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Abigail Thernstrom
Abigail Thernstrom
No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
ISBN: 0743204468
No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
—from the publisher's website

Black and Hispanic students are not learning enough in our public schools. Their typically poor performance is the most important source of ongoing racial inequality in America today. Thus, say Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, the racial gap in school achievement is the nation's most critical civil rights issue and an educational crisis. It's no wonder that "No Child Left Behind," the 2001 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, made closing the racial gap in education its central goal.

An employer hiring the typical black high school graduate or the college that admits the average black student is choosing a youngster who has only an eighth-grade education. In most subjects, the majority of twelfth-grade black students do not have even a "partial mastery" of the skills and knowledge that the authoritative National Assessment of Educational Progress calls "fundamental for proficient work" at their grade.

No Excuses marshals facts to examine the depth of the problem, the inadequacy of conventional explanations, and the limited impact of Title I, Head Start, and other familiar reforms. Its message, however, is one of hope: Scattered across the country are excellent schools getting terrific results with high-needs kids. These rare schools share a distinctive vision of what great schooling looks like and are free of many of the constraints that compromise education in traditional public schools.

In a society that espouses equal opportunity we still have a racially identifiable group of educational have-nots -- young African Americans and Latinos whose opportunities in life will almost inevitably be limited by their inadequate education. When students leave high school without high school skills, their futures -- and that of the nation -- are in jeopardy. With successful schools already showing the way, no decent society can continue to turn a blind eye to such racial and ethnic inequality.

No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
Program Air Date: February 1, 2004

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Abigail Thernstrom, co-author of "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning," what`s the reason that you decided to do this book?
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM (Author, "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning"): Well, we decided to do the book because the racial gap is, it seems to us, the domestic problem. Education continues, of course, in the eyes of most Americans, to be the No. 1 domestic issue, but race continues to be the American dilemma. And we will never get to racial equality in this society as long as we continue to have a staggering racial gap in academic achievement between whites and Asians, on the one hand, blacks and Hispanics on the other hand. It is really the source of ongoing racial inequality in America.
LAMB: How wide is the gap?
THERNSTROM: The gap is appalling. At the end of high school, the typical African-American or Latino student is about four years behind -- depends on the subject a little, science is five years -- four years behind the average white or Asian student. And that means that those youngsters are graduating from high school with a junior high school education and going on to college or they`re going into the workplace with 7th or 8th-grade skills.

Our best source of information is the National Assessment for Educational Progress. It`s the nation`s report card on education. It`s called NAPE, and nobody disputes the NAPE numbers. And when you test 12th graders, typical -- again, these are averages -- typical black youngster is scoring below 80 percent of his or her white and Asian classmates. Hispanics doing a little better, not much better. It is a different story with Hispanics.

I could go on with numbers. I mean, look, the majority of black students -- NAPE has got seven tests. On five of them, majority of black students fall into the lowest category, which is below basic. I mean, that means they don`t have a partial knowledge of the fundamental skills that they need to do well in American society.

And if you look -- if you look at the top -- students at the very top, instead of looking at the below basic -- the top category is advanced -- and you take, for instance, math, percentage of black kids falling into the advanced category in math is 0.2 percent falling into that advanced category. The whites -- number of whites, 11 times as large. Number of Asians, 37 times as large. These are very bad numbers. And again, they do have long-run meaning for these youngsters because it is very hard to catch up after age 18.
LAMB: You have some statistics in your book: 37 percent of black children live with two parents, 77 percent of white students live with two parents...
LAMB: ... 65 percent of Hispanics live with two parents, and 81 percent of Asians live with two parents. How much does that have to do with it?
THERNSTROM: It does make a difference. There are strong correlations between single-parent households, birth to a young mother, parental education, place of residence and performance on these standards-based tests of academic achievement. But it isn`t the whole story. When you control for all the demographic factors -- and I should say, it`s not possible to control with total scientific accuracy because there are subtleties here you`re going to miss in, for instance, looking at the relationship between income and test scores, generally looking at free lunch eligibility. Well, free lunch eligibility covers a wide spectrum of family income levels.

But nevertheless, all of these factors do have something to do with academic achievement, but they explain only about a third of the gap, so that you`re left with two thirds unexplained by a normal -- you know, by poverty, by family structure, by place of residence, by education.
LAMB: I think it`s safe to assume that you are enamored by somebody by the name of Esquith.
THERNSTROM: Yes. A teacher.
LAMB: Full name?
THERNSTROM: Rafe Esquith.
LAMB: Where does he live?
THERNSTROM: In Los Angeles.
LAMB: What does he do?
THERNSTROM: Well, he, in effect, runs a one-room schoolhouse in a -- though the principal of the school would not like it to be described as such -- in a very large elementary school in central LA called the Hobart Elementary School. And there are 12 5th grades. He has just one of them. And he -- he is able to get away with running his own program, in every sense of the word -- in terms of curriculum, in terms of the hours the children attend, in terms of the length of the year, in terms of what they do with their time, and so forth, only because he has gotten a tremendous amount of publicity over the years and a lot of -- and he`s been very good at fund-raising. So the school and the district leaves him alone.

You have to be a kind of crazy man, like he is -- in the best sense -- to get away with what he does. He is there -- it`s become a little later now, but he`s there at roughly 6:30 in the morning every morning. And he says to his students, Well, you don`t have to come, this is a regular public school. It starts at 8:00 o`clock. You come when you want, but I`m going to be here at 6:30 teaching math. So you want to come and join us, delighted.

And after school, this school has almost no sports. He`s got -- he`s got phys ed for his kids, but he also has something called the Hobart Shakespeareans. And he -- all of his children have English as a second language. They are either Korean or they are Hispanic -- called Latino in California. And he decided many years ago these children have to learn English. How are they going to learn English? Let`s read Shakespeare. And so he started doing so, and he -- he puts on Shakespearean productions every spring. They aren`t on a stage. They aren`t in costume. They`re just in the classroom. But he`s become very famous for them because they are spectacular.

I mean, I went several times during the year two years ago, to see his "King Lear" develop and to see the kids start out, you know, line by line, talking about it. Well, what does this mean? And why were these words used? And, Does this really have implicit stage directions, you know? And he does the dialogue. And I watched it at various stages, and then I went back for the production, and I have to say, I was in tears watching it. I mean, these are 5th graders!

And I had called my husband, Stephan, who is my co-author on this book. I had called him after I first saw the kids reading "Lear." I had called him from the little balcony outside of Rafe`s classroom. And I said, You won`t believe what I`ve seen, 5th graders reading "King Lear." And Steve said, Don`t be ridiculous. That is pretentious and ridiculous. And I said, Steve, you have to see it. And so he came and saw it, and he said, Oh, my God. I can`t believe this.

Rafe has done a wonderful job, but he`s not interested in running a school. Nobody copies him in the school. Nobody pays attention to him. I went to the 5th grade next door one day, just right next to his classroom. And he said -- one of the teachers said, So you`ve been watching Rafe`s classroom. And I said, Yes, it`s unbelievable. And he said, yes, it`s very good. I said, So you could do some of those things. It was perfectly clear nothing was going on in his classroom. I said, You could do some of those things. I mean, this isn`t -- you know, it isn`t really so hard to do, read great literature with a book. I mean, Rafe also reads Mark Twain, and so forth. And he said, No. I mean, it`s an enormous amount of work.

He`s there working with his kids on Saturday morning. His kids come to his house on Saturdays, and they work on the music for it. Everybody -- everybody has a part in these plays because everybody plays -- at least plays music. And he adds the Beatles to Shakespeare and music that the kids like, and so forth. And it`s an amazing experience.

But he does more than teach, and this is true of all the schools that we talk about. They do more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic. They do more than zeroing in on the core academic subjects, which one does have to do, and relentlessly, with kids who come to school with so little. He`s into, in some fundamental ways, putting these kids on a different track in life and teaching them what the rules of getting ahead in America are.

I just got a Christmas card from one of the children he has. Every child in his class writes a Christmas card to somebody who has been to the class or written about the class. So this was a lovely card. Now, just to me from one of the students. If you go to the classroom, after you`ve left, all the kids sign a card saying, Thank you for coming. They have to dress properly. They have to speak English properly. They have to get there on time. They have to -- they learn a code of self-discipline. They have to clean their room. They have to scrub the tables and make sure it -- it`s a home for them. And a lot of those kids never want to go home.
LAMB: Do you have to volunteer for the class? How do you get in it?
THERNSTROM: You get -- the school assigns you, but there are a lot of kids who have joined the Shakespeare production in 4th grade and really campaign to get in the class. But the school assigns you, and a lot of the kids are considered academic losers.
LAMB: It`s called Hobart?
THERNSTROM: Hobart Elementary School.
LAMB: Elementary school. And it`s located where?
THERNSTROM: In central Los Angeles. It`s really Koreatown.
LAMB: And Rafe Esquith is how old?
THERNSTROM: Rafe has got to be mid-40s now.
LAMB: How long has been doing this?
THERNSTROM: Since college. Well, no, he`s been teaching since college. He`s -- well, he`s been doing this, though, for -- well, he started out in an affluent school, and then somebody challenged him to take on the kids that were hard to teach. And he`s been doing this for 20 years, almost.
LAMB: So what happens to these kids after they leave the 5th grade?
THERNSTROM: Well, he keeps track of them. He has SAT preparation. And by the way, he does a lot of testing preparation in the classroom. And he has the kids get onto the tricks that testers use to trap kids, so -- the way questions are phrased, so that you get just -- you get misled and you end up with the wrong answer. He continues offering SAT preparation. He goes on college tours with his graduates, when they get to the appropriate age. He`s raised enough money to be able do that.
LAMB: Who gives him money?
THERNSTROM: Various benefactors who are enamored with his class. He`s -- I mean, he`s very good at advertising his -- what he`s doing, and that`s a special skill all in itself.
LAMB: Does he personally benefit from this?
LAMB: He doesn`t make any more than any other teacher?
THERNSTROM: No, he makes less than other teachers because -- well, for a number of reasons. One, he`s refused to get these Mickey-Mouse, meaningless degrees that gets you bumped up the ladder and professional development points, and so forth. But also, I mean, there are absurd things that have gone on in this school, like the Royal Shakespeare Company one year asked him to bring his kids to London and to put on -- you know, in the studios, a little production. And Rafe`s pay was docked for being absent from school. No, he does this because he`s a -- I call him a saint and a masochist. And I do -- we do argue -- well, we do describe a number of schools. He`s the only single teacher we describe.

But I mean, one of the arguments I make -- or we make in the book, I should say -- and it happens to -- I`m the one who visited all the schools, so that`s why I`m using "I" -- is good education cannot depend on these extraordinary people who are willing to devote their lives to these kids.
LAMB: Let me ask you -- it might sound like an odd question. If Mary Frances Berry read this book...
LAMB: I say, If she read it.
THERNSTROM: Oh, if she read it. I was going to say, you have more news I don`t have.
LAMB: Yes. You two have tangled, Civil Rights Commission, she`s the chairman, you`re a member. How long have you been a member of the Civil Rights Commission?
THERNSTROM: Since January of 2001.
LAMB: And what is it, by the way? What does it do?
THERNSTROM: It`s a federal agency. It was created in 1957 in the `57 Civil Rights Act to monitor Civil Rights, write reports -- monitor the state of Civil Rights, write reports. It doesn`t have any enforcement powers, but we hold hearings and we do issue reports and we do issue press releases and -- you know, we`re government agitators, as it were.
LAMB: And the reason I asked the question that way, Mary Frances Berry, the chairman, is an African-American. And I just -- from your experience and knowing what she thinks and all, if she read this book, what would she agree with or disagree with strongly, just based on what you know?
THERNSTROM: I think what she would strongly disagree with -- I`m not sure what she would agree with, but what she would strongly disagree with is a -- is our skepticism about the degree to which you can say in 2003 that racism explains the racial gap, and more broadly, racial -- ongoing racial inequality in the society. You know, that obviously was true yesterday, and we don`t think it`s true today. America changed. And when you`re looking at the racial gap, in our view, you`re not basically looking at a problem of ongoing racism. I think she would very strongly disagree with that.
LAMB: If you were to put your finger on the one -- I know there`s more than one -- the one thing, the biggest thing that has caused difficulty for -- in this particular case, black kids, what would it be?
THERNSTROM: I`d prefer, of course, not to say one thing, but if I had to say one thing, it`s that there is a radical disconnect from the world of academic achievement on the part of black -- too many black kids and their families. So they`re frankly not working hard enough. They don`t...
LAMB: Why is there a disconnect?
THERNSTROM: Well, I don`t think we can completely answer that question. But we can say a couple of obviousy things, like education traditionally in this country, until very recently, never got African-Americans very far up that ladder of social mobility and there were great limits to where you could go. And of course, most blacks lived in the South, and until way after Brown versus Board -- I mean, in the deep South until the very late 1960s -- schools were totally segregated. And those were not only segregated, they were inferior, vastly inferior. There`s a lot of romanticism today about those all-black schools. Don`t get romantic. They were terrible. And so the message was certainly not delivered that you work hard in school, then doors are open to you, you can go far.

That is true today. I mean, equal skills and knowledge -- not equal years spending -- warming a seat in a classroom, but actual skills and knowledge, equal skills and knowledge, equal earnings. And that was not true yesterday. It was not true until very recently. It really is today. But the message needs to be delivered very strongly to black kids, and there are very few schools that are doing so, in part because the teachers don`t believe it.
LAMB: Do you live in Cambridge, Massachusetts?
THERNSTROM: I don`t. I live in Lexington.
LAMB: Lexington is right near Cambridge, though. Cambridge is where Harvard is.
THERNSTROM: My husband teaches at Harvard.
LAMB: Yes. The reason I bring this up is -- did I read it right that in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they spend $17,000 per student, and the national average is $6,000?
THERNSTROM: Yes, you read it right.
LAMB: The highest amount of money spent anywhere in the country.
THERNSTROM: I don`t know if it`s actually the highest, but it`s up there.
LAMB: What`s the racial mix of Cambridge?
THERNSTROM: Oh, it`s got a substantial black population. I can`t -- and a substantial Hispanic population. I can`t remember precisely the numbers at the moment, but substantial. And the racial gap in Cambridge is as bad as it is in -- well, it`s actually worse than in all sorts of low-income communities that spend half as much on education. I mean, Cambridge has got itself on a moral pedestal, and it`s just doing horribly in its schools.
LAMB: What`s the moral pedestal?
THERNSTROM: Oh, moral pedestal -- Cambridge thinks that it`s full of progressive ideas about education and progressive ideas about equality. And in fact, it`s not delivering the education that makes for real equality.
LAMB: Does anybody acknowledge that?
THERNSTROM: Well, we do have a quotation in the book from the superintendent, saying, yes, I know we got to do something about it. But the fact is, they aren`t doing anything sensible about it. And they`re now starting -- they`re stopping dropping the busing on the basis of your skin color, which was their previous solution and which, of course, got them nowhere. Busing is -- I mean, I like integrated schools, all other things being equal, but busing doesn`t raise the level of achievement. So now they`re going to start busing on the basis of social class. And I have a very simple view of that. Stop moving the kids around and teach them. That doesn`t seem to have occurred to Cambridge. And they`re all into very progressive notions about not having -- not sorting the kids on the basis of academic achievement and not having kids learn their times table because that`s rote learning. You learn what you are interested in, when you`re ready to learn it. It`s just an education disaster, as far as I can tell.
LAMB: KIPP -- K-I-P-P -- stands for what?
THERNSTROM: Knowledge Is Power Program.
LAMB: I understand there`s something called the Key Academy right here in Washington, but you talk about a KIPP school in Houston, among others. How many of them are there?
THERNSTROM: I think they`re up to 32 this year, but I -- that could be slightly high. In any case, they`ve got -- I think that`s right. They`ve got a big replication project. They started in Houston. And I talk more, actually, about the school in the South Bronx in New York, which I really know well. I`ve been...
LAMB: What`s it called?
THERNSTROM: It was just called KIPP Academy because, you see, the first two schools were the only KIPPs, so it was KIPP New York and KIPP Houston. This was -- the replication project is really fairly recent.
LAMB: When did they start it?
THERNSTROM: Let me see, about three years ago now. Something like that.
LAMB: Who started it?
THERNSTROM: It`s the Fisher Foundation, which is Gap money, and...
LAMB: What`s Gap money?
THERNSTROM: The clothes you wear. Or some people wear, anyway. Maybe you don`t.
LAMB: Anybody in particular behind that? I mean, any people that are running that whole operation?
THERNSTROM: Yes. They`ve got -- you know, they hired a staff, and Mike Feinberg actually -- it`s run out of San Francisco -- has just left there and gone back to Houston, but he and David Levin, David Levin of Bronx KIPP, they were the two originators of the KIPP academies. And Feinberg was very important in San Francisco until this year.

I mean, I should say, this is an incredible story because Feinberg and Levin -- University of Pennsylvania graduate, Yale graduate, Levin was -- and they were just kids. They went in to Teach for America, and they ended up teaching together in Houston. And they looked at each other -- I mean, they`re not 25 years old yet, at this point. They looked at each other and said, We can do better than this.

And so they started a school in Houston. And after a year, Dave went to New York and started the school only on one floor of a school that has three other schools in it, same demographic group, drawing from the same demographic population. Only very quickly, he got -- I mean, he got kids out of the Bronx projects. These are kids coming to school with nothing. It`s a middle school -- coming to school not knowing how to read. He very quickly got the highest math scores in all of the Bronx, second highest in New York City.

When he arrived, he said -- when he managed to persuade the New York City authorities to let him try this, he said, But you`re not sending me teachers in the usual way that teachers are just simply sent from the central office and principals don`t have a say over the team that they`ve got working for them now -- one of the little public school disasters that really impedes learning. He said, You`re not sending me teachers from the central office. And they said, Oh, yes, we are. And he said, Fine. I`m just going to open with 45 children, and I`m going to teach them all myself. So choose. Am I going to be the only teacher, or are you going to let me pick teachers?
LAMB: Is this a public school, by the way?
THERNSTROM: For five years, it was a regular public school, and now it`s become a charter school, which turned out to be essential. He needed the autonomy and the authority that you can only have in a charter school -- control over his hours, control over his budget, not fighting with the central office all the time.

I mean, I was with him for a day. He was up in Massachusetts. I was with him for a day, which I really wanted to talk to him, and he spent the day arguing with the bureaucracy about whether his kids, to have a morning snack, had to go four flights down to the cafeteria, or whether somebody would deliver their morning snack on the fourth floor, so that they didn`t have to interrupt the school day and lose learning time. The kids in KIPP do not lose learning time. You go to any other school, waste of time.
LAMB: Let me ask you, though, to define what a charter school is. I think you say in your book that there`s 36 states that have charter schools in them, and I`ll possibly find the number -- there`s a large number, it`s in the thousands of charter schools. What are they?
THERNSTROM: They are public schools. They`re often -- people refer to public schools and then charter schools. No. Charter schools are public schools. But they are chartered. And I mean, the state laws all differ. From state to state, you can have different charter school laws, and some are much better than others.

In Massachusetts, where I`m on the state board of education, it is the state board that charters the schools, gives a charter to a group that comes to us and says, Look, we`ve got an idea for a school. This is -- you know, Here is a total plan. This is what we`re going to do. And this is what we promise in the way of results. And they are accountable for those results. They will be closed if they don`t come through. We closed a charter school last year in Massachusetts. But in exchange, they have enormous autonomy.

So the accountability is attached to freedom. Yes, you have the freedom. You`re out from under the collective bargaining agreements -- very, very important.
LAMB: You don`t belong to a union?
LAMB: The teachers do not belong to a union?
THERNSTROM: That`s correct.
LAMB: They cannot -- or the unions -- can the unions organize them?
LAMB: Under what law?
THERNSTROM: Well, I mean, that`s part of the charter school that these schools are free to be non-union. I mean, can it -- no, the unions wouldn`t try because these are teachers who are going to a school in order to be out from under the union rules.
LAMB: Do they make more or less than a normal public school?
THERNSTROM: They are -- the charter schools in general, by the way, have smaller budgets, although they can supplement them by fund-raising. But they have smaller budgets because -- for instance, in Massachusetts -- and this is not unusual -- they don`t get the entire per-pupil funding. The schools the kids leave, those they walk from, still get part of the money that`s attached to those kids.

But in any case, you know, what`s important about the teacher pay that they have differential salaries, by and large. That is, the good teachers get paid more. And there is a pay scale that is not simply dependent on degrees and years of seniority, which is the public school rule. And there are ladders of opportunity within the school. You can become a mentor, so you`re not coming in at 25, expecting to do the same job at 65 unless you go into administration, which a lot of teachers don`t want to do. So there`s a flexibility in working with the teachers.

Now, they do get extra pay for the long hours, for instance, that the KIPP teachers spend, and that money has to be raised.
LAMB: There are 2,700 charter schools in 36 states and the District of Columbia. Is there any evidence that the charter schools either graduate more kids? More of them go to college, more of them graduate from college, any of that?
THERNSTROM: Too much variety in the quality of the charter schools. In some states, you`ve got -- I mean -- Arizona has got more charter schools than I can count. A huge variety, a reluctance to close them. Our view of charter schools is that they -- the -- the autonomy, the accountability, the flexibility provide the preconditions for excellent education that are not there in normal public school settings. But are they any guarantee that you`ll have good schools? Absolutely not. And when the schools are not good, they should be closed without any hesitation, and so should regular public schools.
LAMB: If I live in a community and there`s a charter school and I`m middle or high school, can I go to one?
THERNSTROM: Well, you can try to go to one. But, I mean, all these charter schools have huge waiting lists.
LAMB: Who decides who gets in?
THERNSTROM: Random selection.
LAMB: Random meaning ...
THERNSTROM: Put your ...
LAMB: Lottery?
THERNSTROM: Yeah, lottery.
LAMB: So it`s not -- is it decided on race or -- is it -- no quotas or anything like that?
THERNSTROM: No. And in fact, the charters -- all the charter schools that we talk about in the book are -- well, Ray`s class has got some -- obviously got Korean kids in it, so it`s partly Asian, but the rest of them are all -- either all black or all black and Latino.
LAMB: Why is it that all your statistics show that almost in every category, Asians, and they`re 4 percent of the American public school students are Asian. Sixty-one percent are white, 17 percent are black and 16 percent are Hispanic, according to your figures. Why is it that the Asians are in almost every category -- and I`m going to read some other statistics here, they`re interesting, do better than everybody else?
THERNSTROM: Culture matters. That is the toughest message we`ve got in the book. And it`s the message we thought that people were going to have a hard time swallowing. And indeed, what has astonished us in terms of the reception to the book is the degree to which people have said, yes, she`s right. And I`ve done quite a bit of talk radio, and specifically black talk radio, where parents call in and say, she`s right, she`s right, she`s right. And we have had, very gratifyingly, a number of very prominent black columnists, William Raspberry, Clarence Page, write very nice columns saying culture matters. Of course it matters.
LAMB: What do we mean by culture?
THERNSTROM: And that`s a very important question, because we hesitated, Steve and I, about using the word culture, because it`s got baggage. It has the implication of something like I.Q., that`s permanent, that you can`t change.

And what we simply mean by culture is those values and skills that are shaped and reshaped by environment. Nothing permanent about it. But that nevertheless, does attach certain racial and ethnic groups so that we can say, by and large, you know, let`s switch away from the groups we talk about for a minute. And somebody said to me the other day, why did you do so well on SATs? And the obvious answer is they have been studying for them for thousands of years. I mean, that`s part of the culture matters point.

Asian culture by and large -- we`re talking about averages here. But what`s interesting is that of course when we use the umbrella word Asian, you`re talking about a huge variety of groups. I mean, it`s ridiculous to use such an umbrella term, in fact.
LAMB: I mean, you point out Pacific Islanders, who are Asian, don`t do as well as others.
THERNSTROM: Don`t do as well. But by and large, just looking at averages, Asians do do spectacularly well in school, much better than whites in some respects. And there are messages from the families, from these intact families about hard work, self-discipline. You ask Asian kids whether they think grades are -- good grades are due to luck or to teacher`s attitudes towards them, or whatever. No, hard work.
LAMB: But you go back to the statistics again, 81 percent of Asian students have two parents in the home.
THERNSTROM: It matters.
LAMB: And 77 percent of black kids have only one parent in the home.
THERNSTROM: That matters. But it unfortunately -- I mean, there is very good statistical work on this. It explains about a third of the gap -- well, all the demographic factors together, but it doesn`t explain the whole thing.
LAMB: Go to TV. You write about television.
LAMB: Blacks watch on average -- kids, five hours of television a day, an hour more than white kids do. And a lot more than Asian kids do. How much does that (unintelligible)?
THERNSTROM: No, actually you have -- unless my memory doesn`t serve me correctly, the whites and Asians mysteriously don`t look that much different, and the black kids are watching much more than either group, like twice as much more. Oh, it`s extremely important. Black kids are watching much too much television, and they say it`s their social homework, they have to watch in order to be part of their peer group.
LAMB: Stop there for a second. Define that phrase. You used it several times, social homework. What is it?
THERNSTROM: It`s what they need to do to be socially acceptable to their peers, to be part of the group. Every teenager, every kid wants to be accepted by his or her peers.
LAMB: How much does that have to do with the parent not being there saying turn that off?
THERNSTROM: That has something to do with it, but it also has to do obviously with -- well, it does have something to do with it. But I was going to say it also had something to do with the peer culture that gets going. But look, the extraordinary thing about Asians is not simply that the parents are saying -- and the Asians are watching quite a bit of television. We couldn`t quite figure out how much they`re watching so much television and they`re doing much more homework than any of their classmates, whites included.

So either they`re exaggerating the amount of television in order to feel that they sound American, or they`re putting television in the background and doing homework. Whatever, we don`t know the answer to that.

But look, the extraordinary thing about Asians is not simply that their parents deliver the message, but that they listen to their parents. And we have a quotation from an Asian mother who says, I don`t know why teachers -- my children`s teachers say they want me to be a friend of my children. But that`s not our way. We`re not friends of our children. We are parents.

And we also have -- you mentioned the Key academy, which is a KIPP Academy...
LAMB: Here in Washington.
THERNSTROM: Here in Washington, D.C., where the director of the Key has to say to a mother, you are not your child`s friend. Your child needs a mother. So it`s not only that the Asians, but the messages from the parents are very strong and very clear, and there is a belief -- there are stars in their eyes about America, and you know you`ll do well, and you`ll do well in America. You`ll do well in school, and you`ll do well in America.

I think inner city blacks are much more depressed about -- and that`s important, about what the possibilities are for them and their kids, and it is important for the schools to again be delivering a message about -- on that subject. But these Asian kids, I lost my train of thought here, but they listen to their parents.
LAMB: Let me ask you this, then, because you have got 2001 statistics on the freshmen class in the following colleges and the percentage of the freshman class that are Asian. MIT, in your neighborhood, 27 percent. Stanford, 25 percent. Cal Tech, 24. University of Pennsylvania, 19. University of - Columbia University, 18. Harvard, 17 percent of the freshman class is Asian. Brown and Yale, 12 percent. No, 15 percent at Brown and Yale and 12 percent at Duke and Princeton. How does this happen? And you see a movement -- there`s been a lot of discussion about this, where people are worried that there are going to be too many Asians and try to prevent that from happening, going into these colleges?
THERNSTROM: Yes, and there are murmurings of that sort, and you left out the California system, Asians are 4 percent of the American population, they`re 10 percent of the state of California. These are about 50 percent of the two flagship school, that is UCLA and Berkeley. How does this happen? Well, huge difference between Asians and whites, actually, in terms of SAT scores, especially in math and -- but also advanced placement course taking. These students are working so hard, and, again, they see school as their ticket. And there has been a certain amount of resentment, and indeed I was -- this is a number of years ago now, I was on "CROSSFIRE," and the host said to me, you are going to be satisfied when these schools are all Asian? And we were talking about California schools specifically at that point. And I felt like saying, what are we talking about, the yellow peril here? I mean, this is, you know, that`s a very ugly question. These kids earned their way into it.
LAMB: On the back of your book, I want to mention who you have endorsing. This is praise for "American Black and White," which is another book.
THERNSTROM: Right. I was just going to say, don`t mix that up.
LAMB: No, I`m not. But I was interested in this. Linda Chavez, Tom Sowell, Shelby Steele, Alan Wolfe, James P. Wilson. And Henry Louis Gates. How did you get Henry Louis Gates, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard to endorse that book?
THERNSTROM: He read it, and he said, by God, you`ve got a good book here. And, you know, we`re extremely grateful to him. He`s intellectually willing to read books, and to say, OK. You know, he does say -- I can`t remember how much of the quotation is there. But in the original quotation from him, he does say he disagrees with us, some -- he named specifically on the question of racial preferences in admissions to institutions of higher education. But he says nevertheless.
LAMB: How often does it happen because you`re the authors, you and your husband Stephan are the authors of a book like this, that a lot of people in education, people who belong to unions, people who are African-Americans or Hispanics just automatically disagree with it, and you have an argument just over the fact that you did it?
THERNSTROM: It`s happened less with this book than with "American Black and White," and I can`t quite figure out why. And indeed our agents say, more controversy, we want more controversy. The interesting thing -- one television program, I got into an argument about whether black children needed a black curriculum, which I certainly don`t believe, but the other guest did. Now, I don`t really think there`s such a thing as black math. And then interestingly, but this has been -- oh, it has been to some degree public, to some degree private in the form of e-mails and things, caught a certain amount of flak from what I would call the hard white, who are very distressed about the fact that we say loud and clear this is not an I.Q. problem, which we believe. It is not an I.Q. problem. These are kids who have been needlessly, shamefully left behind.
LAMB: The title of your book is "No Excuses." Where does that come from?
THERNSTROM: Well, the schools we describe are often called no-excuses schools. And that predated the title of this book. But we have a larger meaning to it. We think of it in larger terms. That is, our message is no excuses to the schools that are failing to teach these kids. No excuses to the kids who are failing to meet the schools halfway. If you don`t come to school on time, with your homework done, you don`t listen in class, if you wander in and out, if you spend half your school day in the hall, if you are spending a considerable amount of time with the school dealing with you as a discipline problem, you know, you`re not meeting the school halfway.

So no excuses to the school, no excuses to the teachers. It`s responsibility all around here. No excuses to the kids, no excuses to the parents who keep a child home when the child needs -- when the parent needs a baby sitter, or whatever. Or don`t get that kid out of the house first thing in the morning, on time, dressed properly. So, you know, just period, no excuses, America, because these are our kids. I mean, we cannot as a society go on with a racially identifiable group of educational have-nots. It just -- it`s poisonous.
LAMB: How long have you and Stephan Thernstrom been married?
THERNSTROM: It will be 45 years in -- this January 3.
LAMB: Where did you meet?
THERNSTROM: At Harvard graduate school.
LAMB: Studying what?
THERNSTROM: He was studying American history. Actually, in the program on degrees in American civilization, and at the time I was studying, if you can believe it, Middle Eastern politics. And flipping Arabic cards when he first laid eyes on me at a lecture by I.F. Stone. We were both very politically left. I grew up in a very politically left household.
LAMB: Where?
THERNSTROM: Croton-on-Hudson, New York, which was known at the time for a lot of members of the American Communist Party and fellow travelers. And it was a very good aspect to that. I led a very racially integrated life. And I`ve never forgotten the values of my parents with respect to racial equality. And that has -- that`s been good. Anyway, we met at an I.F. Stone lecture, the voice out of the leftist past in America, and I was flipping Arabic cards.
LAMB: Where is he from? Meaning your husband, Stephan?
THERNSTROM: He is from Battle Creek, Michigan, and before that, Port Huron, Michigan. Very, very different family than mine. My family in my teens moved to New York City, and not small-town America.
LAMB: Have you had children?
THERNSTROM: Two children, yes.
LAMB: How old are they today?
THERNSTROM: 36 and 39.
LAMB: What kind of schools did they go to?
THERNSTROM: They went to public schools in Lexington. Well, public schools in Los Angeles and then Lexington. Steve was teaching at UCLA for a while. And then they both went to Harvard.
LAMB: Have you ever taught?
THERNSTROM: Yes, at Harvard, I have.
LAMB: For how long?
THERNSTROM: Let me see, I had a lectureship for three years and then we went to England for a year. I gave it up. And then I came back on a visiting basis to teach American constitutional law when somebody was taking a leave. That is my field, actually, is con law. And I decided -- and I`ve had a couple of other visiting -- I had a very, very nice offer from Berkeley at one point, and I really decided after that year coming back to teach at Harvard that I didn`t want to teach, I wanted to write, which is what I love doing and what I`m better at. Go with who you are.
LAMB: Take this book and what you`ve learned in all your studies and put yourself in the District of Columbia, where I think they spend as much as $15,000 a student and don`t have very good success. And you`re a black woman, single, and you`ve got a kid. What would you recommend -- and you don`t -- you`re not very -- you know, you may have a high school degree or something like that. And you want your kid to have the best and not get trapped in the racial gap. What would you do?
THERNSTROM: Well, of course, D.C. has a potential voucher program on the table, and I would really push.
LAMB: Let`s say no vouchers yet and you want to do something right now?
THERNSTROM: Well, you`ve got to support your kid and you`ve got to scream bloody murder in the local school if you don`t think your kid is being properly taken care of. But you have got to support your kid in the ways that I have already suggested. Your child has to do homework regularly, be at school. There are so many kids that are not really at school. They are dropouts, though they`re not officially counted as such. They have in effect dropped out of school. They have checked out. They`re there sporadically, or they have checked out, you know, in the earlier years. They have already checked out.

Any child that`s not reading by third grade, bells of alarm should go off in a parent`s head as well as teachers, instead of oh, well, he or she will read later, whatever. Really, to the best of your ability, keep track of what`s going on. That`s hard for parents. It was hard for me to do that. Partly because I didn`t understand what I was looking at in schools.
LAMB: Yeah, but say again, you don`t really know what it is that should be expected of a child. I mean, how -- you are implying here that if you haven`t learned it by a certain age, you haven`t got that base, you`re in trouble.
THERNSTROM: Yeah. Though I would say there is -- I mean, KIPP schools, remember, are middle schools, and there are some high schools that are turning kids` lives around. It gets later and later, though.

Look, you do the best you can to deliver the message to your kid that this is a country with its arms wide open for young people with skills and talent. And -- I mean, skills and knowledge. And you -- school matters. I mean, you cannot -- it`s more important to read -- read to your kid, by the way, as a parent, you should read to your kid.
LAMB: What if you`re not a reader? What if you just have an instinct, I want my kid to be the best and have the best education, and you`re just -- you know, is there a place to go? Is there money available to get him out of a public school system that`s not doing well? All those kind of things.
THERNSTROM: Well, in many cities -- I don`t actually know the D.C. scene, but there are a lot of privately funded scholarships that do get children out of the regular public schools and a lot of them into parochial schools. If I had, I hate to say it, but if I had 1,800, 2,200, whatever a parochial school charges, and I felt the local parochial school was doing a very good job -- I hate to say it, because I am a believer in public education. Parochial schools, by and large, are doing a much better job. Simple reasons -- they have a disciplined atmosphere, they are serious about zeroing in on the core subjects.
LAMB: What would you do with your child when it comes to the social homework that`s so important? I mean, you go so far in here as to talk about not allowing kids to wear their jeans down around their knees. I mean, you know, the whole scene?
THERNSTROM: The school has to not allow it. The parents can`t assume that burden all alone. Look, you asked where did we meet, do we have children and all that, you know, go back to my own family, because it -- only because it`s -- I`m somewhat sympathetic to this social homework question.

My kids watched very little television, because they had these terrible parents. They were allowed to watch on Saturday mornings, but by the time they got to Saturday mornings, they couldn`t even remember there was television and the only television was in our bedroom, and we went to bed early. There was a cost, of course, there was a cost to that, and I`m very aware of it and so are they. There was a disconnect from their peer group. They were, to some extent, socially isolates. Did they learn to be alone? Yeah, I don`t think that`s a bad skill. Learn to be alone.

It`s hard to do that to your kids. And I`m not sure my kids would do that to their kids. So there are tradeoffs, but, you know, you`ve got to keep your eye on the prize, and the prize is doing well in American society. Doors are open.
LAMB: Were your parents educated?
THERNSTROM: Yes, they were.
LAMB: How many degrees?
THERNSTROM: Well, my father, just short of a college degree, and my mother -- and the reason I`m hesitating is my mother died when I was fairly young. I think that she did manage to get her college degree. Steve`s parents -- his father went through only eighth grade.
LAMB: Were there books in your both of your families?
THERNSTROM: Books in my family, yes. In his family, yes, to some extent, even though his mother was only a high school graduate and, again, his father only eighth grade. His father -- his father read "Reader`s Digest" and worked on his vocabulary, and had the vocabulary, as a consequence, of a very educated person.

Steve was thrilled when we wrote an article for "Reader`s Digest," because it had been his father`s education. And -- but Steve was a total delinquent in school and not at all interested, until he moved from Port Huron to Battle Creek, where he was socially isolated. And then he took Latin. And his mother insisted -- the school wasn`t going to let him take Latin. His mother went down to the school and said, my child is taking Latin. And it turned him around. That and debate. And he went to a -- he actually doesn`t have a B.A. He went to a school of speech, with a B.S. in public speaking. He went on a debate scholarship.
LAMB: So you -- both of you have got Harvard degrees?
THERNSTROM: I`m not undergraduate.
LAMB: But Ph.D.`s?
THERNSTROM: Ph.D.`s, yes.
LAMB: And both of your kids have Harvard degrees?
LAMB: You can imagine people saying, how could she possibly know the problems of an inner city school.
THERNSTROM: I don`t know all the problems of an inner city school, but I am an American. I`m part of the society. I`ve had a -- I`ve been writing on issues of race and ethnicity for 20 years now. I`ve spent really a lot of time at these schools, and -- I mean, this is going to sound ridiculous, and I care. I mean, I don`t regard these kids as somebody else`s kids.
LAMB: Why is the right wing upset about this book and think that it`s an I.Q. problem?
THERNSTROM: Well, I just said some. The flak we`ve gotten, interestingly enough, has been less from the left than -- well, there is -- look, there are a lot of people who believe that I.Q. is very important. And we don`t. Steve has been a long student of I.Q. He is, even though I`m the political scientist and he`s the American historian, he has really -- he`s got a sign on his desk, "numbers speak louder than words." He`s a totally quantitative -- he doesn`t ask any questions that don`t have a quantitative answer. He`s been a long student of I.Q. And he simply doesn`t buy it.
LAMB: I.Q., intelligence coefficient or intelligence quotient...
LAMB: Quotient. And do you know what yours is?
THERNSTROM: No. And I don`t know what his is either.
LAMB: But do people know -- I mean, how do we know? Who knows what someone`s I.Q. is?
THERNSTROM: I don`t know, but there`s a certain amount of -- a certain amount of I.Q. testing and social affairs, you know...
LAMB: Do they still do it in schools?
THERNSTROM: ... there`s literature. That`s a very good question that I don`t know the answer to. I`ve asked it with the schools that we`ve looked at, have looked at, or that I have looked at very closely, and the answer is no. Do public schools do it? I think probably not because -- it`s going to differ from district to district, though.
LAMB: I have got to ask this, just as we get near the end, are you glad that you went on the Civil Rights Commission?
THERNSTROM: Yes, I am. I am glad because I -- because race remains, as I said at the very beginning of this interview, it remains the American dilemma. You know, poisons the American society, and because it is important by now to understand that these issues have gotten very complicated. Race-related issues, ethnicity-related issues, very, very complicated, and we need a diversity of voices. Not diversity...
LAMB: How much of what we see on our C-SPAN television screens when we cover the commissions between you and Mary Frances Berry is personal and how much of it is professional?
THERNSTROM: The personal is the political for her.
LAMB: What does that mean?
THERNSTROM: She can`t separate the two. She can`t separate the two. I really believe that I can totally. I have all sorts of friends whom I really disagree with on fundamental issues, but I get along with them, I love them in some cases.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. Our guest has been the co-author, Abigail Thernstrom, with her husband, Stephan Thernstrom, and the title of this book is "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning." And we thank you very much.
THERNSTROM: Thank you for having me, Brian.

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