November 1, 2003
Education experts see culture as factor in school racial gap
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — Standard explanations for the gulf between white and black achievement in school fall short of fully explaining or solving one of the worst problems in America, experts at an education conference said Friday.
On average, the academic skills of black students who graduate from high school are comparable to what white and Asian students achieved in the eighth grade, said Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard professor.
“The trends are not at all auspicious,” said Thernstrom, who with his wife, Abigail, has written a controversial new book, “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.”
During the past 15 years, he said, the gap has remained constant or widened.
“We are not even headed in the right direction,” he said.
Culture is key factor
In their book, the centerpiece of a conference sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, the Thernstroms argue that poverty, lack of educational resources, racial isolation and differences in teacher quality only go part way in explaining the gap.
Even among affluent blacks at high performing schools, blacks on average under-perform whites and Asians, according to the book.
The hidden factor, according to Thernstrom, is “culture.”
Asians do better than whites and whites do better than blacks “in part because of the cultural background they bring to school and how they respond to the challenges in school,” he said.
As an example, he said, studies have found that among blacks, the “peer group culture” is more hostile to learning than among whites and Asians.
Traveling the country in search of the best schools, Abigail Thernstrom said what the best all share in common is high academic and behavioral standards.
“Adults are in charge,” she said. “Every room is clean and orderly. Classrooms are quiet.”
Ultimately it’s up to students whether they learn, she added.
“Schools can only open doors,” she said. “It is up to students to walk through them.”
While many at the conference were intrigued with the Thernstroms’ research, several ex-perts challenged their reliance on increased competition from charter schools and voucher programs and merit pay for teachers to narrow the gap.
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, asserted there is little evidence that charter schools or vouchers improve performance.
“Studies show charter schools perform below comparable public schools,” she said, adding there’s “no single study that shows vouchers make a huge difference.”
Christopher Jencks, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, took aim at another proposal.
Praise may not be positive
He said singling out the most effective teachers could be counterproductive for minority students. The teachers could use their “new effective teacher label” to escape inner-city schools and win higher-paying jobs at more celebrated schools, he said.
Jencks asked for more explanation of culture as a factor in the learning gap.
“One needs to try to pin it down,” he said. “I’m agreeing with the Thernstroms that’s an area to look at. But what’s going on, I don’t know.”
Another partial explanation, said Eric Hanushek, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is high mobility rates in urban schools.
“Black kids change schools more often than white kids,” he said. “Moving is not a good thing if you are a kid.”
U.S. Education Secretary Roderick Paige, who sat in on part of the conference, expressed uncertainty about the role culture plays in the achievement gap. But he acknowledged it’s important for students to enter school with a “kind of socialization where they can deal with the culture in school as opposed to the culture out on the streets.”
Paige, a former superintendent in Houston, defended charter schools and vouchers as a way to spur innovation and creativity in public education.