James Coleman and 20th Century School Reform

In a new book, Saving Schools, Paul Peterson describes how we got the education system we now have. A short excerpt from the book (“A Courageous Look at the American High School”) appears in the current issue of Ed Next. In an excerpt from that excerpt, Peterson describes research conducted by sociologist James Coleman that had a tremendous impact on debates over school spending, integration, and school choice:

The occasion for his contribution was provided by a little-noticed clause buried in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which called for a “survey concerning the lack…of equal opportunities…by reason of race, color, religion or national origin in public education.” Though not a prominent public figure, James S. Coleman was the logical choice for directing the survey. He had been trained in survey research, was an acknowledged expert on high schools, and was sympathetic to the civil rights movement—he and his son had been arrested at a demonstration in Baltimore. Coleman…agreed to take on the assignment only after “some hesitation” and “extensive discussion” that transformed what at first seemed to be nothing more than a collection of racial-segregation statistics into the first nationwide study of the factors that affect student achievement. Students at 4,000 randomly selected schools across the country were tested in various subjects. The study also collected information on characteristics of the schools the students attended: racial composition, per-pupil expenditures, the college degrees teachers had earned, teacher ability (as measured by performance on a test), the number of books in the school library, and much more. Family background information was collected as well.

The study was to go forward with more-than-deliberate speed, as results were expected to reveal a need for federal action to equalize educational opportunity, the keystone of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Imagine, then, the shock inside the White House when a draft of the report began circulating inside the administration. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of Johnson’s top domestic advisers, gave a sense of the reaction when he recalled being greeted in the spring of 1966 by Harvard professor Martin Lipset with the query: “You know what Coleman is finding, don’t you?” “I said, ‘What?’ He said: ‘All family.’ I said, ‘Oh, Lord.’” The next day Moynihan informed the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to get ready, as the research project was about to produce findings the administration “was not going to like.” The project report [Equality of Educational Opportunity, 1966], later known as “Coleman I” after two additional reports appeared, was released on Independence Day weekend, 1966. That was thought to be a good time to announce negative news, since much of the press was on holiday. The strategy worked: few but academics paid attention, and only gradually did its message sink in.

To everyone’s surprise, Coleman I found that within regions and types of communities (urban, suburban, and rural), expenditures per pupil were about the same in black and white schools. Even more remarkable, students did not learn more just because more was spent on their education. Nor did any other material resource of a school have much of an effect on how well Johnny and Suzy read—not the number of students in the class, nor the teacher’s credentials, nor the newness of the textbooks, nor the number of books in the library, nor anything physical or material that schools had for years considered important. What did count were a host of family-background characteristics: mother’s education, father’s education, family income, having fewer siblings, the number of books in the home, and other factors—all of which together explained more of the variation among students in their reading achievement than any school-related factor.

One finding in Coleman I saved the day for the Johnson administration. The authors found that student achievement was affected by the social composition of the pupils at a school. If a low-income African American child had fellow students who were white or from a higher socioeconomic status, the child did better at reading. The converse was not true, however: a white child did not suffer educationally from having black classmates. In other words, the influence of peers was asymmetrical. Desegregation helped blacks without hurting whites. Many years later, the Nobel Prize–winning econometrician James Heckman and his colleague Derek Neal called that asymmetrical result Coleman’s “least robust” finding. But Coleman never doubted it. Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity, he said black students at segregated schools were “deprived of the most effective educational resources contained in the schools: those brought by other children as a result of their home environment.” Whatever regrets the Johnson administration might have had about some parts of Coleman I, it was pleased by the ammunition the report provided for the ongoing desegregation campaign.

So it was truly ironic that Coleman, the very academic whose work provided the clearest educational justification for school desegregation, would in his next major study [Trends in School Segregation, 1968–73, 1975], the “white flight” study (known as Coleman II), produce findings that called into question many of the policies being used to desegregate the schools. Using data collected by the newly established Civil Rights Commission, Coleman II tracked trends in black and white school enrollments in cities across the United States. He and his colleagues found that white families were moving outward more rapidly from those central cities where racial desegregation plans were being implemented.

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