Black and Latino students are typically leaving high school with academic skills no better than those of the average white and or Asian eighth-grader. This is both a national emergency and an American tragedy. The racial gap in academic achievement is the most important source of ongoing racial inequality. And that inequality is not only morally unacceptable; it corrupts the fabric of American society and endangers our future. It is no wonder that No Child Left Behind, the 2001 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Act, made closing the racial gap its central goal.
Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s new book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, opens with a devastating portrait of the racial gap in academic achievement. But it is not a pessimistic book. There is no good excuse for the racial gap in skills and knowledge, the authors argue. This is a problem that can be solved, although not without radical change in the structure of American public education.
The Thernstroms describe both the problem and the solution. This is not an IQ story, they insist. And while they argue that meeting the demands of schools is harder for members of some racial and ethnic groups than others—that some group cultures are more academically advantageous than others—they also contend that the values, habits, and skills that we call “culture” are not impervious to change. Indeed, they are shaped and reshaped by the social environment, and good schools play an invaluable part in that process.