In some ways, the \”Coleman report\” launched the study of how to reform the US K-12 education system that has been going on ever since. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, among its lesser-noticed provisions, required a report \”concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunity for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public institutions at all levels in the United States, its territories and possessions, and the District of Columbia.\” James Coleman, a quantitative sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, was signed up to lead the research and writing effort. The Equality of Educational Opportunity report was published in June 1966. The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences has devoted its September issue to a 13-paper symposium that looks at how the insights of the report have held up, and what the agenda for equal opportunity in education should be moving forward.

The common working assumption at the time was that \”equal opportunity in education\” referred to educational inputs, like spending on teachers, class size, and other resources. Karl Alexander and Stephen L. Morgan in their introduction, \”The Coleman Report at Fifty: Its Legacy and Implications for Future Research on Equality of Opportunity,\” how the Coleman report challenged these prevailing assumptions. They write: 

\”The thinking at the time was that school quality inhered in a school’s facilities and resources, such as modern science laboratories, a well-stocked school library, and highly qualified teachers, all of which were regarded as “school inputs,” in the language of the report. It was expected that the segregated schools attended by black children would be found to be badly lacking in the inputs thought to be educationally important. From that vantage point, gauging “equality of opportunity” would be revealed in comparisons of school resources, black against white. For that part of the agenda, no fancy statistics were needed.

\”EEO [Equality of Educational Opportunity] presented evidence on this point, but evidence that many found hard to believe. The report concluded that school resource disparities revolving around race distinctively were not large. There were differences, to be sure—the South lagged behind the rest of the country, and rural areas behind urban—but differences by race within the same geographic space generally were small, too small to account for what today we call the black-white achievement gap.

\”This is one of several conclusions that made the EEO report controversial, and for many a disappointment. Other significant conclusions trace to the expansive view of equal educational opportunity that was introduced by the research team. Their reformulation shifted attention from disparities in schooling “inputs” as problematic in themselves to disparities in inputs that had bearing on educational “outcomes”—notably achievement test scores—and to achievement differences across social lines as markers of unequal opportunity. These radical reframings of the issue are undoubtedly among the report’s most profound and lasting contributions.

\”Pursuing this line of inquiry, the report compared test scores across racial and ethnic lines, across dimensions of family background (for example, parents’ educational level), by grade level, and across different regions and community contexts (urban or rural). In a more analytical vein, it examined variations in test scores and test score gaps in relation to school resources, focusing on average resource differences across schools. The school resources examined included teacher qualifications, curricular coverage, and facilities and expenditures, along with compositional characteristics of the student body (such as the percentage of minority enrollment and the percentage of families of low socioeconomic background).

\”These aspects of the report’s work were truly groundbreaking, and very likely not at all by congressional intent. Here, too, EEO’s main conclusions were both surprising and, for many, disappointing. These conclusions are addressed in detail in several of the papers in this issue. In thumbnail, EEO concluded that

  1. differences across schools in average achievement levels were small compared to differences in achievement levels within schools;
  2. the differences in achievement levels detected did not align appreciably with differences in school resources other than the socioeconomic makeup of the student body; and
  3. family background factors afforded a much more powerful accounting of achievement differences than did any and all characteristics of the schools that children attended.

\”The report’s focus on academic achievement (test scores) to assess equality of educational opportunity was revolutionary. Reliance on achievement tests for monitoring and accountability is now routine, and many volumes have been written on how to do such assessments well. But that was not the case a half-century ago.

\”The report also was transformative in directing attention to the broader social context of children’s academic development. If school resources were the sole engine, then evaluating the performance of schools in isolation would be fine. But Coleman’s research team understood that resources provided by families and neighborhoods contributed to children’s initial school readiness, their achievement levels, and their learning trajectories. That, too, is taken for granted today—there is much interest, for example, in out-of-school time learning (OTL) opportunities—but at the time education policy was inward-looking: education reform meant school reform. Today it is also routine to pose questions about the social factors in children’s learning and the determinants of the achievement gap across social lines by asking: is it family or it is school? In the 1960s, when the report posed that question, it was not routine.

\”The report also established that racial segregation remained the norm throughout the United States, a finding that proponents of school desegregation embraced and used to advance their agenda. The same cannot be said of its conclusions regarding the near-irrelevance of school resources for advancing the cause of educational equity and the imbalance of family and school in children’s learning.\”

I can\’t hope to summarize the symposium in a few words, so here, I\’ll just offer a comment from the paper by Stephen Morgan and Sol Bee Jung called \”Still No Effect of Resources, Even in the New Gilded Age?\” Morgan is currently a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, as Coleman was 50 years ago, and Jung is a graduate student in the department. They write:

This paper investigates the effects of family background, expenditures, and the conditions of school facilities for the public high school class of 2004, first sampled in 2002 for the Education Longitudinal Study and then followed up in 2004, 2006, and 2012. The results demonstrate that expenditures and related school inputs have very weak associations not only with test scores in the sophomore and senior years of high school but also with high school graduation and subsequent college entry. Only for postsecondary educational attainment do we find any meaningful predictive power for expenditures, and here half of the association can be adjusted away by school-level differences in average family background. Altogether, expenditures and facilities have much smaller associations with secondary and postsecondary outcomes than many scholars and policy advocates assume. The overall conclusion of the Coleman Report—that family background is far and away the most important determinant of educational achievement and attainment—is as convincing today as it was fifty years ago.

For those who would like to surf the issue, here\’s a table of contents:

The Coleman Report and Educational Inequality Fifty Years Later
2(5), pp. i–iii

The Coleman Report at Fifty: Its Legacy and Implications for Future Research on Equality of Opportunity
Karl Alexander and Stephen L. Morgan
2(5), pp. 1–16

I. The Legacy of EEO and Current Patterns of Educational Inequality
Is It Family or School? Getting the Question Right
Karl Alexander
2(5), pp. 18–33

School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps
Sean F. Reardon
2(5), pp. 34–57

Racial and Ethnic Gaps in Postsecondary Aspirations and Enrollment
Barbara Schneider, Guan Saw
2(5), pp. 58–82

Still No Effect of Resources, Even in the New Gilded Age?
Stephen L. Morgan, Sol Bee Jung
2(5), pp. 83–116

First- and Second-Order Methodological Developments from the Coleman Report
Samuel R. Lucas
2(5), pp. 117–140

II. Looking to the Future

Educational Equality Is a Multifaceted Issue: Why We Must Understand the School’s Sociocultural Context for Student Achievement
Prudence L. Carter
2(5), pp. 142–163

What If Coleman Had Known About Stereotype Threat? How Social-Psychological Theory Can Help Mitigate Educational Inequality
Geoffrey D. Borman, Jaymes Pyne
2(5), pp. 164–185

A New Framework for Understanding Parental Involvement: Setting the Stage for Academic Success
Angel L. Harris, Keith Robinson
2(5), pp. 186–201

Necessary but Not Sufficient: The Role of Policy for Advancing Programs of School, Family, and Community Partnerships
Joyce L. Epstein, Steven B. Sheldon
2(5), pp. 202–219

Accountability, Inequality, and Achievement: The Effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on Multiple Measures of Student Learning
Jennifer L. Jennings, Douglas Lee Lauen
2(5), pp. 220–241

Can Technology Help Promote Equality of Educational Opportunities?
Brian Jacob, Dan Berger, Cassandra Hart, Susanna Loeb
2(5), pp. 242–271

Connecting Research and Policy to Reduce Inequality
Ruth N. López Turley
2(5), pp. 272–285

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