School Climate & Safety

Book Cites Role of Culture In Achievement Gap

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 29, 2003 4 min read

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Opinion The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?
Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system.
Judith Browne Dianis
4 min read
Image of lights on police cruiser
Getty
School Climate & Safety Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

School Climate & Safety Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
4 min read
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP
School Climate & Safety Interactive Which Districts Have Cut School Policing Programs?
Which districts have taken steps to reduce their school policing programs or eliminate SRO positions? And what do those districts' demographics look like? Find out with Education Week's new interactive database.
A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )