By Palasek, Karen Y.
Freeman , Vol. 55, No. 1
No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail Themstrom and Stephan Themstrom Simon & Schuster * 2003/2004 * 334 pages $26 hardcover, $15 paperback
In No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, the Thernstroms offer a thoughtful discussion of why public schools have failed, and are likely to continue to fail, to close the achievement gap between races. They cite institutional barriers and the lack of proper incentives as roadblocks to educational excellence in the public schools. Unfortunately, the authors stop short of identifying the most fundamental obstacle to improvement: government-run schooling itself.
Effective public schools are the exception rather than the rule, the Themstroms report. A few public schools have managed to involve parents, to impose exacting standards on teachers and students, and to build academic skills in pupils at high risk for falling even further behind.
Those "wonderful schools" have a common thread. All are charter schools, and in most cases, part of the Knowledge Is Power Program, known as KIPP academies. While still part of the public-school system, charter schools are somewhat less regulated and receive less public funding than traditional public schools. KIPP schools demand contracts from students, teachers, and parents, and follow through with consequences if someone fails to keep his end of the bargain. These schools mimic, as far as possible, the attention, time, and commitment available in private education, but tend to serve children who have made little academic headway in traditional public schools. Competition for seats at KIPP schools motivates attendance, study, and behavior. And since charter schools are available on a limited basis within the public system, these demanding schools can afford to enforce the rules. The bottom line: KIPP schools get results. Compared to their traditional public-school counterparts, black students at KIPP academies are steadily narrowing the black-white learning gap.
Traditional schools have their hands tied in a number of ways that prevent them from being effective. The authors cite teacher unions, with seniority and tenure demands, lockstep pay grades, and control of teacher-education programs, as the most significant stumbling blocks. Instead of trying to remove those obstacles, however, the Thernstroms would like to see reforms that can only be implemented, at present, in a charter-school setting: performance and subject-based pay differentials, and an emphasis on teacher expertise rather than education credentials. …