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Public School Reform Would Close Racial Gap in Education, Authors Say

Public School Reform Would Close Racial Gap in Education, Authors SayWASHINGTON
The racial gap in learning is largely due to culture and can be narrowed by restructuring the educational system so that it rewards the best and most in-demand teachers for working in the inner cities, argue two scholars in a new book.
Drs. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, both senior fellows at the conservative Manhattan Institute, argue in No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning that the education system is set up in a way that discourages the best teachers from teaching in the most difficult schools.
The Thernstroms recently explored a few of their book’s main arguments at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. They offered several ideas on how to improve the academic performance of Blacks by changing the structure of the school system.
“The racial gap in academic issues between Whites and Asians on the one hand and Blacks and Hispanics on the other hand is an educational crisis,” Abigail Thernstrom said. “It is an American tragedy and a national emergency for which there are no good excuses.”
About two-thirds of the gap between the academic performance of Blacks and other ethnic/racial groups is due to cultural factors, she said. Black students reported that they did about four hours of homework a week when they were working their hardest, while Whites said they did double that amount each week, and Asians reported doing 35 hours a week of homework when they were working their hardest.
In a national survey of high school students, when asked what is the lowest grade they can come home with without getting in trouble, Asians responded A-, Whites responded B- and Blacks responded C-, said Abigail Thernstrom, quoting material from the book.
Asian parents typically expect their children to work extraordinarily hard in school and their children do so, cutting classes less often than their peers, enrolling in AP courses at triple the rate of Whites and spending twice as much time on their homework as their non-Asian classmates, she said.
“Hard work is obviously a culturally transferable skill, and schools can play an invaluable part in shaping the values, habits and skills that make for a high academic performance,” she said, arguing that reforming the school system can have an impact on Blacks’ academic performance. “(Good schools) aim to transform the culture of the students as that culture affects academic performance.”
Stephan Thernstrom focused his presentation on how to get the best teachers into the worst classrooms, particularly in subjects like math and science in which they are in the most demand. A good teacher, he said, is one whose students show impressive gains throughout the year.
Thernstrom began by discounting the conventional wisdom that the way to improve performance in minority schools is to increase the number of teachers with education degrees and a lot of experience teaching. He also said that having more “in field” teachers — or teachers that have taken classes in the subjects they teach — will improve learning — is a fallacy because most “in field” teachers have taken graduate courses in how to teach a subject rather than in the content of that subject.
He conceded that smarter and more educated teachers could make a difference in narrowing the racial education gap. The reason that more accomplished teachers don’t work in inner-city schools is that the structure of public education influences them to leave the worst schools over time, Thernstrom said. Public school salaries depend on the number of degrees a teacher has acquired and the number of years he or she has put in on the job.
“So if you can’t get paid any more for being a great teacher at a school that really needs your services, the temptation is strong after a few years to move on to a school where you know you can leave your car in the parking lot with a radio in it and you can return at the end of the day and the car will still be there and the radio will even be in it,” he said.
The first solution the Thernstroms offer is to offer pay differentials for the best teachers and the teachers who teach in-demand subjects like math and science, and also offer better pay for good teachers who are willing to work in the most troubled schools where their services are needed the most.
A more important piece of reform for closing the racial gap, the Thernstroms argue, is creating a more orderly and satisfying work environment for public school teachers. Stephan Thernstrom pointed out that private school teachers are paid about a third less than public school teachers, but choose to work in private schools because they offer better work conditions than public schools.
“In order to get higher quality teachers, you do have to have a system of incentives for young people to come into the schools and, therefore, you have to change the work conditions in the schools because the current system does not reward excellence, innovation, dedication and so forth,” Abigail Thernstrom said.
— By Ben Hammer

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