Seeds of Reform Sown by Moynihan (and Coleman)

Seven years after his death, Daniel Patrick Moynihan still makes the front page of the New York Times. The immediate context one day in mid-October was an article on the “culture of poverty” and how it is now legitimate to attend to this ticklish topic that had been taboo for so long, indeed since the ruckus that began with the “Moynihan Report” of 1965.

Yet Pat might as easily have been featured in that day’s piece on education reform, thanks to his role in another transformation of American society that, as it happens, began just a year after the Moynihan Report. I refer to James S. Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity, a massive study that, as Pat often recalled, was quietly released over the Fourth of July weekend in 1966 by a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that hoped nobody would notice it.

Well, Pat noticed it, swiftly grasped its significance, and began a multifaceted campaign to get it noticed by others. As a result of his efforts, American education these past four decades has been profoundly altered.

The Coleman Report and its data have been exhaustively analyzed and reanalyzed. But this key finding has never been successfully challenged: School inputs—money, teachers, teacher credentials, etc.—have little correlation with pupil achievement and differences in achievement cannot be significantly accounted for by differences in school resources.

Pre-Coleman, the formula was simple. More money plus more teachers (and more whatever) made for better schools which yielded better results. Nearly everyone took this for granted. Yet Coleman showed that, by and large, it isn’t true. And of course that conclusion is why HEW found the report so awkward. For Lyndon Johnson was still president and had spent the previous two years persuading Congress that the way to end poverty and equalize achievement in America was to lavish federal dollars on the education system (and particularly its poorest corners) via a host of big new programs like Title I and Headstart.

Coleman said, in effect, that such programs wouldn’t do much good. Which meant, of course, that if one cared about boosting achievement one had to find other ways to do it, beginning with a new focus on the achievement itself rather than on resources.

It’s taken a while for that lesson to sink in and it still hasn’t done so everywhere. We still find the occasional input-based initiative like statewide mandates to reduce class size. Yet the single greatest change in American K-12 education these past four decades is that we now focus overwhelmingly on the results themselves—on measuring them, understanding them, comparing them, fretting about gaps in them, setting standards for them, creating assessment and accountability systems keyed to them, and devising new strategies to alter them, strategies that range from charter schools to online learning to Teach For America and more.

That change can be traced pretty directly to the Coleman Report and its foremost interpreter, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan—and especially his time in the White House where, as a senior policy advisor to the President, he crafted Richard Nixon’s major education-policy proposals of March 1970.

Though much of what Nixon proposed that year was initially ignored by Congress, the basic analysis underlying it is today taken for granted in federal, state, and even district education policy. And that was Moynihan’s Coleman-based analysis, put into the President’s voice, transmitted to Congress and spread across the land. Far from continuing in Great Society mode, Moynihan—via Nixon—began to point the country in a very different direction.

As President Nixon explained in his March 1970 message to Congress on elementary and secondary education:

We must stop congratulating ourselves for spending nearly as much money on education as does the entire rest of the world…when we are not getting as much as we should out of the dollars we spend.…There is only one important question to be asked about education: What do the children learn?

Less than four years after Coleman’s study, his central finding had made its way to the nation’s foremost bully pulpit and had become the basis for a substantial White House initiative.

Three decades before George W. Bush put the “achievement gap” and the “soft bigotry of low expectations” indelibly onto the national agenda with his No Child Left Behind Act, Richard M. Nixon was deploring the same things, linking equity concerns to weak academic performance, decrying the education system’s proclivity to focus on inputs rather than results, and insisting that schools instead be judged on the basis of their students’ achievement. He even demanded that the new National Institute of Education that he proposed—this one did come to pass a couple of years later and, after several reincarnations, is today’s Institute of Education Sciences—devise “new measures of educational output” by which “accountability” could be assured. “School administrators and school teachers alike are responsible for their performance,” Nixon declared, “and it is in their interest as well as in the interest of their pupils that they be held accountable.”

Remarkably, he also tiptoed onto the treacherous terrain of national standards—though without quite calling for them. “For years,” Nixon said, “the fear of ‘national standards’ has been one of the bugaboos of education.…The problem is that in opposing some mythical threat of ‘national standards’ what we have too often been doing is avoiding accountability for our own local performance. We have, as a nation, too long avoided thinking of the productivity of schools.”

Well, standards and results—higher standards and more equitable results—are the name of the education game today and, especially in a time of tight resources, productivity has never been more important.

I cannot assert that Richard Nixon transformed American education policy. He was ahead of his time and the transformation took decades. Indeed, we’re still in the middle of it. But he rolled this ball forward and that would not have happened had Pat Moynihan not placed Coleman’s analysis in his hand, explained what it was and why it mattered, and encouraged the President and his administration to give it a good firm shove in the right direction.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This piece originally appeared in this week’s Education Gadfly and is adapted from a talk given at the “Moynihan in the White House” forum, held at AEI on November 10, 2010 and sponsored by the Richard Nixon Foundation. More information, including a full video of the event, can be found here.

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

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College