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Must Schools Fail?


As a Harvard graduate student and junior professor in the 1950s and 1960s tutored by Oscar Handlin, Stephan Thernstrom resolved to write “from the bottom up,” to reveal the lives of ordinary Americans.1 His theme in Poverty and Progress (1964) and The Other Bostonians (1973) was that mid-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century America offered less social mobility than was believed. He found that the social system was not completely rigid—some sons achieved a status that was higher than their fathers’—but upward movement was mostly in fairly small steps. If a working-class boy rose to the middle class as an adult, he was likely a skilled craftsman’s son who became a clerk. Movement from bottom to top, from poor to rich, was rare; even movement from poor to middle class was an anomaly. Statistical analysis of trends in occupation, income, and property ownership, Thernstrom wrote, “yielded rather pessimistic conclusions about social mobility in nineteenth-century America.”2

So we might expect a now-older and still-wiser Stephan Thernstrom to be suspicious of claims that differences in class, which is closely related to race in America, could be obliterated if only the public schools did a better job. Yet this is the view that he and his collaborator (and wife), Abigail Thernstrom, promote in their recent book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. The Thernstroms claim that when black youths have test scores that are equal to whites’, their adult earnings will also be equal. Blacks’ average academic achievement, in the Thernstroms’ view, is now not equal to whites’ mostly because black community culture doesn’t value education the way the culture of middle-class whites does. As a result, black students don’t try hard in school, and schools, in turn, don’t expect much of black students or press them to try harder. If schools had higher expectations, tougher discipline, a concentration on basic skills, and a resistance to the loose standards of progressive education, the test scores, and ultimately the working lives, of low-income blacks would reach white middle-class levels.

If the Thernstroms claimed only that good schools could narrow the gap in achievement between blacks and whites, or if they tried to show only that poor blacks could score as well as poor whites on tests, their analysis would be less vulnerable. But they believe that their prescriptions for school reform will enable poor black children to do as well on tests as middle-class white students. Consider, for example, the claims of the federal No Child Left Behind education law, whose aims the Thernstroms endorse: according to the law, not only are whites and blacks expected to show identical (and high) achievement a decade from now, but so are middle-class and “economically disadvantaged” students.

The premise that racial discrimination has been erased and that the remaining reason for differences in the relative earnings of blacks and whites is a difference of skills has become an article of faith among conservatives. (The Thernstroms are fellows at the Manhattan Institute, which promotes a variety of right-of-center causes.) The evidence for this, however, is selective, based mostly on statistics showing only that the earnings of black and white college graduates are similar. Discrimination in the labor market against “highly educated blacks [was a problem] four decades ago,” the Thernstroms write, but no longer. Therefore, they conclude, if black students worked as hard as whites in elementary and secondary school, and if blacks attended schools that expected them to work harder, there would be little difference in their success as adults.

But only a minority of Americans, black or white, are college graduates (18 percent of blacks and 34 percent of whites in their late twenties have college degrees).3 If the Thernstroms are correct in denying any rational basis for a black culture of underachievement, they need to show that black high school graduates’ later earnings are comparable to those of whites. But they don’t.

This is not to say that there has been no progress. Male black workers with only high school educations earn on average 79 percent of what similarly educated whites do. If only high school graduates with similar test scores are compared, then black wages are 87 percent of white wages. These figures, however, understate the difference in annual earnings between white and black high school graduates because black high school graduates work fewer annual hours and annual weeks than do white high school graduates.4

While some black high school graduates may be less aggressive in their search for jobs, discrimination keeps many, especially males, out of the labor market. As firms become more sophisticated about avoiding explicitly racist practices, discrimination is harder to prove, but there are enough lawsuits to suggest that it exists. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged Kodak, Rochester’s most prominent employer, with paying black workers less than similarly situated whites. Kodak promoted blacks less often and retaliated against those who complained by firing or harassing them. Blacks were subjected to racial epithets and slurs by senior Kodak employees. While Kodak has promised to correct these practices, it would not be irrational for black high school students in Rochester to conclude that however well they do, they will not be appropriately rewarded for their efforts.

Studies of black and white job-seekers with identical résumés who apply for publicly advertised jobs provide solid evidence of systemic discrimination that cannot be attributed to differences in skills between comparably educated blacks and whites. In the early 1990s, for example, teams sponsored by the Urban Institute in Chicago and in Washington, D.C., trained applicants for jobs with nearly identical résumés to present themselves in the same way in their interviews. Black males were three times as likely to be rejected as white males. Other studies have found that among applicants who were offered jobs, whites were offered higher salaries. A recent study found that whites’ applications were more successful than blacks’ even when the whites had criminal records and the otherwise identical blacks did not.5

Certainly discrimination would help to explain the culture of underachievement among blacks, the main concern of No Excuses. For his study Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb, John U. Ogbu, a Nigerian-born anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who died unexpectedly last year, investigated the high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, trying to understand why middle-class black students did far less well than middle-class whites. Ogbu, who has reported similar findings for over thirty years, lists in this most recent book the familiar claims about black students, claims that he found largely accurate. They put pressure on one another not to “act white” by doing well in school. They do not work as hard in school as white students from economically similar families. Black students watch TV and socialize with friends more than whites do. More black students than whites come to class unprepared and are more disruptive. Black students spend much more time at after-school jobs. Many think grades are unimportant because they can go to college on athletic scholarships. When given the opportunity to take more academically challenging courses in high school, they frequently decline.

Moreover, black parents supervise homework less frequently than white parents do, while black adolescents are exposed daily to skepticism about white-controlled institutions, such as schools. Black students also accept conventional notions that they have less academic ability and make less effort as a result. Ogbu supports these conclusions with his own observations and interviews with Shaker Heights’ black students, their parents, and their teachers. One student told Ogbu, “[Black] kids seem to…have…this unconscious way of thinking that Blacks are inferior to Whites. And I think that takes a toll….”

Along with other black conservatives—John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell—Ogbu places the blame for ongoing inequality on black communities. He recommends a variety of self-help strategies to raise black students’ achievement, such as publicizing black students’ academic successes, reinforcing parents’ commitment to monitoring their children, and so on. But he departs from conservative thinking in one important respect: he acknowledges that blacks have understandable reasons for cultural hostility to white society. Ogbu supports campaigns in black communities to encourage successful black scholars by holding award ceremonies for them. He also approves of schoolteachers’ attempts to convince blacks that there are no limits to their ambitions. But he acknowledges that such measures are unlikely to raise achievement to white middle-class levels.

Even if there were no social discrimination, and if black students were willing to believe in the value of hard work, lower-class blacks would still face obstacles to social mobility similar to those Stephan Thernstrom long ago documented for nineteenth-century white working-class youths. For one thing, the culture of underachievement is not exclusively black. Lower-class children, both black and white, do less well in school than middle-class children. Even if the race gap could be eliminated, the problem of improving the achievement of lower-class children of both races to middle-class levels would remain.

For decades now, sociologists have documented how differences in social class, regardless of race, affect young children’s readiness for schooling.6 Annette Lareau, who has observed middle- and working-class children, writes in her book Unequal Childhoods that middle-class children today are encouraged from an early age to negotiate with their parents over what to wear or eat, to question adult statements if they seem implausible, and to interact with adults as equals. Children from the white middle class are expected, for example, to describe their symptoms to pediatricians. Money tends to be less frequently discussed in middle-class families, so it less frequently occurs to middle-class children that their ambitions might be blocked by a shortage of resources.

Working-class children have no such sense of entitlement. Most of them, black and white, speak to adults only when spoken to; they are not expected to express opinions that challenge what adults say. Money or lack of it is a frequent topic of conversation at home, and children become aware early of the limits to their futures.

Lareau describes the hectic schedule middle-class parents organize for their children—music lessons and soccer leagues, for example. These are expensive, not only in money but in time, since children usually have to be driven from one activity to another. Children earn trophies and parental praise for their performances, which reinforces their sense of entitlement. These activities also promote teamwork and easier relations with strangers. The working-class children Lareau observed mostly stayed in their neighborhoods, playing games only among themselves.7

Middle-class parents were more likely to encourage children to figure out problems for themselves. Working-class parents were more likely to tell them what to do. Lareau’s middle- and working-class parents both encouraged their children to read, and parents from both classes read aloud to their children when they were young; but middle-class parents were more likely to read themselves, thus showing the importance of reading by their own behavior. Moreover, Lareau’s middle-class parents more frequently intervened in schools when they felt it in their children’s interest to do so. In high school, as John Ogbu observed, middle-class white parents are aggressive in guiding their children’s decisions on curriculum, while Ogbu’s black parents and Lareau’s working-class parents are not. Indeed, in many ways, Ogbu’s middle-class blacks are similar to Lareau’s working-class whites in attitudes toward education.

  1. 1

    Poverty and Progress (Harvard University Press, preface to the 1987 edition), p. v.

  2. 2

    The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880–1970 (Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 4.

  3. 3

    US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2001 (NCES, 2002), Table 8. (Data are for 2000, and for twenty-five-to-twenty-nine-year-olds.)

  4. 4

    Data reported here are for 1990 to 1993, the most recent available. The ratio of hourly earnings for black and white high school graduates was calculated from unpublished data provided to the author from Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Sylvia Allegretto, The State of Working America, 2004/ 2005 (forthcoming from Cornell University Press). Data on the ratio of hourly earnings for black and white high school graduates with similar test scores, and on the ratio of hours worked for black and white high school graduates, are from Tables 14-8 and 14-6, respectively, in William R. Johnson and Derek Neal, “Basic Skills and the Black–White Earnings Gap,” in The Black–White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (Brookings Institution Press, 1998).

  5. 5

    See Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 108, No. 5 (March 2003). For a review of ongoing racial discrimination in employment, see William A. Darity Jr. and Patrick L. Mason, “Evidence on Discrimination in Employment: Codes of Color, Codes of Gender,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring 1998). Other articles in this journal issue document continued discrimination in housing and consumer markets, as well as offering dissenting views.

  6. 6

    See, for example, Melvin L. Kohn, Class and Conformity: A Study in Values (University of Chicago Press, 1969); Shirley Brice Heath, Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 1983); Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Brookes, 1995); and an earlier book by Annette Lareau, Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (Falmer, 1989).

  7. 7

    Lareau denies that she intends to suggest that middle-class child-rearing practices are superior. Indeed, she gives the distinct impression that she finds these children “spoiled” and prefers the more naturally developing working-class youngsters. The point is not whether one or the other pattern is morally superior, but only that the middle-class children have developed habits of thinking and acting that seem to encourage academic inquiry and success.

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