by Warren Simmons
James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity Report was issued a half-century ago in the midst of the struggle to integrate the nation’s public schools. The release of the Coleman report in the summer of 1966 ignited a torrent of controversy, critique, and debate, primarily because it defied the emerging ethos of the time.
Through a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Congress directed Commissioner of Education Harold Howe to study the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities” for minority children. Howe commissioned James S. Coleman, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, to perform a study, which is now considered one of the most influential education research reports ever produced.
The expectation was that the source of achievement inequality between Blacks and Whites was school segregation, still prevalent in 1966 despite the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated its demise. But Coleman’s report, rather than providing support and scientific justification for an all-out desegregation effort, argued that the wide achievement gap between White and Black students was the product of family differences. It declared that if the goal was to improve the academic achievement of all pupils, then a socioeconomic mix of students is more crucial than changing the racial composition of the school population. In short, it identified families – not just schools – as the key drivers of student achievement.
Coleman’s bold and unexpected conclusion that racial integration did little to boost academic achievement in urban schools was characterized as “seismic” by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the Assistant Secretary of Labor in President Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, which had championed desegregation as the solution to education inequality. Reportedly, President Johnson intentionally released the Coleman report over the Fourth of July weekend with the hope that it would go unnoticed and would not undermine his commitment to school desegregation. Instead, the report not only gained national traction, but according to Harvard professor Heather Hill, “the Coleman Report has become its own institution” in terms of its impact on education policy.
Flaws and Legacies
Looking back now, with five decades of learning, do Coleman’s insights hold up? And are they relevant to today’s educational and social policy debate?
In my opinion, Coleman’s conclusion’s were flawed because he ignored two absolutely critical points: 1) the destructive and cumulative consequences of poverty; and 2) the devastating impact on student achievement of unequal access to funding for textbooks, curriculum materials, high quality programs, and updated facilities.
Coleman unknowingly pioneered what is currently characterized as the “no excuses” school of education reform. Its adherents view the Black-White student achievement gap as a chasm that can be bridged through individual effort and accountability, and/or by dismantling school systems and spreading school choice, despite gross inequities in school resources and learning opportunities. This is akin to the “silver bullet” mentality in which policymakers, eager to solve societal challenges, seize narrow technical solutions to problems that are rooted in a range of factors including institutional racism manifested in discriminatory housing, employment, and education policies and practices –problems that defy quick fixes.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, one in five children nationwide lives in poverty. In high-poverty school districts, children frequently arrive at school with needs that more affluent districts simply don’t need to provide, but addressing those unmet needs won't necessarily improve test scores. “If kids are coming to school without the basic health and nutritional supports, you need to do that," says Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond in a recent NPR interview. She added what any educator would surely echo: “It’s tough to teach a child who is chronically hungry or sick.”
At AISR, we believe – with evidence from our research – that enhancing teaching and learning for all students requires focused and systemic approaches that address poverty, culture, and race in education. In addition, the achievement gaps between wealthy and poor students are exacerbated by the growing income disparities that leave poor families less-equipped to provide their children with the enriched experiences that augment learning and counter the effects of poor children’s exposure to neighborhoods suffering from decades of disinvestment.
Recent research – such as AISR’s Black and Latino Male study and the book Coming of Age in the Other America – underscores the value of taking a place-based, multi-sector approach to addressing the challenges faced by poor students of color, and the opportunities that must be marshaled to enhance their learning and development. Additionally, this work supports a counter-narrative to the popular portrayal that suggests today’s educational problems are caused largely by bad teachers, bad kids, bad schools, and broken systems. And it also reveals a path forward that requires researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to transform teaching and learning to recognize that cultures and communities have assets as well as threats.
Coleman was correct in this regard: Schools alone cannot ensure that all students will have the resources and supports they need to succeed. However, the solution lies with districts working in partnership with community agencies and organizations, to provide a comprehensive web of learning supports to improve student outcomes. These partnerships should have an explicit focus on the elimination of opportunity and achievement gaps to enhance the academic, enrichment, and extracurricular activities that support healthy physical, cultural, and emotional development, including intentionally engaging families to enhance student learning at school and home.
Coleman was also right about the shortcomings of integration as a path to equitable education, though for reasons he could not have foreseen. By the mid-1970s, de facto segregation had become widespread, with most urban school districts becoming predominantly Black and Latino as a result of white flight and increased migration of African Americans to cities. However, today’s solutions should concentrate more on how to build the kinds of learning opportunities necessary to close existing achievement gaps and ensure that all students have the opportunity to become proficient based on our national standards. “Integrated” learning opportunities for all students will foster the kinds of beliefs and practices that will make social integration a more feasible goal.
It is imperative that we determine how to effectively eliminate opportunity gaps by race, income, language, and disability. There is no place for these gaps in today’s world, when our goal is for every student to graduate well-prepared for college, career, and civic life. The solution to our longstanding education challenge will require fundamental change at the social, political, and cultural levels.
Warren Simmons is a senior fellow and former executive director of AISR and an adjunct professor in the Urban Education Policy master’s program at Brown University.