MIND THE GAP: The Racial Gap in Education

Monday, May 3, 2004

More than fifty years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education, there is still an unacceptable gap between the academic achievements of white and black students in America. In fact, by some standards, black students today perform more poorly than they did fifteen years ago. Why? What role does culture play? Does culture explain the disparate performance of Hispanic and Asian students? And just how should we go about trying to close this gap? Peter Robinson speaks with Bernard Gifford, Abigail Thernststrom, and Stephan Thernstrom.

Recorded on Monday, May 3, 2004

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today--how to close the racial gap in education. Fifty years after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. the Board of Education ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, there still exists an enormous gap in educational achievement between white and black students. Indeed, by some measures, black students and also Hispanic students perform worse today than they did fifteen years ago. Why should this racial gap still exist? And what should be done to close it?

Joining us today, three guests: Bernard Gifford is a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley. Abigail Thernstrom is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Stephan Thernstrom is a professor of history at Harvard. The Thernstroms' latest book: No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.

Title: Teach Your Children Well

Peter Robinson: Presidential candidate John Kerry, speaking this past spring about the time of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that separate but unequal schools for white and black children was unconstitutional. I quote John Forbes Kerry, "I'm sorry to tell you, but we still have a separate and unequal school system in America." True?

Stephan Thernstrom: False.

Peter Robinson: False. Bernie?

Bernard Gifford: Partially true.

Peter Robinson: Partially true. Abby?

Abigail Thernstrom: We do not have a segregated school system. We do have a school system in which opportunity is unequal.

Peter Robinson: All right. I quote from your book No Excuses, "The gap in academic achievement that we see today is actually worse than it was 15 years ago." What gap, and how could it have gotten worse? Abby, begin with you.

Abigail Thernstrom: Well, it is a gap between black and Latino students on the one hand; whites and Asians on the other hand and by the time children reach 12th grade, no longer children, but youngsters reach 12th grade, on average typically black and Latino youngsters are four years behind those who are whites and Asians so that they are graduating from high school, in terms of skills and knowledge, with a junior high school education. And on the nation's most reliable test, NAEP, National Assessment for Educational Progress, the majority of black students fall into the below basic category; the Latino students are doing only a tad better. When you look at the very top of the scale, you have miniscule numbers of black students in the advanced category.

Peter Robinson: This is not a regional matter. This is across the nation?

Abigail Thernstrom: This is across the nation. These are reliable, federal government figures that nobody disputes.

Stephan Thernstrom: Let me add a word though about the trends since you said, you know, fifteen years ago.

Peter Robinson: I was going to say through the mid '80s, it was actually improving, the gap…

Stephan Thernstrom: It goes back to the early '70s when these tests began, the gap narrowed quite substantially over the '70s and up through the mid '80s. Then the progress stopped and it since has widened somewhat, but we're still well ahead of where we were back in the early '70s.

Peter Robinson: So, is there any thinking on why the progress reversed itself?

Bernard Gifford: First of all, the gap is huge…

Peter Robinson: It's huge.

Bernard Gifford: …and distressing, and it ought to be alarming. Steve and Abby have done a terrific job in providing the quantitative measures of the gap. However, there is some evidence that there is some growth. What we're not seeing is, we're not seeing black scholastic improvement nor are we seeing Hispanic scholastic improvement increasing as rapidly as we would like and as a result, the gap is still so alarming.

Peter Robinson: What you mean to say is that the educational performance of whites and Asians has actually improved, whereas that of blacks and Hispanics has remained about steady, and that accounts for the…

Bernard Gifford: And in fact, in the area of mathematics, I just looked at some numbers last night, in the area of mathematics on the NAEP math exam in 8th grade, between 1990 and 2003 at the basic and above level, African American and Hispanic students have actually increased at a rate slightly faster than whites and Asians. Problem is that they were so far behind, that you would have to even improve at a much higher rate.

Peter Robinson: I want to quote again, once again, from No Excuses because I'd like to establish--see how you respond to this. This is not, the two of you contend, a matter merely for education experts by any means. "The racial gap in academic achievement is an educational crisis." That much is obvious. "But it is also the main source of ongoing racial inequality." Not racism per se, not economic deprivation on the part of African-Americans and Hispanics but educational--this gap is the main source of ongoing racial inequality. Do you buy that?

Bernard Gifford: The education achievement gap I believe, along with the Thernstroms, is probably the most important problem confronting the United States in terms of maintaining the integrity of our social fabric. But I think it's very difficult to say it is the only factor.

Peter Robinson: Most important ain't bad though.

Bernard Gifford: Oh, excuse me, it's extremely important.

Stephan Thernstrom: And you posed it in terms of economic deprivation versus the educational thing and our argument would be that if you come out of school with very weak cognitive skills, you are likely to end up economically on the bottom.

Abigail Thernstrom: You know we call it the nation's central civil rights issue and we believe that. We come out of the civil rights movement ourselves way back when and this issue has once again got our moral juices flowing.

Peter Robinson: Next, the controversial role of testing.

Title: Acid Tests

Peter Robinson: First, Peter Sacks, in his book Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture, testing is: "Abusive, inaccurate, meaningless." There's a string of adjectives for you. Now I quote from No Excuses, the Thernstroms' book: "Test results tell us precisely what we need to know if we are to have any hope of refashioning instruction to bring the performance of black and Hispanic students up to the level of Asians and whites." Who's more nearly correct?

Bernard Gifford: I think somewhere in between, and I don't want to come across as being equivocal. First of all, I support the National Assessment for Educational Progress. It is a remarkable examination. It has the input of the best psychometricians in the country.

Peter Robinson: This goes back how many years?

Bernard Gifford: It started in 1960s.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Bernard Gifford: They started testing on a massive basis in the 1970s and it is a first-rate examination. The big problem we have in the United States is we do not have a nationalized curriculum for reasons that the Thernstroms fully understand, we believe that education is a local issue. And there are some tremendous mismatches between the standards that underlie NAEP and the standards that underlie 51 states that we have. So, there are some problems there but I think as a broad gauge, there is no doubt that the NAEP is a legitimate instrument for looking at the progress of our children.

Peter Robinson: All right. Why is there so much objection to testing?

Abigail Thernstrom: The disparate impact of tests, and particularly when there are stakes attached to them, when they are, for instance, when graduation is conditional upon them, means those that testing will have a disparate impact on, non-Asian minority children, more of them are going to fail. More of them are going to be in danger of not getting their diploma. But I have to say, I mean this gap is apparent not only in NAEP. It's apparent in all statewide testing; whatever test you give, it's apparent. And, I mean for instance, in Massachusetts where I'm on the State Board of Education, we have a statewide curriculum that is very carefully aligned with the tests and we do have high stakes testing. We got 95% of our kids over the bar last year. When it's done right, it works.

Stephan Thernstrom: Yeah, it's certainly clear why a great many teachers and education school professors might be hostile to testing because without any tests as a measure of how effective the teaching is, they can say we have wonderful schools. We're doing a fabulous job. What's the problem?

Peter Robinson: Their own lives roll merrily along.

Stephan Thernstrom: All we need is more money. Whereas, once you begin to have this measure of what the students are learning, you have some basis for saying well wait a minute, you know. We've doubled spending in this system over the last ten years. The results haven't…

Peter Robinson: Okay. So the objection to testing that one hears in the education establishment, it largely amounts to the screams of the people who are being suddenly held accountable. It's a simple fact.

Bernard Gifford: I think it's a bit unfair to be that simpleminded.

Peter Robinson: He speaks as a former Dean of the School of Education.

Bernard Gifford: One of the problems is that we are really not taking full advantage of the technology of testing. For example, in many states, it is not uncommon for teachers to get test results six and seven months after students are tested. Quite often, tests will come without any recommendations. In some states, they're actually beginning to generate reports for parents and students telling them what they ought to be doing to correct the achievement gap…

Peter Robinson: On to the second and perhaps dominant theme of the Thernstroms' book, the importance of culture.

Title: Kill Your Television

Peter Robinson: I quote again from No Excuses: "Culture matters. That which informs a school and that which students bring to a school." Now, you examine the cultural matrix that characterizes three different groups. Let me just name the groups and give me a sentence or two on the cultural characteristics from which those groups come, or that characterize those groups. Asians.

Stephan Thernstrom: Well, they have the highest level of school engagement of any group and their students do disproportionately well. They're 20% of the higher student body and so on. And clearly that has to do with an unusually strong bond between parents and children; what the parents want, the children do their damnedest to deliver.

Peter Robinson: Hispanics, Abby?

Abigail Thernstrom: We regard Hispanics as an immigrant group very much like Italians around 1910. They are moving up educationally over generations, but…

Peter Robinson: All right, now give us the African-American culture now then.

Abigail Thernstrom: We use the word culture by the way very reluctantly. We just couldn't find a good substitute for it. Too much disengagement from school, too much television watching for one thing. African-American kids on average, watch an extraordinary amount of television.

Stephan Thernstrom: All American kids do but even by that…

Peter Robinson: By those standards…

Abigail Thernstrom: By those standards, they do.

Peter Robinson: Can I just ask, do you find…

Abigail Thernstrom: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: …a marked difference, we had a remark in the book that these days a third of African-Americans count as middle class by economic standards, and then about a third live in the suburbs. So there's a regional shifting out of inner cities to the suburbs. Do you see the third roughly of African-American kids have effectively come from a different culture now? Do you see a sharp distinction there or not?

Abigail Thernstrom: There's a gap in the suburbs as well; all boats are lifted, but there is really a serious gap. I mean, one of the questions we cannot answer however in the book is whether in part what we're seeing in the suburbs is first generation middle class, and the next generation will look different.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you, so the Asians are fine; Hispanics are coming along--okay, go ahead.

Bernard Gifford: That's not true. First of all, we need to be, we need to stop lumping all Asians together.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Bernard Gifford: Certainly in California, we see Filipino students not doing as well as Chinese origin students.

Abigail Thernstrom: We agree with that.

Bernard Gifford: Students from Southeast Asia are not doing as well as other subgroups. We've got to be very, very careful how we use the expression culture. The other thing about African-Americans, and culture is a very loaded word. This is clearly not the place to have a long debate on that. But for example, take the problem of television.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Bernard Gifford: Large numbers of African-American kids live in families headed by single parents. Unfortunately, many of these single parents are put in a position where they have to use the television as a surrogate baby-sitter. It's tragic but it's understandable. Look, if I could, I would cut off the television during the week. In my own home, we have a rule: no electronics during the week.

Peter Robinson: Cultures as we know are durable things. So…

Abigail Thernstrom: No, we would not agree with that. We think they are constantly shaped and reshaped by environment and it was one of the…

Stephan Thernstrom: They have to be durable enough to have a name…

Abigail Thernstrom: They do but we don't want to exaggerate that.

Peter Robinson: But you don't believe it's asking too much of the American public school system to transform the culture of African-Americans. You don't think that's asking too much?

Abigail Thernstrom: Only as that culture affects academic achievement, not in any broader sense.

Peter Robinson: Now to the big question: what is to be done?

Title: Dollars and Sense

Peter Robinson: The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was President Bush's attempt at educational reform with substantial assist from Senator Kennedy. The Act had two main provisions: one, it increased federal spending on education by a gigantic amount, almost 24 billion or 60% from 2000 to 2003 alone. Two, it mandated that, and here I quote the Department of Education: "Each state must measure every public school student's progress in reading and math in each of Grades 3 through 8 and at least once during Grades 10 through 12." You are unabashedly in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act? With reservations? Give me a feeling.

Abigail Thernstrom: Necessary, but insufficient.

Peter Robinson: Necessary, but insufficient. Is that a good statement? You go with that?

Bernard Gifford: Yeah, you know what's sad about the No Child Left Behind Act? It coincided with a downturn in our economy and just as the bill was about to be implemented, every state in the union suffered a tremendous reversal in revenues. And so as a result, is the incremental funds added by No Child Left Behind were offset by major drops in local revenues.

Peter Robinson: I don't think the Thernstroms are going to go for that one though because you have a chapter entitled Send Money in which you suggest that money alone, pouring money into the structure as it stands is not a good thing to do.

Stephan Thernstrom: Yes, that's certainly true and that's not inconsistent with this particular point of Bernie's that…

Peter Robinson: Let me just ask, what I'm trying to do is isolate…

Abigail Thernstrom: Schools still need money. Our point was not that schools don't need money or that money can't be put to good uses

Peter Robinson: You were in favor--let me isolate these two elements in the No Child Left Behind--you're in favor of that 24 billion in extra money between 2000 and 2003…

Abigail Thernstrom: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: You are! You are too.

Stephan Thernstrom: Yeah, I have no problem with that.

Peter Robinson: All right. That's the No Child Left Behind Act necessary but not sufficient. Abby, give me your reforms. What would be sufficient?

Abigail Thernstrom: I would make every urban school a charter school with the accountability…

Peter Robinson: Explain that.

Abigail Thernstrom: Public schools with principals who have the authority and the autonomy to manage their budgets, hire and fire teachers--fire teachers who are not working out, structure the school day, and by the way, I think in terms of television, there'd have to be longer school days for many kids in the inner city so they don't go home to watching that television. They need the more instructional time, they need to be able to set an atmosphere of civility and order….

Peter Robinson: You'd give the schools more money, but you also relocate a large degree of authority from State Boards of Education to individual principals, is that correct?

Abigail Thernstrom: And the schools get closed when the kids aren't learning. There is real accountability. Shut them down when the kids aren't learning.

Peter Robinson: If tests show schools are not performing, those schools pay a heavy price?

Abigail Thernstrom: Absolutely. Absolutely. If kids are not getting basic skills, shut them down.

Peter Robinson: And do what with the kids?

Abigail Thernstrom: I would allow real school choice for kids stuck in a system that isn't functioning.

Peter Robinson: The "V" word, vouchers?

Abigail Thernstrom: "V" word, vouchers.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so now we've got a string of reforms, what do you think of…

Bernard Gifford: Well first…

Peter Robinson: …giving principals more authority?

Bernard Gifford: Well first of all, I think what we need to do is we need to find ways of unbundling a lot of regulations.

Peter Robinson: Vouchers! We need vouchers.

Bernard Gifford: And frankly what I would like to see is a massive deregulation but there's also something else I think we need to do is we have to stop looking at children solely in terms of their educational needs. What we ought to be talking about I believe is a national youth policy, because we have a number of agencies that interact with young people. We have a criminal justice system. We have a public health system. We have a social welfare system. It is almost impossible to have a rational conversation across all of the bureaucracies that allegedly have something to do with the lives and the fortunes of our young people.

Peter Robinson: Let me propose a simple solution to Bernard's dilemma.

Title: Goodbye, Mr. Chits?

Peter Robinson: Here's what you do, you institute a voucher program and locate the authority and responsibility in the parents' hands. You give them a voucher for the amount that it costs to educate their children. Let them keep their kids in the public school or let them take their kids to a Catholic school or a nondenominational school or yeshiva or whatever. You let the parent, and that cuts through this Gordian knot of regulation. Just like that. What's wrong with that?

Bernard Gifford: I think you're putting a little bit too much faith in vouchers.

Peter Robinson: Put not your faith in vouchers?

Bernard Gifford: I still believe that we have enough schools that are functioning to try to figure out what is it they're doing and how do we create the conditions so that the schools that were profiled in the Thernstroms' book in fact no longer operate as aberrational exceptions, but in fact become more generalized.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So here we have--my feeling listening to Bernie is that these extremely high-minded and informed good intentions pave the way to inaction and that I read your book and I think this is a present crisis. We need radical action and that action would take the form of vouchers. Tell me who's right, Bernie or me?

Stephan Thernstrom: Well, of course I agree with you in this now…

Peter Robinson: Oh you do? All right, so…

Stephan Thernstrom: It could well be that there is a measure of truth in what Bernie is saying too and that the presence of a real large-scale voucher program as has been demonstrated with charter schools already, that competition--a public school system facing serious competition, losing its budget, will be under pressure to shape up…

Abigail Thernstrom: Look, I mean, there is a fundamental matter of equity here. One of the definitions--a good definition of middle class is that the parents have school choice either by choosing their place of residence or by paying for a parochial or a private education. It is only low-income parents who are handed computer printouts that say you are going to the following school across town perhaps, but in any case it's not a school that you want to enroll your kids in. It's not a school that is functioning. So I think there's a matter of basic equity here. I am for serious voucher experiments to see where we get with them.

Peter Robinson: You're nodding.

Bernard Gifford: No, no, no, you see I would actually like to see some controlled experiments with vouchers.

Peter Robinson: Have any been conducted? Where?

Abigail Thernstrom: Not on a sufficient scale.

Peter Robinson: I thought the teachers' unions had blocked anything large.

Abigail Thernstrom: And not with vouchers that have enough money attached to them. I mean, $15,000 per pupil in Washington, DC is what they're spending now. Is the voucher experiment going to give parents $15,000 to buy education? Nothing…

Peter Robinson: Okay. So then the two of you have a political problem which is how on earth do you build support for the kind of voucher experiment that you'd like to see take place?

Bernard Gifford: And here's where I would agree with you. If we're going to have a serious test of the voucher notion, and I think it has to be a serious test in which we collect the evidence, then we've got to make sure that it is well-funded and well supported.

Abigail Thernstrom: Exactly.

Bernard Gifford: It can't be a voucher program in which you provide one third of the funds…

Abigail Thernstrom: Exactly.

Bernard Gifford: …that are provided in public schools. Look…

Peter Robinson: Who's close to conducting such an experiment? Jeb Bush in Florida? Anybody?

Bernard Gifford: No. No one has conducted a serious implementation of the voucher program.

Abigail Thernstrom: This is called "Dream Away."

Peter Robinson: Next, one example of what a voucher program might look like.

Title: Mr. Arnold's Opus

Peter Robinson: The following 90 seconds of this program are directed at the current governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. One of his predecessors, Pete Wilson had a plan. I want to ask you whether it was a good plan. Wilson never pushed it because he never thought it had any political viability but the plan ran as follows: we would by testing, identify some small percentage of the worst public schools in California. I think his plan at some point would call for 10%, the worst 10% of public schools, and direct vouchers to those schools. Does that strike you as the kind of thing that would be useful, that Schwarzenegger who seems to have immense political clout at the moment, ought to do? Bernie, you're a Californian.

Bernard Gifford: No.

Peter Robinson: No. How come?

Bernard Gifford: Because I would not want a voucher program to re-create racial and ethnic and linguistic segregation.

Peter Robinson: Oh and you think those 10% would show up…

Bernard Gifford: And I think if you limited such an experiment to the bottom 10%, you would, in essence, would be re-creating racial segregation.

Peter Robinson: With black kids.

Bernard Gifford: Yes. I think if you are serious about doing a real experiment, and I think that a legitimate experiment should be done, I would make it more open, and what I would argue for is that the students who are involved in this experimental voucher program, would be representative of the entire state.

Peter Robinson: What's your proposal for Mitt Romney then, your governor back in Massachusetts?

Abigail Thernstrom: Look, and just to second what Bernie is saying. The devil is always in the details in these proposals. I mean they can't be sound bytes proposals. They've got to be well worked out. What's my proposal for Mitt Romney? No, I would allow vouchers for children in Boston and even though we, you know, in terms of…

Peter Robinson: It wouldn't worry you if they were mostly black kids?

Abigail Thernstrom: I was going to say well minority kids. In terms of diversity in Boston as in so many other urban areas now, we're down to 13% whites.

Peter Robinson: Is that so in the public school system in Boston?

Abigail Thernstrom: Yeah.

Stephan Thernstrom: San Francisco it's about that too. But I'm not sure, I didn't quite understand Bernie's argument in that these students are already in the bottom 10%, are probably 80% black and Hispanic so they're already attending schools that are very racially imbalanced. So we let them out and use vouchers to go to parochial and other schools, how are they going to be more segregated?

Abigail Thernstrom: But I think that the point is that a good voucher program might bring back into the public school in some of these urban areas, more affluent families that have left.

Peter Robinson: So, after narrowing for some years, about 15 years ago the racial education gap began to widen. Fifteen years from now, will it be about the same, or will we have seen some progress, or will indeed it have gotten worse? Bernie?

Bernard Gifford: If we commit ourselves to true transformation of the public schools, we will see a narrowing of the achievement gap. If not…

Peter Robinson: You think it likely.

Bernard Gifford: I think it's possible. If we don't commit ourselves to a true transformation, then I'm afraid these alarming statistics that bother all of us and should bother every American, we will be debating the same issue 15 years from now.

Abigail Thernstrom: I'm in total agreement with that but I'm keeping hope alive here…

Peter Robinson: So what I'm asking is what's your political feeling, is pressure for reform building?

Abigail Thernstrom: We have to make a guess about how much Americans are going to care in coming years or are they going to continue to think those are somebody else's kids, not my kids, that are falling through the cracks, or are white Americans and Asian Americans going to think those are somebody else's kids.

Peter Robinson: Steve, what do you think?

Stephan Thernstrom: Yes, I'm cautiously optimistic about the future. I think we've made such progress in other respects in the racial front and No Child Left Behind is going to force the facts upon us. We will know, year after year…

Peter Robinson: That testing actually is critical in the No Child Left Behind?

Stephan Thernstrom: Yes, and I think that will encourage us to actually do something that will succeed better than what we've done so far.

Peter Robinson: Steve Thernstrom, Abby Thernstrom, Bernie Gifford, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.