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.

His conclusions apparently landed with a thud in Washington. Lenkowsky says the Johnson administration released the report on the Fourth of July weekend in hopes no one would notice. But people did notice. The report was a phenomenal effort, completed in about a year without the aid of modern computers to organize and crunch data. And Coleman was by all accounts a remarkable person.

He was born and spent his early childhood in Bedford, Ind., a working-class town known for its limestone industry. The family moved several times, eventually arriving in Louisville, where he graduated from duPont Manual High School, then known as a vocational training school. He started college but dropped out, enlisted in the Navy and, after World War II, earned a chemical engineering degree from Purdue University.

He worked for a short time at Eastman Kodak but left for graduate school at Columbia, where he discovered a passion for sociological research.

The journal Education Next sponsored a retrospective conference and special issue earlier this year on Coleman and the Coleman Report. Especially engaging are reminiscences by Sally B. Kilgore and Tom Hoffer, who worked with Coleman and describe him as both larger than life and very much down-to-earth, a devoted family man who was also a workaholic.

“He was just a lovely man, not a political guy at all,” said Lenkowsky, who met Coleman as a graduate student and later persuaded him to join the board of the Hudson Institute, where Lenkowsky was president. “But he was a very serious sociologist who wanted to put sociology on the same footing as economics.”

“Equality of Educational Opportunity” remains Coleman’s signature work, but he later produced influential studies that documented how white flight from cities had stymied efforts to desegregate urban schools and that argued Catholic schools were superior to public schools because of the “social capital” available to students and families engaged in religious education.

Current scholars may criticize his research methods, but there is no doubting his influence. You can see Coleman’s fingerprints on just about every approach to education reform that has been tried in the past 50 years, up to and including today.

School desegregation, including busing. School choice and private school vouchers. Evaluating schools and teachers with data. “Effective schools” principles. Boosting student self-esteem and confidence. Higher expectations and standards. “No excuses” schools. Expanded preschool programs. Longer school days and school years. The seeds for all are in the Coleman Report or his later writings.

Coleman’s finding that family and social factors were the primary drivers of student achievement could also lend support to the idea that improving education should go hand-in-hand with fighting poverty. In the 1966 Public Interest article, he argued that schools could do a better job of leveling the playing field, but only if they were fundamentally transformed – and that would take “the investment of vastly greater sums in education than currently occurs.”

Coleman spent his later years on the faculty of the University of Chicago. He died in March 1995 at the age of 68.

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2 thoughts on “The Coleman report: 50 years of influence on education policy

  1. And, again Steve writes about a man who impacted public education and all K – 12 Education – a must read for those interested in what is happening today. I recall reading and studying what was written, knowing full well it had potential to change the school scape – but not realizing fully then
    what it would do. Like all history, what lessons do we learn from it?

  2. Pingback: Schools may be the wrong place to fight inequality | School Matters

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