not ensure quality education. Cambridge, Massachusetts, spends $17,000 per pupil every year and yet has low student performance and a wide racial gap in achievement. In 1985 a district court ordered Kansas City, Missouri, to pour money into schools; 15 years and $2 billion later, test scores were just as dismal as ever.

Clowes: What about the complaint that the problem comes from having white teachers teaching black students?

Thernstrom: There’s no evidence that black students do better with black teachers. If that were so, in districts where there’s a high concentration of black teachers–such as Atlanta and Washington, DC–there would be better test results. In fact, the NAEP test results for the District of Columbia are among the very worst in the country.

There’s no reason to assume this kind of color-coding should be important. Good teachers are good teachers, no matter what color they are. That should be very welcome news because it will be difficult to increase dramatically the number of academically skilled, high-performing black students who choose teaching as a career. Those students have so many other doors of opportunity open to them. They can go into law, medicine, or business–professions that are prestigious and pay much more than teaching. Relatively few black youngsters come from families with a great deal of accumulated wealth; many are first-generation middle class, and they will head to the jobs that are less frustrating and well-paid.