Must Schools Fail?

Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement

by John U. Ogbu, with Astrid Davis
Erlbaum, 320 pp., $69.95; $32.50 (paper)

City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education

by Pedro A. Noguera
Teachers College Press, 187 pp., $50.00; $19.95 (paper)
Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom
Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom; drawing by David Levine

1.

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…


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