The Thernstroms

by Jon Mandle on October 30, 2003

Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have a new book called No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. I haven’t read it, but their article in the Boston Globe summarizes their arguments. Here’s their concern:

On the first try, 82 percent of white 10th-graders passed [the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System – MCAS], 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.

Whatever you say about their well-known opposition to affirmative action, unlike most conservative opponents, they certainly are not denying the existence of a problem, which they document in painful detail.

They reject “frequently proposed solutions” such as “additional school funding, smaller classes, more racial and ethnic integration, and more teachers with masters degrees in education,” claiming: “The research literature provides little or no support for the claim that these familiar remedies will do the job.”

They get in a quick plug for Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act before getting to their proposals:

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.

This strikes me as a blatant non sequitur – scores on tests are good predictors of earnings later in life, therefore we need more tests. But what they really think we need are better teachers: “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?”

They have several proposals. “First, make the job more attractive.” They are deeply suspicious of education schools, so one key is this: “Allow aspiring teachers to skip the often mind-numbing offerings at schools of education… There should be multiple routes into the profession, all of them requiring a sure grasp of the subject matter a teacher will teach.”

Another way to make the job more attractive is by paying more:

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.

And yet another way to make the job more attractive is this: “insist on a safe and orderly environment in which respect for both students and adults is expected.”

These proposals make good sense to me. But they fail to mention that according to the logic of their own position, the No Child Left Behind Act takes several steps in the wrong direction. First, apparently far from opening up “multiple routes into the profession” it closes them off.

Second, the purpose of the newly mandated testing is to identify “failing schools” for the purpose of cutting their funding. This seems to be something that the Thernstroms support under the heading of “accountability.” But don’t their proposals imply that schools with students the furthest behind – those with “high concentrations of disadvantaged students” – are exactly the schools where more pay is required in order to attract the best teachers?

Come to think of it, not only should their position lead them to oppose the No Child Left Behind Act, their proposals look an awful lot like some of the “frequently proposed solutions” that they reject: more money to hire good teachers where there are “high concentrations of disadvantaged students.” And surely one important way to make the job more attractive and to reduce discipline problems is to have smaller classes.

Odd, they don’t seem to draw these implications.



David in NY 10.30.03 at 7:26 pm

Thanks for pointing out the contradiction in their position — that is, you can’t pay teachers more if you don’t spend some money (and probably raise some taxes).

As someone who has come from a family of teachers (but is a lawyer himself) and who has thought about teaching, I have a couple of observations. First, even though I do not have one of those Wall Street type jobs, I make a lot more than my teacher kin. Second, I am treated like a professional, not a hired hand much less a second class citizen. I mean, I can go to the bathroom when I want, have ample access to a photocopier and computer, have support staff to help me in my most mundane activities, all things that are routinely denied teachers. Schools have a number of reasons for denying these things, but the primary one is money. You won’t get the best teachers unless you offer more resources and a reasonable workload.

Having thought about the matter, I would also like to comment on the value of education training. It does have some value. I wouldn’t think about teaching, and particularly teaching in the lower grades, without learing something about child development first. It is crucial for a teacher to have some notion about the way in which children of different ages learn and what is appropriate to them. Prospective teachers should learn some of this stuff, but I agree that their education should mostly consist of other things.


PG 10.30.03 at 8:49 pm

I’m still excited to hear that affirmative action opponents have finally taken up the challenge to do something about the gaping wound that affirmative action attempts to bandage over.

But the proposed changes to Head Start aren’t going to help close the gap.


Ayjay 10.30.03 at 9:43 pm

Jon, do you have any reservations about critiquing the Thernstroms’ argument based on a brief op-ed (which necessarily condenses arguments extremely) rather than on the book itself, which you admit not having read?


Doug 10.30.03 at 9:54 pm

Life’s too short to read all the policy books. If the authors haven’t made a fair case for their book in the short piece, why spend days with the long version?


Thomas 10.30.03 at 10:00 pm

The No Child Left Behind Act doesn’t close off avenues into the profession. Here’s how the DoEd describes it:

No Child Left Behind requires local school districts to ensure that all teachers hired to teach core academic subjects in Title I programs after the first day of the 2002-03 school year are highly qualified. In general a “highly qualified teacher” is one with full certification, a bachelor’s degree and demonstrated competence in subject knowledge and teaching. (Core subjects include English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history and geography.) The act also calls for all teachers of the core academic subjects (teaching in Title I programs or elsewhere) to be highly qualified by the end of school year 2005-06.


In other words, the Act incorporates state standards. Oregon–and every other state–remains free to set their own certification standards.

And there’s no cutting of funding for failing schools. Students in failing schools receive extra resources. Only after 5 years of failing is a school ‘restructured’ (which involves replacing the staff of the school). Even then, there’s no cutting of funding for the school (though those who lose their jobs certainly receive a cut in funding).

There’s a lot of mis-information out about the NCLBA. Sad to see even more of it.


Sindelar 10.30.03 at 10:03 pm

As far as I remember, the NCLBA also expressly specifies the equal right of every child to good teachers and places the responsibility of the state to ensure that good teachers are more widely distributed…How is TeachforAmerica doing these days anyway?


Tassled Loafered Leech 10.30.03 at 10:09 pm

Why are we still trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? We are stuck in the industrial revolution model of mass education when clearly it is time to rethink the exercise. What is the purpose of education and how best do we achieve that goal? Much of our current “warehouse” model was to introduce future factory workers to the concept of showing up on time and following the clock instead of the sun. What purpose does it serve now? If we figure out what we want a high school graduate to know does it matter how the knowledge is acquired? Why not spend all of third grade, all day every day, learning American history. Fourth grade could be Math. How much do you need to “know” when you can google? These are the questions someone smarter than me needs to be asking.


David in NY 10.30.03 at 10:17 pm

On the question of the requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” you might consider the case of Amy Elizabeth Sullivan’s father, a teacher of social studies in inner-city schools for 27 years who is now considered unqualified to teach history courses in the state of Michigan notwithstanding that he was an award-winning teacher who also taught college courses. His disqualification? His college major was in English, not History.


baa 10.30.03 at 10:19 pm

Thernstroms don’t help with muddled language, but I imagine the idea behind the ‘blatant no-sequitor’ is something like the following.

1. Some people complain about tests
2. But tests are just markers of educational achievement.
3. And what’s more, there appear to be tests that are *good* markers of educational achievement, as evidenced by the correlation between these tests and income
4. So using tests to measure achievement is a fine idea. Bully for tests.

Also, I expect that the Thernstroms would be quite open to “hardship pay” for teachers of less advantaged students, provided that bonuses could be linked in some way to performance. As a general rule, one can confidently assume that good-spirited conservatives like the Thernstroms will trade additional expenditure on education for structural reforms they believe will increase efficiency. Perhaps this message doesn’t come across clearly, but as ayjay says, it’s an op-ed.


Greg Hunter 10.31.03 at 3:12 pm

The discussion of testing and the lack of achievement for minority students have more to do with the transportation policy than it does with the education policy. If our transportation policy did not finance the ability for the educated parents to setup new suburbs and close off the re-distributive effects of tax revenue within a diverse socioeconomic community; then the educated parents may take a greater interest in insuring a better school environment for everyone. Instead it is much more marketable to build in a community with a homogenous culture and economic base, so that the quality of that particular community can be assured. The continued use of the gasoline tax to finance more road construction to benefit the educated elite is ludicrous.

The reason the Asians and the Indians (Subcontinent Asians) fare better as students is based on the fact that in order to immigrate from those countries to America or elsewhere, one cannot simply walk, therefore the parents of those children are more likely to be well educated and have greater financial support from the home country.


Thomas 10.31.03 at 4:08 pm

Greg, that misses a great deal of the point. Read the article. Even in our best public schools, in the most affluent elite suburbs, there is a significant gap, and that gap falls along racial (and not socio-economic) lines.


Sam 11.02.03 at 5:44 pm



“The reason the Asians and the Indians (Subcontinent Asians) fare better as students is based on the fact that in order to immigrate from those countries to America or elsewhere, one cannot simply walk, therefore the parents of those children are more likely to be well educated and have greater financial support from the home country.”

… is pure B.S.

My wife, who is Cambodian, went to one of the poorest schools in Atlanta. This school was primarily black. Yet she and the other Asian’s that graduated with her comprised almost all of the top five percent of her class. These Asians were all refugees, relocated to poor areas by the government. Yet they all managed to make good grades, go to good colleges, and make prosperous lives. Hard work and determination will get results. Slack attitudes won’t.


serial catowner 11.02.03 at 9:25 pm

In Seattle, after 20 years of what we thought were sincere efforts to end racism, a study showed that black boys were disciplined in numbers way out of proportion to their presence. The authors, asking why, had found that teachers disciplined black boys for behaviors that did not draw discipline to other demographics.

At about the same time we also found that the bulk of the money for schools and texts was still being spent in the white neighborhoods, now with the rationale that it was to these schools that the minority students were being bussed.

My own feeling is that American racism is as pervasive as the wind, and that even a partial shelter won’t prevent the tree from becoming somewhat bent.


Greg Hunter 11.03.03 at 6:40 pm

Greg misses the point. I agree! The conclusion that Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom want you to draw is that the parents of the lagging Latinos and blacks achieved the current level of affluence through affirmative action. The implication they make is that these parents could not pass on values and life experiences to their children which would make them successful in the affluent environment.

My solution still holds.

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