The Talented Tenth, WEB Du Bois and the Future of Schools in New York City

“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”

The Talented Tenth: WEB Du Bois  (1903) Read the full essay here.

WEB  Du Bois, the Massachusetts born sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist criticized Booker T. Washington in an essay, “The Talented Tenth.” Du Bois saw “exceptional black men” as the savior of “the Negro race.”

In a bizarre way educational policy-makers have been following the Du Bois “Talented Tenth” path for over a century, especially in the post-World War II years.

The New York City fathers, the Board of Education and the Department of Education have supported a triage system. The “dirty little secret” is that the path to creating “good” schools is to attract the most talented student body. Adelaide Sanford, the principal of PS 21 in District 16 (Bedford-Stuyvesant) was praised for creating a high achieving school in the midst of struggling schools; the school attracted the best students within the surrounding school district. The concept of magnet or gifted schools moved across the city – Mark Twain Middle School on District 21 (Coney Island) attracted the “gifted and talented” from a swath of Brooklyn.  The Astor Program, a highly regarded gifted education program that required an IQ-type test for admission, attracted the most able students, and deprived neighborhood schools of these students. One might argue that for the truly gifted, students who achieve more than two standard deviations above the mean, specialized education is required; however, the so-called gifted and talent or magnet or screened schools have become havens for the children of white and wealthier families.

The Success Academy charter school network has followed the same path. Recruit parents with social capital, discourage students with disabilities and English language learners and pare away “difficult” students. The press has closely followed the “Got to Go” lists maintained by Success Academy schools. As students are “pared away,” convinced to leave, the Success Academy fails to backfill, to fill the empty seats. Whether the rigid, highly-structured curriculum and the strict discipline will produce “college ready” students is still questionable.

Charter schools, magnet schools, gifted schools, screened programs all vie for the new “talented tenth,” the students who appear most able and most likely to succeed in school.

Prior to No Child Left Behind (2002) gifted or magnet schools generally had little impact on neighborhood schools. The movement to “accountability,” aka test and punish, both accelerated the move to screened schools and divided schools into the “haves” and the “have nots.”

The Bloomberg administration greatly expanded the number of screened schools. Today there are over 100 screened schools and 100 educational option programs, screened programs within existing schools.

A few of the screened school offer enriched programs far beyond what neighborhoods schools could provide, most, however, are havens for the children of the predominantly white middle class.

The “dirty little secret,” the secret that is not taught in schools of education: attracting the most able students guarantees a successful school. If the state produced a chart listing teacher HEDI test scores by school district wealth deciles we would find the wealthier the district the more highly rated the teachers. Do the most able teachers migrate to wealthier districts? Or, is the teacher rating algorism skewed to reward the teachers of most able students? Scooping up the most able students removes schools from the world of “test and punish.”  The Opt Out parent anger emanates from the movement to Common Core tests – for years your kids did well on state tests, on Regents exams, on the SAT and got into good colleges, suddenly, schools moved from 2/3 passing the state exams to 2/3 failing the state exams. Teachers, due to the ability of students, were effectively exempt from “test and punish” were now pushed into the new world: test-driven accountability.

Alongside the opt outs, the issue of school diversity, formerly known as integration, has arisen anew. (See Chalkbeat discussion here).

The UCLA Study, “Brown at 60” findings conclude,

Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas; the states of New York, Illinois and California are the top three worst for isolating black students.

Only 15.73% of New York City students are white and the white students are heavily concentrated in Staten Island and a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. Cries for a “controlled choice” plan (more in a future blog) as a path to integration and better schools is a canard.


    HISPANIC 425,819 40.75%
    ASIAN 169,090 16.18%
    BLACK 256,549 24.55%
    WHITE 164,372 15.73%
    MULTI-RACIAL 10,204 0.98%

The vast percentages of students are children of color in segregated schools bereft of the highest achieving students who are channeled to gift/magnet/screened schools.

What happens to the euphemistically called “untalented ninety”?

For the feds the answer is “test and punish,” identify the lowest performing schools measured by state tests, a timetable for improvement, with school closing in the wings. The lowest performing are defined as in the lowest 25% in state test scores. (See school list here) For the governor, receivership (See list of receivership schools here), turn schools over to not-for-profits to run within an existing school district.

For Du Bois the answer was to develop the “talented tenth,” the most able so that in “…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.”  Unfortunately the creation of large numbers of screened schools will provide an opportunity for the most able across races, there is no path for the “untalented ninety.”

Although on paper the administration has restored superintendents we still have a rigid top-down system that has never worked. While the Chancellor’s District did appear to work for a number of years the Chancellor at that time, Rudy Crew, in a recent speech does not recommend returning to the past.

The highly controversial Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing Project (Read critiques here  and here) has returned under Chancellor Farina as well as Lucy West, whose is the mathematics side of the Farina approach. Millions of dollars have been funneled into programs that many feel are  ineffective.

Schools appear to be adrift.

The targets for renewal schools are far less than aggressive – see example here.

Although high school graduation rates are increasing college readiness metrics are declining, The NY Times  writes,

…  the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower. This has led educators to question the real value of a high school diploma and whether graduation requirements are too easy.

Are the leaders of school districts “dumbing down” standards to increase graduation rates? Setting minimal goals for struggling schools?

Occasionally we find a school with an extraordinary school leader and teachers who usually operate on the edges, out of step with the powers that be. There are too few, and, the system drives away too many of the most dedicated and most effective.

Sadly, we appear to be sacrificing the “ninety” percent.

2 responses to “The Talented Tenth, WEB Du Bois and the Future of Schools in New York City

  1. While providing special opportunities for a subset of the “underprivileged” is not new a new strategy to avoid dealing with poverty, the attempt to bring this approach to scale in the form of charter schools is new and more threatening to public education. It coincides with an attempt to undermine democratic school governance, turn mass education into a profit-making enterprise and the abandonment of integration.


  2. Pingback: Why is the Board of Regents Leadership “Bleeding” Public Schools by Allowing Charter Expansion? | Ed In The Apple

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