The Coleman report: 50 years of influence on education policy

The most influential academic study in the history of education policy was published 50 years ago this Saturday. “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” more commonly known as the Coleman Report, shook up conventional wisdom about schools and continues to exert an outsized influence.

The report’s blockbuster finding was that differences in school resources – including funding, facilities and curriculum — had relatively little impact on how much students learned. Instead, the big factors were the influence of family and fellow students.

James Coleman

James Coleman

But findings aside, the study’s most significant impact may have been that it flipped the focus of policy from inputs to outcomes. It moved attention from the resources that went into education to the results, primarily measurable student learning, that schools produced.

“Instead of just measuring per-pupil spending, teacher-student ratios and so on, the question to ask now was, ‘What’s really happening that’s effective?’” said Indiana University professor emeritus and policy expert Leslie Lenkowsky. “I think that’s the most important thing the report accomplished.”

The report resulted from a paragraph in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which called for the federal Office of Education to produce a study of educational opportunity in the United States. The job went to Coleman, a sociologist then at Johns Hopkins University, who led a team that conducted research, administered surveys and analyzed data to produce a comprehensive 700-page study.

The document, titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” but more commonly known as the Coleman Report, drew on information from more than 600,000 students and 60,000 teachers in 4,000 schools located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Coming a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ruled “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, the study was expected to shine a light on racial inequality. But Coleman suggested that, while schools were heavily segregated and unequally resourced, it would take more than improved funding to boost the prospects of black students.

“Per pupil expenditure, books in the library, and a host of other facilities and curricular measures show virtually no relation to achievement if the ‘social’ environment of the school – the educational backgrounds of other students and teachers – is held constant,” he wrote in a follow-up article for the journal The Public Interest.

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Why public records should be made public

School grades are bogus, so why ask for more of them? That’s a reasonable question.

Why would a critic of the state’s system of grading schools on an A-to-F scale ask the Indiana Department of Education to provide data showing what grades the schools would have received for 2014-15 it if weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by the General Assembly?

Why would I file a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor when the department refused? And would I share the data with readers if I got my hands on it? Yes, absolutely. Here’s why:

Transparency matters

Public records belong to the public and, on principle, should be disclosed unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them secret. And in this case, there really isn’t. The preamble to the state Access to Public Records Act gets it just right:

“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.” Continue reading

State education department opts for secrecy

The Indiana Department of Education still refuses to disclose data used to determine A-F grades for schools in 2014-15, despite receiving a letter from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt that says the data should be made public.

I’ve requested the information twice, arguing it should be disclosed under the Access to Public Records Act. And the department has rejected my request twice, insisting the data falls under an exception for records that are speculative or expressions of opinion and are used for decision-making.

But I’m not asking for anything deliberative. I’m asking for numbers – the scores on a 4-point scale that were used to establish what grades schools would receive.

Remember that Indiana switched to new learning standards and a tougher ISTEP exam in 2014-15. Passing rates dropped dramatically. As a result, the General Assembly passed “hold harmless” legislation that said no school would get a lower grade than it received the previous year.

When the Department released grades in January, it didn’t indicate which schools were being held harmless and which actually earned the grades they received in 2014-15. And unlike in previous years, it didn’t include the scores on a 4-point scale that schools earned.

After the department turned down my first request for the data, I filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor, the state agency tasked with advising government officials on the public records and public meetings laws. Britt initially sided with the department in an advisory opinion to my complaint, labeled 16-FC-34.

But on the advice of Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, I provided the counselor with additional information clarifying that I was seeking data, not deliberative material. In a June 2 follow-up letter, copied to the Department of Education, Britt said the data should be released: Continue reading

Ritz hits the mark with pre-K proposal

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz hit the nail on the head with her call for expanding state-funded pre-kindergarten programs to all Indiana school districts.

Part of the Vision 2020 initiative that Ritz unveiled this week, the universal pre-K proposal makes sense educationally and politically. And it puts pressure on Republican Gov. Mike Pence to come up with a more ambitious plan than anything he has supported to date.

Ritz, a Democrat, should also get credit for putting “equity in student access to resources and support” at the top of her Vision 2020 priorities list. It’s not yet clear exactly what that encompasses, but Ritz suggested it will include closing the “digital divide” between rich and poor schools, ending racial disparities in school discipline and providing fair funding for schools. All are all worthy goals.

The superintendent’s pre-kindergarten initiative, framed as a legislative agenda approaching next year’s budget session of the Indiana General Assembly, pledges to “make high quality pre-K available within the boundaries of every school corporation in the state of Indiana by 2020.”

There’s consensus among Indiana’s education and business leaders that access to strong pre-kindergarten programs is important. There’s also widespread support for the idea from academic experts – check out the website of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who is on an all-out crusade to persuade policymakers of the economic and social benefits of high-quality pre-K.

But Indiana lags far behind the rest of the country. Continue reading

Schools should do the right thing for transgender students

Four weeks have passed since the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued guidance for schools regrading transgender students and the use of restrooms and locker rooms, and I’m still trying to figure out why opponents consider this such a big deal.

The truth is, no one is likely to notice if transgender men use men’s restrooms and transgender women use women’s restrooms. They’ve probably been doing it for years, and no one has objected. The same should be true for transgender boys and girls.

Not to get too graphic, but most people involved in this issue will be doing their business in restroom stalls, which provide a measure of privacy. Transgender boys won’t be using urinals, right? And neither will transgender girls.

Some critics have suggested it will be awkward to have transgender students taking group showers in locker rooms that they share with students who have different genitalia. But honestly, are there any schools where students still shower after gym class? I thought kids quit doing that years ago.

The most visceral response comes from people who insist that letting students use facilities that align with their gender identity will put young children at risk. The idea seems to be that transgender women may actually be men who are faking it – possibly child molesters who will put on dresses in order to use women’s bathrooms and prey on little girls.

Never mind that there have been no reports of transgender women doing anything like this. If a male child molester decided to try that trick, he would be violating all sorts of serious laws. A state statute that says he must use a men’s restroom wouldn’t be much of a deterrent.

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