search by author or title

No Excuses

Closing the Racial Gap in Learning


Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom (View Bio)
Hardcover: Simon & Schuster, 2003; Paperback: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

No Excuses

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.

A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
An American School Board Journal Best Book of the Year

"This important new book...will be widely noted and much discussed.... The book's profiles of...successful schools — schools that, week in and week out, demonstrate that these gaps can be narrowed — are worth the purchase price. So is the chapter on 'roadblocks to change.' But there's much more between these covers." — Education Gadfly

"This book, [Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's] manifesto, is one of the most valuable guides to saving America's schools that I have ever read." — Jay Matthews, Wilson Quarterly

"There's a good case for saying that it's America's most pressing domestic problem. It underlies the entire racial question, and, for good measure, also involves the meaning of education and meritocracy. I'm talking about the most depressing and shocking fact of American life: that, in the critical area of educational achievement, the races simply are not doing equally well; and nothing seems to work to eliminate that fact. [The Thernstroms] explor[e] the problem with a frankness American policy elites have only recently adopted." — Sunday Times (London)

"The Thernstroms...deliver 'a tough message' about how 'to close the racial gap in academic achievement.'... This argument for standards-based testing and charter schools is sure to set off enough controversy to garner it major reviews and much attention." — Publishers Weekly

"The most important civil rights book in a generation. And one of the most encouraging.... The uncannily insightful authors of the encyclopedic AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE, perhaps the definitive work on race and race relations in contemporary America, take an unflinching look at the problem, the reasons therefore, and proven and potential remedies. This is not a book for the merely well-intentioned. This is a book about results." — Engage

"Perhaps the best book on [the] subject." — The Economist

"NO EXCUSES is a comprehensive and informed effort to explore the racial gap in education and what can be done about it. The book is based on scrupulous examination of current research literature.... [The Thernstroms] demonstrate that many answers that enjoy wide intellectual and political currency — more money, more racial integration, more minority teachers, better teachers — either have little foundation in research or are enormously difficult or even impossible to implement.... The Thernstroms properly note all the obstacles to true reform.... And their answer in the end is not general reform.... Their answer is escape from the system.... Nobody has come up with anything more promising." — The New Republic

"Meticulously documented and powerfully written." — Boston Globe

"Keeping the children most in need squarely in our sights à la the Thernstroms is the beginning of wisdom about fixing our schools." — The New York Times Book Review

"Impassioned, informed.... Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom deserve praise for their passion for racial equality, their powerful prose, and their fascinating arguments." — Harvard Magazine

"If current education efforts fizzle, we'll need a strong 'Plan B' to follow immediately. A good place to start is with the lessons from NO EXCUSES." — Seattle Times

"Few enthusiasts for racial progress challenge the taboos of the race debate with quite the scholarship and spirit of [the] formidable husband-and-wife team [of the Thernstroms]. Among the numerous tabooed topics, one especially needs ventilation: the huge and growing school-performance gap between blacks and whites.... This is significant stuff.... The Therstroms, with statistical precision, point to a growing divide between the educational achievements of whites and Asians and those of blacks and Hispanics. They rightly call this divide 'an American tragedy and national emergency for which there are no good excuses.'" — Bill Murchison, Townhall.com

"Discussing racial gaps in education is taboo in some quarters. But this subject is discussed deeply and thoroughly in a new book titled NO EXCUSES: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail Thernstrom...and Stephan Thernstrom.... They are also the authors of the best book on race relations — AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE — so there are high expectations for this new book. NO EXCUSES lives up to those expectations. If you read just one book about American education all year, this should be the book." — Thomas Sowell, Townhall.com

"Convincing.... The great value of NO EXCUSES is its focus on cultural transformation. Schools that are closing the racial learning gap explicity teach students to value hard, practice self-discipline, show respect and aspire to be 'the master of my destiny.'... Creating disciplined schools is hard work, but it must be done." — San Jose Mercury News

"Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom make clear in their new book, NO EXCUSES: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, [that] a significant source of the gap is in the attitudes toward academic achievement that are prevalent in black America, even among thee economically successful, college-trained middle class.... Important." — William Raspberry, Washington Post

"Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have produced a boook that should rock the nation. NO EXCUSES: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning is an absolutely brilliant analysis of what ails American education today.... No fair-minded person reading this scholarly and lucid book can fail to recognize [the Thernstroms'] good faith. It is hard to imagine a more necessary book about domestic policy. The Thernstroms deserve the title 'civil rights activists' more than any other living Americans because they are outraged about the greatest obstacle to full racial equality — poor educational performance by black and Hispanic kids.... Unflinching.... NO EXCUSES...demolishes the conventional wisdom about failing kids and failing schools.... This learned and deeply human book shines a spotlight on [failing schools] and points the way to a better future." — Mona Charen, Jewish World Review

"Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have once again written a book that goes to the heart of an important issue. NO EXCUSES is a timely, well-documented analysis of the achievement gap in education. It provides the information that will bring us closer to understanding and addressing one of the most urgent problems in our society." — Diane Ravitch

"A damning account of how the public schools fail black students.... One cannot read the Thernstroms' book without wondering: Where are the civil-rights marches protesting the public schools? Where are Jesse Jackson's angry denunciations? Most black leaders have simply sold out the future of black kids to teachers unions. And most other people are happy to avert their eyes from the sort of ugly numbers mustered by the Thernstroms." — Rich Lowry, New York Post

"[An] important new book.... A devastating indictment, laden with statistics, case studies, and powerful analysis, of how disastrously our educational system has failed black students.... Abby and Steve Thernstrom [are] perhaps the nation's most careful and candid scholars." — National Journal

"The single most devastating statistic in American life is this: The average black high school senior reads at the level of the average white eighth grader. This, more than anything else, explains why race remains such an overwhelmingly salient fact in American life. It explains why affirmative action is, or at least appears to be, necessary. It explains to a very large degree why blacks continue to lag so far behind whites in income and socioeconomic status. And, as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom demonstrate with remorseless lucidity in NO EXCUSES, their latest exploration of the causes and consequences of persistent black failure, the gap cannot be explained away by racism, testing bias, inequitable resources or by even poverty itself. The gap is not only an incontrovertible fact but a fact rooted in black experience and behavior.... [The Thernstroms] deserve...credit for venturing fearlessly where more cautious scholars fear to tread.... What distinguishes NO EXCUSES from other studies is the way the authors go at the subject with their trademark thoroughness and empirical rigor.... Closely argued and deeply considered.... The Thernstroms have done an enormous service by tracing the great problem of our time to its root and, at the same time, by clearing out of the way so much of the cant that clutters discussion of school reform." — James Traub, Los Angeles Times

"The most important civil rights book in a generation. And one of the most encouraging.... The Thernstroms, the uncannily insightful authors of the encyclopedic AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE, perhaps the definitive work on race and race relations in contemporary America, take an unflinching look at the problem, the reasons therefor and proven and potential remedies. This is not a book for the merely well-intentioned. This is a book about results. Supported by copious data and the kind of rigorous analysis normally reserved for the 'ard' sciences, NO EXCUSES paints a frustrating, if not infuriating, picture of the misguided policies, entrenched interests and head-in-the-sand political correctness that have aggravated the educational crises involving black and Hispanic students. But for all the disconcerting information about the underperformance of black and Hispanic students, this is fundamentally a book of hope. And it's a page-turner to boot — a scholarly tome that reads almost like a suspense novel. Make no mistake. The Thernstroms are no starry-eyed optimists predicting that the next billion-dollar, enlightened reform will be the magic formula that finally propels black and Hispanic students toward academic proficiency. Rather, the book's optimism is precisely a consequence of a sober, detailed analysis of what, at first blush, appears to be an intractable problem but which, upon close inspection, has actually proven to be remediable by application of certain basic principles. Even more so, the optimism is grounded in a studied, adamant belief in the capabilities of all American children. The analysis in this book transcends ideology. Shibboleths of both the right and left are exposed.... In the end...the health of our society demands that we do all we can do duplicate the accomplishment of KIPP and the other [successful schools]. The Thernstroms make in impressive case that if it can be done there, it can be done elsewhere. No excuses." — Federalist Society Quarterly

"The message of Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's NO EXCUSES is that, despite major progress toward racial equality since the 1950s, there is an academic chasm between balack and Hispanic children on the one hand and whites and Asians on the other.... NO EXCUSES is a follow-up to the Thernstroms' AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE, which cataloged the remarkable gains made by American minorities in the past several decades. The book also lamented various persistent problems, most notably in educational achievement. Both books disdain ideological polemics in favor of clear-eyed analysis, buttressing argument with statistics and case studies although never at the expense of interest and prose style.... The biggest obstacle of all may be our collective unwillingness to acknowledge the racial gap in the first place. Right now it is treated by civil-rights leaders, the media and even scholars as 'a dirty secret.' The Thernstroms mean to bring that secret out in the open. And thank goodness for that. The racial academic gap is, as they write, 'the most important civil rights issue of our time.' We can only hope that their analysis, coming on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, will help lead the way toward what the court decision aimed to bring about, equal opportunity for every American child." — The Wall Street Journal

"NO EXCUSES: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning is destined to become one of the most discussed — and most despised — books on the nation's crisis in education in quite some time. It will be discussed because it calmly, methodically, and honestly describes the distressing problems that surround the gaps in academic performance among racial groups in America's schools. It will be despised by those unwilling or unable to confront hard and often painful truths. Those who would rather shoot the messengers than address the concerns they raise will find NO EXCUSES a convenient target. Part of the value of NO EXCUSES is its intellectual honestly.... This is the kind of discussion we need — and so rarely get — about our schools. NO EXCUSES asks the tough questions, takes a hard look at the numbers, and comes up with carefully considered, admittedly imperfect solutions to one of our society's most urgent concerns. It is a book Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein should be reading, as it raises serious questions about the programs they are putting into place. If the Thernstroms are on target, and I believe they are, then Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein are driving the system in precisely the wrong direction." — New York Sun

"NO EXCUSES is a follow-on to [the Thernstroms'] monumental AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE: One Nation, Indivisible. In it, they explore the awful but critical question of why 'non-Asian minorities' — that is to say, blacks and Hispanics, though particularly blacks — lag so far behind others in learning.... It is the story of black Americans that is the most heartbreaking and maddening. Many people, when they look at the numbers — the numbers reveal this yawning racial gap — want to 'run for more comfortable ground': to economic explanations, to geographic explanations, to class-size claptrap, and so on. None of it works; none of it is right. Black students are lagging far behind whether they're rich or poor, whether they live in suburbs or in a city, whether their parents are educated or not. What would help is an end to the excuse-making and a renaissance in expectations. The authors explode the superstition — and the wish — that more money for education is the answer.... Class size is another shibboleth.... An important, bracing, and deeply conscientious book. It is a combination of cool scholarship and passionate caring.... With unrelenting data, they prove what your intuition and common sense tell you; they confirm what you know in your bones is true.... The nation at large should be grateful.... They administer reality checks to liberals — and to everyone else — purveying the facts, weighing the options, and pointing out the way." — National Review

"NO EXCUSES assembles an impressive array of evidence to demonstrate that the 'typical' (in the statistical sense) black or Hispanic child in the U.S. enters school behind, and stays behind. Recent books from liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institution have reached similar conclusions. What makes the Thernstroms' contribution distinctive and valuable is that they also identify a path forward, a way to begin tackling what they aptly call 'the most important civil-rights issue of our time.'... None of the usual explanations...is sufficient to explain the racial disparities in achievement. What matters most (along with how schools are run) is the cultural background that students bring with them to class, especially their attitude toward learning.... NO EXCUSES succeeds admirably...in making its central point: that schools can make a big difference in how much children learn, even children whose families give them little academic support." — Commentary

Up Back to Top