School Climate & Safety

Book Cites Role of Culture In Achievement Gap

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 29, 2003 4 min read
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African-American and Hispanic students’ cultures impede their ability to catch up academically with their Asian-American and white classmates, the authors of a new book contend.

Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom pose with their new book at a Washington meeting.

Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom pose with their new book at a Washington meeting.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

But Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom stress in No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning that those groups’ cultural differences—in values, skills, and attitudes—can be reshaped.

The Thernstroms are adamant that conventional solutions, such as more money and smaller class sizes, won’t solve the problem. The couple believes instead that charter schools and tuition vouchers are necessary to force public education to address the persistent achievement gaps, while giving some African-American and Hispanic children a much-needed escape from failing schools.

Education, they argue, is the key to racial equality.

“More than anything, we wanted to create a sense of outrage,” Abigail Thernstrom said in an interview about the book in Washington last week.

Ms. Thernstrom, 67, is a member of the Massachusetts state board of education and of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Her husband, Stephan Thernstrom, 68, is a Harvard University history professor. Both are senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think tank that supports charter schools and vouchers.

Their book, which was published by Simon & Schuster and released this month, details racial gaps in academic achievement. Based on results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the authors write that by 12th grade, black students are at least four years behind white and Asian students. Hispanic students earn just slightly better scores than their black classmates.

With family income levels, parents’ education, and children’s place of residence accounting for only a third of the achievement gap, the Thernstroms argue that the influence of students’ cultural attitudes is a factor that merits more attention.

Their book is the second this year to explore the influence of attitudes on achievement. In a study of black underachievement in Shaker Heights, Ohio, that was published in January, the late anthropologist John U. Ogbu found that black students avoided the behaviors conducive to getting good grades. (“Meager Effort Said to Fuel Racial Gap,” March 12, 2003.)

Homework and TV

The Thernstroms found that Asian-American students, who consistently outperform all of their peers, do twice as much homework as white students and believe that how well they achieve in school is directly linked to how hard they work.

Conversely, the authors write that African- American students spend less time on homework and more time watching television than their white and Asian classmates do. Black students, they say, also are less prepared to behave in school.

The authors cite a survey that gauged parents’ academic expectations, which found that Asian students were admonished by their families if they received a grade below A-minus. For white students, up to a B-minus was acceptable, while for blacks and Hispanics, the “trouble threshold” was C-minus.

Acknowledging that “you never want to reinforce stereotypes,” Ms. Thernstrom added: “If you close your eyes to what the numbers tell you, then you don’t address the problem.”

The Thernstroms emphasized that they are not questioning the intelligence of African-Americans and Hispanics. The racial gap in academic achievement, they write, is not an “IQ story.”

“If that was my feeling on the issue, then what’s the point?” Mr. Thernstrom said in the interview, referring to trying to close the achievement gap. “It’s not destiny that these kids can’t ever do anything productive.”

The Thernstroms name what they see as “roadblocks” standing in the way of higher achievement: flawed teacher education programs, bureaucratic practices that burden school administrators, and, most of all, teachers’ unions. The authors also don’t believe that the federal No Child Left Behind Act will close the gaps.

Instead, they offer examples of schools that enroll poor and minority students who are succeeding. They argue that those schools, which are mostly charter schools, are committed to fostering a culture that stresses the development of students’ social skills and values. The Thernstroms implore African-American and Hispanic families to change their attitudes toward education. But they believe that teachers must work harder to reshape the social environment of black and Hispanic students.

“It doesn’t matter what [students] hear at home,” Ms. Thernstrom said. “That doesn’t let schools off the hook.”

Pedro Noguera, a visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, said that talking about black culture is “highly problematic” because it overlooks why some schools consistently produce high- achieving African-American students.

Eric J. Cooper, the president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a Washington-based group that focuses on professional development aimed at helping teachers improve urban schools, criticized the Thernstroms’ work as failing to delve deeply enough into what influences students’ behaviors and attitudes.

The causes of the achievement gap revealed by the authors don’t support their “neo-conservative” conclusion promoting the need for more charter schools and vouchers, he added.

“It’s a bit Pollyannaish for the Thernstroms to come up with that answer,” he said.

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