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Education Reporter

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No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, Simon & Schuster, 2003, 274 pps., $26.00.

Black high school students graduate an average of four years behind white students in academic skills. In other words, they miss out on a high school education. This stark statistic is the starting point for the Thernstroms' latest book on race problems in the United States. This is followed by a host of other depressing statistics showing a persistent achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students on the one hand, and white and Asian students on the other.

"The mind-numbing data on the racial gap in academic achievement should make all Americans furious," write the authors, who are scholars at the Manhattan Institute and Harvard University, respectively. As they demonstrate, money is not the explanation for the gap.

In Cambridge, Mass., despite spending $17,000 per pupil, black students scored lower on tests than black students in nearby areas with less than half as much spending per pupil. Moreover, schools exist where the students are equally poor and black but have outstanding test scores. Such schools seldom receive more funding than failing schools.

What is the answer to the most pressing civil rights problem of our time? Parents' income, education and place of residence account for only about a third of the gap. The Thernstroms believe we need teachers with higher test scores and academic skills instead of graduate degrees in education; higher pay for the excellence and skills that are in short supply; and a safe and orderly school environment. Because of entrenched resistance to change in the public school system, more educational choice is needed to achieve these goals.

The best inner-city public schools in the authors' estimation are charter schools, which operate free from many regulations and political constraints. They focus on core academic subjects such as multiplication tables, historical facts, spelling, punctuation and grammar. They instill discipline. When they fail, they can be closed down.

"When did you last hear of a regular public school that was closed down because it wasn't teaching its students well enough?" ask the Thernstroms. They conclude that the racial achievement gap will not be closed without more public schools following the charter school model, and that vouchers offer another route to educational choice.

Conservative scholar Thomas Sowell wrote of No Excuses, which is dedicated to him, "If you read just one book about American education all year, this should be the book." (townhall.com, 9-24-03)

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