''No Excuses'' for Great Teachers, Great Schools - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
”No Excuses” for Great Teachers, Great Schools

“What happened to the children?” Senator Robert Kennedy demanded 38 years ago of Harold Howe II, President Lyndon Johnson’s commissioner of education. Howe had appeared before a Senate committee to defend the then-new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, its Title I then funded to the tune of a billion dollars annually — “a staggering sum at the time,” as noted by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom in their new book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (Simon & Schuster, 2003). “Do you mean you spent a billion dollars and you don’t know whether they can read or not?” Kennedy wanted to know. Howe couldn’t answer.

LBJ’s aim then was to close the poverty gap in education. Title I rapidly shifted emphasis to the racial gap in educational accomplishment, a gap that persists to this day almost completely unchanged. This, as the Thernstroms emphasize again and again, is the real source of racial inequalities in the U.S. — education, not hatred or attitudes or insensitivity or “structural racism.”

“Closing the skills gap is the key to real racial equality in American society,” the Thernstroms write. “Only when the average black graduate of the nation’s high schools knows as much calculus as the average white student will black incomes match those of whites.”

For now, as the Thernstroms say repeatedly, when a business hires an African-American high school grad, the new boss can safely assume he has just employed the academic equivalent of an eighth grader. That goes for Latinos, too, the nation’s fastest-growing minority.

U.S. public schools, as the Thernstroms make clear, cannot brag about the overall attainments of any student population, white, Asian, black, Latino or other “non-Asian minority,” a term in frequent use in No Excuses. From the local level to the federal, schools can account rather thoroughly for “input” — mainly money — but almost not at all for “output” — real educational results. But surely the worst single element in the broad-based shortcomings of U.S. public education is the “racial gap,” the difference between what white students and (particularly) black and Latino students learn. Hence the modern push for “high stakes testing,” “standards-based education,” and the like, culminating in the latest revision of the omnibus ESEA, No Child Left Behind.

And hence, as well, a veritable panoply of objections from political, ethnic, union, academic, and educational interest groups to measuring such output, especially to measuring the racial gap itself.

After an introductory chapter summarizing the four-year skills gap, No Excuses paints vivid pictures of classroom excellence, as practiced by fifth grade teacher Rafe Esquith in the Los Angeles public school system and the KIPP Academy (Knowledge Is Power Program) in the South Bronx, a charter school. (There are others, including 15 other KIPP Academies, with 19 more planned.) These educators enjoy substantial advantages over conventional public schools, notably some control (about 20 percent) over their budgets for curricula, materials, staffing, and salaries. They can hire good teachers regardless of “credentialing,” union membership, or seniority. They can fire them, too. And they have one advantage that the public school system in its totality cannot enjoy: Students and their parents choose these schools. If they don’t live up to the culture of discipline, hard work, and good manners, they will be asked to leave — and they know it.

There is no racial gap in the “output” of these “Great Schools, Great Teachers,” as the Thernstroms describe them in a chapter subhead. Tests prove it.

So why doesn’t everybody do it? The Thernstroms get down to the meat of the argument (“We have argued” being one of their favorite, and most accurate, expressions) in No Excuses with a 100-plus-page-long intellectual evisceration of the popular pieties of academe, the education establishment, the legal and political lobbies, and the teachers unions. They hit some juicy targets: Jonathan Kozol, author of the widely acclaimed Savage Inequalities (Crown Publishers, 1991); the ACLU’s 2000 level-funding suit against the state of California (in a chapter titled, in a delicious deadpan, “Send Money”); the two billion dollar experiment in Taj Mahal school construction ordered by a federal judge in Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1990s; the tender regard for racial make-goods in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the “resegregation” arguments of Prof. Gary Orfield of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; the “low expectations” notion; the idea of black teachers for black students.

One is tempted to quote whole paragraphs. One will have to suffice, on the “black and Hispanic teachers for black and Hispanic students” idea:

“…The end result is the perpetuation of crude racial stereotypes: Blacks and Hispanics all ‘live’ differently than whites, eat different food, have different musical and other tastes. A black teacher may be solidly middle class, while his or her students come mostly from the housing projects. Never mind, they’re all black and therefore must ‘live the same way.'”

So what stands in the way of “great teachers and great schools”? The teachers and schools we have now, notably as influenced by the two teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. (Major sponsors and beneficiaries of the Democratic Party, as the Thernstroms say once and I will say again.) And it isn’t even a fair fight, even when motivated communities try to make their schools better. Why? Because the unions, as the Thernstroms note, sit on both sides of the negotiating table. Administrators belong, too. Even so accomplished a school superintendent as Roy Romer, former three-term governor of Colorado, hired to run the Los Angeles Unified School District, could do nothing against the arrayed bureaucratic inertias of the system.

Not far behind, the schools of education weigh in with their mediocratizing influences. There is no incentive, literally none, for sharp, creative, entrepreneurial risk takers of any ethnic background to enter teaching — except perhaps for a sense of mission. “Teaching in a regular public school,” the Thernstroms write, “is a profession for saints, masochists, or low-aspiring civil servants….The country will need an estimated two million new teachers over the next decade, and the pool of saints and masochists is obviously extremely limited.”

No Child Left Behind, with myriad faults the Thernstroms do not hesitate to point out, has at least started the move in the right direction: towards “output” accountability with high-stakes testing, towards school choice (whether through charter schools or vouchers), away from the iron clutches of the education establishment.

It will be a long, hard fight. No Excuses lands heavy body blows for the good guys. But the Empire still controls the head.

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