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Left behind

The racial achievement gap in education is the major civil rights issue of our time. But the old solutions won't make the grade.

THE STUDENT BODY of Cedarbrook Middle School in a Philadelphia suburb is one-third black, two-thirds white. The town has a very low poverty rate, good schools, and a long-established black middle class. But in an eighth-grade advanced algebra class that a reporter visited in June 2001, there was not a single black student. The class in which the teacher was explaining that the 2 in number 21 stands for 20, though, was 100 percent black. A few black students were taking accelerated English, but no whites were sitting in the English class that was learning to identify verbs.

The Cedarbrook picture is by no means unique. In fact, it is all too familiar. Here in Massachusetts, where the high school class of 2005 has begun the MCAS testing process, the gap is crystal clear. On the first try, 82 percent of white 10th-graders passed, and the figure for Asians was almost as high (77 percent). But the success rate for Hispanics was 42 percent and for blacks 47 percent. Across the nation, the glaring racial gap is between whites and Asians on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other.

This gap is an American tragedy and a national emergency for which there are no good excuses. It is the main source of ongoing racial inequality, and racial inequality is America's great unfinished business, the wound that remains unhealed. Our failure to provide first-class education for black and Hispanic students is both an educational catastrophe and the central civil rights issue of our time.. . .True, the black high-school graduation rate has more than doubled since 1960, and blacks today attend college at a higher rate than whites did just two decades ago. But the good news ends there. Equal years warming a seat in school do not mean equal skills and knowledge, and the hard fact is that non-Asian minorities are leaving high school without the training that will enable them to do well in a society whose doors are finally wide open. This is not a story about lower IQs. It is a story of kids who have the ability to learn, but who have been tragically -- and needlessly -- left behind.

The numbers are heartbreaking:

* On the nation's most reliable tests, the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), the typical black or Hispanic student at age 17 is scoring less well than at least 80 percent of his or her white classmates. On average, these non-Asian minority students are four years behind whites and Asians. They are, in effect, finishing high school with a junior-high education.

* In five of the seven subjects tested by NAEP, a majority of black 17-year-olds perform in the lowest category: Below Basic. In math the figure is almost seven out of 10; in science it is more than three out of four. A majority of black students do not have even a "partial" mastery of the "fundamental" knowledge and skills expected of students in the 12th grade. (Hispanic students at the end of high school do somewhat better than their black classmates, but they too are far behind their white and Asian peers.) Though approximately two-thirds of black and Hispanic students go on to college, a great many are clearly entering higher education unprepared for true college-level work.

* The news is no better at the top of the scale. Nearly half of all whites and close to 40 percent of Asians in the 12th-grade rank in the top two NAEP categories -- Proficient and Advanced -- in reading. Less than one-fifth of blacks and one-quarter of Hispanics achieve those levels. In science and math, a mere 3 percent of blacks and 4 to 7 percent of Hispanics display Proficient or Advanced knowledge and skills at the end of high school, in contrast to 7 to 10 times as many whites and Asians. And at the very top, only 0.2 percent of black students perform at a level rated Advanced in math. The figure is 11 times higher for whites and 37 times higher for Asians. Again, Hispanic students are only slightly ahead of blacks.

* Black students were even farther behind a quarter of a century ago, when NAEP data first became available. But the modest progress that occurred during the 1980s has largely come to an end, and there are some indications that the racial gap is widening. Thus, current trends offer no grounds for complacency.

. . .

At a conference a couple of years ago a distinguished educator asked, Why talk about race when social class is the real issue? We wish that were true. Of course, parental income, education, and place of residence all make a difference in school achievement. But our research confirms what other investigators have found: These factors account for only about one-third of the gap in racial achievement.

We also wish that frequently proposed solutions -- additional school funding, smaller classes, more racial and ethnic integration, and more teachers with masters degrees in education -- would solve the problem. But they won't. The research literature provides little or no support for the claim that these familiar remedies will do the job.

Some say that test scores are unimportant, and complain about "teaching to the test." But studies by economists demonstrate beyond doubt that students -- whatever their color -- who have equal skills and knowledge, as measured by reliable tests, will have roughly equal earnings later in life. The requirement that all the nation's public schools test students in Grades 3 through 8 each year -- mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act -- is a wise recognition of that fact.

But improving test scores will require better teachers. "We have the wrong people in the classrooms," Harold O. Levy, former chancellor of the New York City Board of Education, said in August 2002. Not all teachers, of course, are "the wrong people." But almost everyone agrees that academically disadvantaged kids, in particular, need more excellent teachers.

How can we identify such teachers? The scholarly literature shows that neither graduate degrees in education nor years of experience in the classroom have a significant impact on student achievement. The best teachers are those with strong academic skills, as demonstrated by their performance on standardized tests. And thus the real question is this: How do we pull more academically gifted young people into the profession, and keep them where the need is greatest?

First, make the job more attractive. Allow aspiring teachers to skip the often mind-numbing offerings at schools of education that "actively promote mediocrity and incompetence," as Richard Elmore, an education professor at Harvard, has put it. There should be multiple routes into the profession, all of them requiring a sure grasp of the subject matter a teacher will teach (as Massachusetts does). We must create ladders of opportunity so that excellent teachers can be rewarded with higher pay and more responsibility. We should pay more not only for good teachers, but also to lure those whose skills are in short supply -- those with solid training in science or math, for instance. And it makes sense to offer higher pay to outstanding teachers who are willing to work in schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.

Second, insist on a safe and orderly environment in which respect for both students and adults is expected. The level of disorder and disruptive student behavior in many of our urban public schools is shocking. That's one reason why many private schools are able to pay their teachers one-third less than public schools and still attract a very good staff.

. . .

Good schools scattered across the country show that the racial gap in academic skills and knowledge can be closed. The best inner-city public schools that we know are charter schools, which are free from many of the rules and regulations that so often frustrate fine principals and teachers. These schools greatly increase the amount of instructional time. Their principals have the authority and autonomy to manage their budgets, set salaries, staff the school with fabulous teachers and show the door to those who don't work out.

These schools focus relentlessly on the core academic subjects, insisting that their students learn the times tables, basic historical facts, spelling, punctuation, and rules of grammar. They provide safe, orderly environments in which to teach and learn. And they work hard to instill the "desire, discipline, and dedication" (watchwords of the much-celebrated KIPP Academies) that will enable disadvantaged youth to climb the American ladder of opportunity.

Not all charter schools reach these standards, of course, but when they fail they can be closed down, as happened with one in Massachusetts just last year. When did you last hear of a regular public school that was shut down because it wasn't teaching its students well enough?

The mind-numbing data on the racial gap in academic achievement should make all Americans furious. While there has been enormous racial progress on many fronts, we still have an identifiable group of educational have-nots -- young African Americans and Latinos -- whose opportunities in life will almost inevitably be limited by their inadequate education.

And yet the structure of American urban education is a fortress against fundamental reform. The alternative to a radical overhaul is too many black and Hispanic youngsters continuing to leave high school without the skills and knowledge to do well in life. Doors closed to too many non-Asian minorities. The perpetuation of ancient inequalities. Is that acceptable? No decent American can answer yes.

Abigail Thernstrom is a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Stephan Thernstrom is a professor of history at Harvard University. They are coauthors of the recently published "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" (Simon & Schuster), upon which this essay is based.

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