Take, for example, Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, one of the most influential pro-charter lobbying outfits in the country. Jeffries was put out by yesterday's resolution from the NAACP calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion. It's clear Jeffries sees the NAACP's position is a betrayal of its core mission -- but notice who he evokes to make his case:
Let's talk a little about DuBois and education:
I've actually been doing a bit of reading on the debates surrounding the education of African Americans that took place in the wake of the Reconstruction Era. James Anderson wrote a brilliant book, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, that digs deep into this history.
The standard trope about this era is that there was a debate between DuBois and Booker T. Washington that pitted DuBois' desire for blacks to pursue a classical liberal education against Washington's call for vocational training.
Anderson shows this is far too simplistic: in fact, very few in the black intelligentsia sided with Washington. But as DuBois makes quite clear in his famous essay from 1903, the elite education he favored was just that: elite. DuBois clearly and unapologetically was calling for a particular sort of education that would develop the best and the brightest -- the "talented tenth." (all emphases mine)
The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools–intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it–this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.
If this be true–and who can deny it–three tasks lay before me; first to show from the past that the Talented Tenth as they have risen among American Negroes have been worthy of leadership; secondly to show how these men may be educated and developed; and thirdly to show their relation to the Negro problem.DuBois continues:
Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talent and character? Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground. This is the history of human progress; and the two historic mistakes which have hindered that progress were the thinking first that no more could ever rise save the few already risen; or second, that it would better the uprisen to pull the risen down.
All men cannot go to college but some men must; every isolated group or nation must have its yeast, must have for the talented few centers of training where men are not so mystified and befuddled by the hard and necessary toil of earning a living, as to have no aims higher than their bellies, and no God greater than Gold.Further:
I am an earnest advocate of manual training and trade teaching for black boys, and for white boys, too. I believe that next to the founding of Negro colleges the most valuable addition to Negro education since the war, has been industrial training for black boys. Nevertheless, I insist that the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men; there are two means of making the carpenter a man, each equally important: the first is to give the group and community in which he works, liberally trained teachers and leaders to teach him and his family what life means; the second is to give him sufficient intelligence and technical skill to make him an efficient workman; the first object demands the Negro college and college-bred men–not a quantity of such colleges, but a few of excellent quality; not too many college-bred men, but enough to leaven the lump, to inspire the masses, to raise the Talented Tenth to leadership; the second object demands a good system of common schools, well-taught, conveniently located and properly equipped.Now, it is certainly true that DuBois, no doubt feeling he had to respond to his critics, adjusted his ideas about the "talented tenth" later in life. In 1948, he specifically addressed how his thinking about the "talented tenth" had evolved:
In my reading, DuBois didn't call for the removal of an African American aristocracy; he just wanted a better one:Turn now to that complex of social problems, which surrounds and conditions our life, and which we call more or less vaguely, The Negro Problem. It is clear that in 1900, American Negroes were an interior caste, were frequently lynched and mobbed, widely disfranchised, and usually segregated in the main areas of life. As student and worker at that time, I looked upon them and saw salvation through intelligent leadership; as I said, through a "Talented Tenth." And for this intelligence, I argued, we needed college-trained men. Therefore, I stressed college and higher training. For these men with their college training, there would be needed thorough understanding of the mass of Negroes and their problems; and, therefore, I emphasized scientific study. Willingness to work and make personal sacrifice for solving these problems was of course, the first prerequisite and Sine Qua Non. I did not stress this, I assumed it.SACRIFICEI assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism, I did not realize that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice. I made the assumption of its wide availability because of the spirit of sacrifice learned in my mission school training.
This screened young membership must be far greater in number than it is now. Baltimore for instance has more than 166,000 Negroes and only 23 in its Boule, representing less than 100 persons. Surely there must be at least 23 other persons in Baltimore worthy of fellowship. It is inconceivable that we should even for a moment dream that with a membership of 440 we have scratched even the tip of the top of the surface of a group representative of potential Negro leadership in America. Nothing but congenital laziness should keep us from a membership of 3,000 by the next biennium without any lowering of quality; and a membership of 30,000 by 1960. This would be an actual numerical one hundredth of our race: a body large enough really to represent all. Yet small enough to insure exceptional quality; if screened for intelligent and disinterested planning.So DuBois, even in his later years, believed in the education of a "screened" group of "exceptional" black students whose mission would be to become leaders: "The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men."
Even if I was a DuBois scholar, I wouldn't attempt to guess what he would think about today's charter school movement. Certainly, he would have had a problem with veteran black teachers being replaced by novice white teachers the urban areas that have seen the rise of charter schools. Given his embrace of Marx, it's hard to believe he'd be fine with private companies swooping in and converting public institutions like schools into private concerns.
But would he have actually embraced the idea of charter schools serving the "talented tenth"? He certainly had no problem cultivating a small percentage of talented students of color, educating them with the goal of turning them into his race's leaders. Would he have wanted motivated families with talented children to be sequestered in their own schools? It certainly seems possible.
In evoking DuBois, Jeffries is, in effect, asking this very question: should there be a separate system for what Michael Petrilli, as big a charter cheerleader as you will find, calls the "strivers":
This is a "talented tenth" argument if I ever heard one (although maybe Petrilli would argue about the actual percentage). I've given Petrilli credit before for daring to go where most in the charter industry won't: the biggest selling point that urban charter schools make to parents isn't "innovation" and "freedom" -- it's peer effects.Frustrated that the traditional public schools aren’t willing to prioritize their children’s needs, many low-income strivers have turned to high-quality charter schools instead. But now those are under attack, too. Both the PBS Newshour and the New York Times have recently presented highly critical coverage of Success Academies, charter schools in New York City that have shown excellent results in improving student performance. The reports focused on the academies' suspending students aggressively and pushing out chronic disrupters. There were similar controversies over the relatively high rates of suspensions and expulsions at charters in Chicago and Washington in recent years.The casual observer might wonder: What’s wrong with that approach? Why not ensure that schools are safe places to be? If the Success Academies and schools like them didn’t exist, many of those hard-working, high-achieving students would be in chaotic, low-performing public schools. Don’t their needs count? [emphasis mine]
We see this in the high suspension rates of Uncommon's charter schools. We see it in the classroom practices and discipline policies of Success Academy. We see it in the "no excuses" philosophy of KIPP (to their credit, some of the KIPP schools seem to be rethinking this). Despite all their protests to the contrary, these "successful" urban charter schools are attempts to foster elitism. They exist not to educate everyone; they exist to educate the "talented tenth."
Now, there's a legitimate critique to be leveled against white guys like me living in the suburbs who express our reservations about all this: who am I to tell people of color how to run their schools? Who am I to tell a family that wants to do right by their children that they shouldn't have the opportunity to send their child to a school with positive peer effects? Why should my kids get the advantages of being surrounded by lots of college-bound peers while other kids aren't?
It's a fair point, and it's why I never fault a parent for sending their child to a charter school; everyone has to do what's best for their kids.
But if charter cheerleaders like Jeffries are going to promote "choice" by evoking DuBois, I think it's more than fair to start asking a few tough questions:
- If charters are serving the "strivers," why pretend they are doing the same job as the public schools? Why pretend that they've found some sort of secret sauce that leads to improved outcomes when the real secret may be unmeasured -- but real -- differences between students?
- If the primary goal of urban education going forward is to serve the "talented tenth," what happens to the other 90 percent? What sort of schooling to they deserve? Why don't they get the resource advantages of "successful" charters? Why should their public schools suffer just to make sure charters get a bigger slice of the pie?
- Why do the charters need to be privately run? If their "success" is due to different student populations (and, to some extent, resource advantages), why allow them to operate under a set of rules that actually incentivize behaviors that aren't always in the public interest?
- Why is it OK to segregate the strivers from everyone else in the urban schools, but not in the suburbs? As I've said before, there are plenty of kids in the leafy 'burbs who have emotional, cognitive, and other learning impairments. But unless they are extreme cases, suburban schools go out of their way to integrate these children in with their peers. Why should this be the case in some schools but not others?
- If charters are serving the "strivers," why are so many of them engaging in pedagogical and disciplinary practices that do little to foster student agency and social justice? Why do so many "successful" charters have high attrition rates? And high suspension rates? And a curriculum that is narrowly focused on test scores and disturbingly teacher-centered? Is this really the best way to develop leaders?
- Finally: yes there are some "successful" charters. But they are not the norm.
If you look at the total charter sector, the results are underwhelming, and profit-taking runs rampant. How does it serve anyone -- in or out of the "talented tenth" -- to enroll students in the many charter schools that put profits before the needs of students?
I'm glad Shavar Jeffries decided to quote W.E.B. DuBois -- his words are well worth considering as we continue to ponder the growth of the charter school sector.
ADDING: As I've said before: the fundamental problem with the "reform" argument is that the "reformers" always conflate social equity with social mobility. They are not the same.