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"No Excuses:" Simplistic Solution for the Achievement Gap?

The new Thernstrom book on the achievement gap (Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 2003) has created quite a buzz, with mostly positive commentaries from both conservative and not so conservative writers. As an admirer of the Thernstroms’ studies of race, particularly America in Black and White (Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 1999), I find many good ideas in this book. But I also find some critical weaknesses in their arguments that many reviewers and commentators have ignored.

Many of the conclusions in No Excuses will be widely accepted among educators and social scientists. It is undisputable, for example, that there is a large IQ and academic achievement gap between black and white children, and the gap is a serious policy problem that requires attention. They also state, quite correctly, that this cognitive skill gap precedes entry to school and can be documented as early as age three. Finally, they point out that family and parenting characteristics (including socioeconomic factors) are major causes of this learning gap.

Invoking “black culture” as one explanation for the gap may raise an eyebrow or two, particularly if interpreted as African Americans’ commitment to education. In my research, I find black parents have as great a commitment—if not greater—to their children’s education as any other group. But when cultural differences are described as certain types of parenting behaviors—such as allowing children to watch a lot of television—many social scientists would concur. For me, television viewing is derivative; that is, it flows from other family characteristics, such as low income and single-parent families, that are the real causes of the gap. But there is no question that certain types of parenting practices may disadvantage black children in their early cognitive development.

The major problems in No Excuses arise when it turns to proposed solutions for the gap, which is really the heart of this book. Many educators will balk at the exclusive emphasis on school reform, and especially vouchers and other school choice strategies, in place of better programs in regular public schools. Indeed, the book endorses the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act—higher standards and accountability—but then argues that most regular public schools will be unable to meet the 12-year goals of NCLB, even if they have more resources, better programs, and more qualified teachers!

I agree that regular public schools will have a difficult time closing the race gap as required by NCLB, but for very different reasons. The problem with both NCLB and the school reforms proposed in No Excuses is that they assume schools can close this gap without any changes in families. This is problematic because the family factors that cause the gap and that continue to influence children throughout their school career are generally unaffected by changes in school policies. It is puzzling that the Thernstrom’s cite numerous findings from my book, Maximizing Intelligence (Armor, 2003), about the strong influence of family risk factors on children’s IQ and achievement and yet ignore the substantial evidence about how hard it is to change achievement scores relying only on school resources and programs during the school years. [1]

While nearly all children increase their reading and math skills during the school years, children who start school with higher cognitive skills (as measured by IQ tests) learn at least as much as those who enter with lower skills. In order for lower IQ children to catch up with higher IQ children by the time they graduate, they would have to learn at a much faster pace than higher IQ children. There is no known educational program that has been able to do this for all black and white children in the same school district.

The challenge of closing the gap is illustrated by NAEP reading scores. In 1990, whites in the 4th grade scored 35 points higher than blacks, and in 1998 when these students were seniors the gap was still 31 points. Both black and white students gained at very nearly the same rate over this eight year-period, demonstrating that, in recent years, blacks have been learning at about the same rate as whites. In other words, the racial gap in learning, which starts before kindergarten, is simply being perpetuated throughout the school years. In order to close the reading gap, black students would have to score three points higher than white students every year for 10 consecutive years. Again, there is simply no known education program that has been able to do this for a whole school system, much less the nation as a whole.

How do the Thernstrom’s propose to close this remarkably persistent gap? The real solution, they argue, starts with adopting the NCLB requirements of higher academic standards and accountability through testing. But then they add a component that few public school systems have contemplated, at least on a wide scale: adding 50 percent more instructional time to the school year by having longer school days and longer school years.

What is the proof that this approach will work? They find a handful of exemplary schools “scattered across the American landscape” that have raised test scores of minority students from high-poverty areas, presumably because these schools impose very high academic standards, demand high performance (no excuses for failure), and, perhaps most important, provide 50 percent more instructional time. Most of these successful schools operate as charter schools; examples are the KIPP program (schools in Houston, South Bronx, Washington, DC, etc), the North Star Academy of Newark, New Jersey, and the Amistad Academy in New Haven. The Thernstrom’s produce test scores showing that students in these special schools achieve at a much higher rate than students in the rest of the school district.

Unlike other parts of the book, the Thernstrom’s evaluation of these schools is simplistic and unconvincing. I do not doubt that there are some predominately minority public schools that are outperforming other schools in a school district, but the critical question is why. Since most of these examples are charter schools operating within a larger public school system, they are chosen voluntarily by parents and students, thereby creating the well-know problem of self-selection that plagues studies of this type.

The Thernstrom’s acknowledge the problem of self-selection, saying that none of their schools selects students on the basis of prior test scores or grades. They acknowledge, however, that the only students accepted are those whose parents are willing to accept—and commit to—the high standards and rigors of the school program, including longer school days and longer school years. In other words, these exemplary schools enroll only those students and parents who are motivated to support a more rigorous school program than offered by other public schools in their district. After claiming that black culture is a problem, they present a solution which would attract only those black parents who are already committed to the high-achieving culture of the middle class.

We have too many education reforms that have failed because of the lack of rigorous and systematic evaluations. Even if the KIPP program and other similar schools produce improvements for the students enrolled (and this has not yet been demonstrated convincingly), there is no basis for generalizing these results to all black children in the nation. It is surprising that the Thernstrom’s decided to advocate this school reform for the nation as a whole rather than first proposing a large scale national evaluation.

Another reason for evaluation is a potentially serious problem of cost. If some of these special schools are eventually shown to produce higher achievement gains for black students, it is most likely due to the 50 percent greater instructional time, and not simply the higher standards and accountability. Are states prepared to increase school expenditures so that all minority or poor students would receive 50 percent more funding in order to reduce the achievement gap, especially when we know that the gap is not caused by schools, but rather by family factors that operate before children even start school?

I do not claim that there are any quick-fixes for the family conditions such as teen pregnancies and single-parent families that have adverse effects on children’s IQ. But I believe our best opportunity for improving black achievement is to tackle the family problems that cause the achievement gap in the first place, such as some of the pro-family initiatives growing out of welfare reform. By ignoring the causes of lower achievement, and by continuing to put most of our resources into school remedies that are likely to fail because they ignore the family, I believe we put unrealistic and unfair burdens on school systems. Moreover, if my thesis about the role of the family is correct, we will only put off the day when we can truly start closing the racial gap in learning.


Armor, D. J. (2003). Maximizing intelligence. Somerset, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Thernstrom, S. & Thernstrom, A. (2003). No excuses: Closing the racial gap in learning. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Thernstrom, S. & Thernstrom, A. (1999). America in black and white: One nation, indivisible. New York: Simon and Schuster.


[1] Like some psychologists, I treat IQ and academic achievement tests scores as generally equivalent when studying large groups of children (e.g, comparing black and white students). When children’s reading and math scores are combined, achievement scores are highly correlated with IQ scores.

— David J. Armor, School of Public Policy, George Mason U.
TC Record


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