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.

Continue reading