March24, 1999

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Echoes of the Coleman Report 

By David J. Hoff

The report written by the sociologist James S. Coleman found that a child's family background and the school's socioeconomic makeup are the best predictors of academic success.

With little fanfare, President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration released a two-volume report on July 2, 1966. That report, On Equality of Educational Opportunity, is now widely regarded as the most important education study of the 20th century.

"I don't think there's anything close to it," says Albert Beaton, who helped analyze the report and its surveys of 570,000 students and 60,000 teachers as a researcher for the Educational Testing Service. "It changed the way we thought about the whole issue of equality of educational opportunity," says Beaton, a professor of education at Boston College and the director of its Center on Testing.

Instead of proving that the quality of schools is the most important factor in a student's academic success--as its sponsors had expected--the report written by the sociologist James S. Coleman of Johns Hopkins University found that a child's family background and the school's socioeconomic makeup are the best predictors.

Precisely because the study--commonly called the Coleman Report--cast doubt on the theory propounded by civil rights groups that minority children were shortchanged by their schools, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare quietly released it before a holiday weekend so it would receive little notice.

Civil rights advocates were skeptical of the data at first because the report's official summary suggested that the data showed schools had no effect on achievement, says William L. Taylor, a noted school desegregation lawyer who was the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1966.

A better summary of the findings, from Gordon M. Ambach's perspective, is: Family and socioeconomic backgrounds are so important that it's difficult for schools to overcome them.

Ambach, now the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, participated in a Harvard University project that reviewed Coleman's data for three years after their release.

Eventually, social scientists and civil rights leaders found pieces of the Coleman Report that supported their beliefs. Frederick Mosteller and future U.S. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, the Harvard professors who led the review project, wrote in a 1973 book that their analysis of the Coleman Report found that desegregation would help "somewhat" in raising achievement. But they also recommended welfare programs to supplement poor families' income.

Civil rights champions also discovered similar data when they reanalyzed the report, Taylor says.

"The data ... supported the notion that racial isolation was harmful," he says of the civil rights commission's 1967 review of Coleman's findings. "The part of it that troubled civil rights groups the most was the idea the schools don't matter."

Coleman also found that:

  • American schools of the 1960s were thoroughly segregated, regardless of region. Eighty percent of white students attended schools that were at least 90 percent white, while 65 percent of black children went to schools that were at least 90 percent black.

  • African-American children's achievement levels were lower than their white peers' from the start, with the gap growing throughout their school careers.

  • Per-pupil spending accounted for a negligible difference in student achievement, and the facilities in the school also had little impact.
  • Coleman, who later moved to the University of Chicago and who died 1995, noted in a 1975 report that school desegregation encouraged "white flight" from cities and failed to integrate schools. In a controversial study in the 1980s, he concluded that Roman Catholic schools do a better job teaching children than public schools do.

    Echoes of the Coleman Report could still be seen in research some 30 years later. For example, a 1997 evaluation of the federal Chapter 1 program--now called Title I--reiterated the finding that a school's socioeconomic background is a strong determinant of its students' achievement. The study, conducted by Abt Associates under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education, found that children from high- and middle-income homes were also at a disadvantage if they attended schools populated predominantly by low-income children.

    Yet, the lasting impact of the Coleman Report may be its focus on student achievement , Mosteller and Moynihan wrote in 1973: "Henceforth no study of the quality of education or the equality of educational opportunity can hope to be taken seriously unless it deals with educational achievement or other accomplishment as the principal measure of educational quality."

    Read a biography of James S. Coleman, from the Encylcopedia Britannica online.

    Read "The U.S. Experiment in Enforced School Integration," by Ralph Scott, which includes an analysis of the effects of the Coleman Report and Brown v. the Board of Education.

    Read an abstract of the Coleman Report, from ERIC. Includes ordering information.

    "Becoming at Risk of Failure in America's Schools," January 1994, from the U.S. Department of Education. Includes "School Resources," which asks, "Do school resources make a difference?"

    PHOTO: More than 30 years ago, sociologist James S. Coleman found that family background and a school's socioeconomic makeup are the best predictors of a student's academic success. The Coleman Report is now widely considered the most important education study of the 20th century.
    --Keith Swinden/University of Chicago

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     © 1999 Editorial Projects in Education Vol. 18, number 28, page 33