Phi Beta Cons

The Marshall Method

In researching an article I am rather lazily trying to write, I was struck by something Thurgood Marshall said during follow-up litigation to Brown v. Board of Education. Some segregationists had relied on purported physiological differences between blacks and whites to argue that integrated schools would never work. But as Raymond Wolters explains (emphasis added),

even segregationists conceded that there was a considerable overlap in brain weight (as there was in IQ scores), with about 20 percent of African Americans exceeding the white average. Thus the NAACP could argue, as it had in Brown, that children in desegregated schools could be grouped by ability, regardless of race. “Put the dumb colored children in with the dumb white children,” Thurgood Marshall had said to the Supreme Court in 1955, “and put the smart colored children with the smart white children.”

Where to begin? There’s the quaint use of “colored,” of course, and the indelicate characterization of slower learners as “dumb.” Then there’s the naïve 1950s belief, so out of fashion in today’s ed schools, that IQ tests actually have something to do with intelligence.

Most striking, though, is Marshall’s assumption that grouping students by ability is the natural and obvious thing for schools to do. These days “tracking” is perhaps the most contentious issue in education, due to the widespread belief that — as Jeannie Oakes, former “presidential professor in educational equity” at UCLA and now the top education officer at the Ford Foundation, has written — “tracking forces schools to play an active role in perpetuating social and economic inequalities.”
Oakes’s comment actually makes sense if you substitute “reflecting” for “perpetuating.” In Marshall’s day, school integration was seen as a way to end second-class education for blacks (and, eventually, end Jim Crow itself) by letting them sink or swim in the same schools as whites. Marshall and the NAACP did not expect integrated schools to equalize black and white students’ performance automatically; they knew that most of the improvement would have to come from the students themselves. Yet nowadays schools are chastised if they do not ostentatiously overlook, and then obliterate, any differences in ability between blacks and whites. You won’t often find anyone on NRO agreeing with Thurgood Marshall, but a little of his refreshing 1950s matter-of-factness would go a long way toward shaking up today’s debates over education.

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