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NCLB Outrages

"No Excuses" by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom

NO EXCUSES: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom; Simon & Schuster, $26.
The Thernstroms of Massachusetts are brave people who dare to tackle incendiary questions about the role of race in American life, as they did with regard to affirmative action in America in Black and White.
When they contend in their new book, No Excuses, that too many black and Hispanic children come from cultures that insufficiently value academic learning (and that thereby contribute to those children being four years behind their white peers by Grade 12), they risk being misunderstood and branded as bigots. When they dismiss as ineffective such favorite cure-alls as increased spending, reduced class size, and advanced degrees for teachers, they step on the toes of powerful advocates, especially the national teacher unions.

The authors believe the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which brought together in its creation such improbable allies as President Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy, is remarkable in putting the racial gap in learning - for so long a taboo subject - at the very top of the nation's education agenda. Although they are supportive of NCLB accountability (and are even more bullish on the power of tough state standards, such as those in Massachusetts and Virginia), the Thernstroms are not blind to the law's weaknesses. For instance, NCLB requires "proficiency" of all students, but fails to define it.

BY BEING vague at the outset, NCLB invites eventual dumbing down. However, NCLB at least demands results in exchange for billions spent. As the Thernstroms show in considerable detail, previous incarnations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, beginning with LBJ's Great Society in 1965, required little more of schools than subjective accounts of "How I spent my Title I money."

The most telling quote they resurrect is from Senator Robert Kennedy grilling the U.S. Commissioner of Education in 1966: "What happened to the children? Do you mean you spent a billion dollars and you don't know whether they can read or not?" One billion became $10 billion, then $100 billion, and now the ESEA tab approaches $200 billion - and too many pupils still cannot read.

ULTIMATELY, THE culture of learning is what counts more than government directives, these Manhattan Institute scholars believe. When they favorably contrast the push that Asian-American students receive at home to the more lackadaisical approach in other homes, they may bruise the feelings of some minority families, and, heck, those of some white parents, too. But there is something to be learned from the horrendous data on the time typical kids spend sprawled before TV sets and video games. Five hours or more of TV on a school night? Good grief, Charlie Brown!

The Thernstroms' critical point is that culture can be changed to favor rigorous academics, and the racial gap in learning can be closed. Theirs is a hopeful message, which rejects the notion of racial inequality set in stone by innate differences in intelligence. They present a compelling look at schools heavily attended by minority children where academic achievement is off the top of the charts. These are "No Excuses" schools like those first identified by Samuel Casey Carter for the Heritage Foundation - schools that enforce rules and that expect and demand each student's best effort.

ALL OF THE Thernstroms' showcases are charter schools, such as the KIPP Academies in Houston, New York, D.C., and elsewhere - public schools given the leeway to innovate, public schools that teachers and parents may freely choose. Indeed, the authors are so sold on what they witnessed that they believe all urban public schools ought to be charter schools.

For all its good work with the Standards of Learning, Virginia has only eight charter schools, none of them resembling a KIPP Academy. Therefore, this thought-provoking book ought to be required reading for all makers of education law and policy in the Old Dominion.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington.

— Robert Holland
"No Excuses" by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom
Richmond Times Dispatch
2004-01-18
http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?c=MGArticle&cid=1031773148696&pagename=RTD/MGArticle/RTD_BasicArticle&path=!editorials!books&s=10458559


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