James Coleman, the “Equality of Opportunity” Study, and School Choice

I recently had the opportunity to contribute an article on sociologist James Coleman’s research on Catholic schools to a special issue of Education Next commemorating the 50th anniversary of his 1966 “Equality of Opportunity” study  – better known today as the Coleman Report. When I set out on the task, I had seen his work on school choice as a distinct line of inquiry, one that captured his interest only later in his career. I did not realize that, in Coleman’s mind, the two projects were closely related.

As he noted in a 1967 essay for The Public Interest, his report’s most startling finding – that students’ achievement appeared to be more strongly related to their family background than their schools’ resources – posed a challenge for policymakers seeking to narrow racial gaps in achievement. Had the study found a clear relationship between school resources and outcomes, their task would have been straightforward: muster the political will to spend more where outcomes were poor. “But the evidence does not allow such simple answers,” Coleman concluded.

As an alternative, Coleman offered a proposal that even today, after three decades of experimentation with private school vouchers, charter schools, and other strategies to expand parental choice in education, sounds radical. Schools should no longer play the central role in teaching basic academic skills, he wrote, but rather serve mainly “to coordinate [students’] activities and perform guidance and testing functions.” The task of instruction would fall instead on profit-seeking “entrepreneurs…under contract with the school system…and paid on the basis of increased performance on standardized tests.” Parents would in turn be permitted to send their child “on released time” to alternative contractors, forcing schools “to compete” and giving parents “for the first time in education…the full privileges of consumer’s choice.” In short, Coleman envisioned something akin to the Education Savings Account model that has recently captivated market-oriented education reformers.

It was not until 1979 that Coleman found an opportunity to subject his ideas about school choice to a partial test, by comparing the performance of Catholic and public high schools in the U.S. Department of Education’s new “High School and Beyond” study. The methods Coleman and his colleagues relied upon fall short of contemporary standards. But their work spawned a large body of research comparing the effectiveness of district, private, and (later) charter schools in preparing students for college and life. My article for the special issue reviews that research, arguing that it has largely confirmed two patterns that Coleman was first to document:

First, the benefits of attending a private school are greatest for outcomes other than test scores—in particular, the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school and enroll in college. Second, attending a school of choice, whether private or charter, is especially beneficial for minority students living in urban areas. These findings support the case for continued expansion of school choice, especially in our major cities. They also raise important questions about the government’s reliance on standardized test results as a guide for regulating the options available 
to families.

– Martin R. West

Martin West’s longer article, “Schools of Choice: Expanding opportunity for urban minority students,” is part of a new Education Next series commemorating the 50th anniversary of James S. Coleman’s groundbreaking report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” The full series will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of Education Next.  A one-day event featuring discussions of the topics raised by the papers, “Reconsidering the Coleman Report on its 50th Anniversary,” will take place on February 25, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College