Learning from James Coleman

By Kahlenberg, Richard D. | The Public Interest, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Learning from James Coleman


Kahlenberg, Richard D., The Public Interest


WHEN James S. Coleman died in 1995, the headline in the New York Times obituary read "Work Helped to Foster Busing"--an interesting epitaph for someone whom many also considered to be one of the original neoconservatives. What Bayard Rustin said of the white working class applies with equal force to the eminent University of Chicago sociologist: "The question is not whether this group is liberal or conservative, for it is both."

At a time when Washington is talking about "common ground" on education, it is appropriate to revisit Coleman's uncommon thinking on the issue. The author of 30 books and numerous articles, many of which appeared in the pages of this journal, Coleman contributed mightily to our understanding of education in America. Spanning 35 years, his work has much to say about the limitations of the education reforms under consideration, as well as the prospects for more promising, but less discussed, alternatives.

Coleman's sociological research ranged over a number of topics, from "social capital" to adolescent behavior. This article looks at three important contributions by Coleman to the education debate: Equality of Educational Opportunity, widely known as the Coleman Report, published in 1966; Coleman's study of school busing and white flight in the 1970s; and his research in the 1980s on the advantages of private schools. Several important principles emerge from this body of research: that social composition is more important than school spending, that socioeconomic integration is more important than racial integration, and that social capital of the sort found in Catholic schools is vital to improving our educational system. Taken together, these principles point toward reform of public education that transcends the conservative-liberal divide.

The 1966 Coleman Report

An obscure provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act called for a study of inequality of opportunity in education "by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin." The general assumption of educators, indeed Coleman's assumption, was that the funding differences between black and white schools would be large, and that these differences would provide the central explanation for unequal achievements of blacks and whites. In 1966, after conducting what was then the second largest social science research project in history-involving 600,000 children in 4,000 schools nationally-Coleman and his colleagues issued Equality of Educational Opportunity. It became, according to journalist Nicholas Lemann, "probably the single best-known piece of quantitative social science in American history," and it contained a number of surprising findings. First, the disparities in funding between schools attended by blacks and whites were far smaller than anticipated. Second, funding was not closely related to achievement; fam ily economic status was far more predictive. Third, a different kind of resource-peers-mattered a great deal. Going to school with middle-class peers was an advantage, while going to school with lower-class peers was a disadvantage, above and beyond an individual's family circumstances.

Today, in public memory, Coleman's report has been largely reduced to the second proposition: that "family matters more than schooling" and that "education spending is unrelated to achievement." But while Coleman found that family background was the central explanation for student achievement, he also believed school inequality made things worse. In the Summer 1966 issue of The Public Interest, [+] he noted that minority children start first grade behind white peers in reading and math achievement, on average, but they "have an even more serious deficiency at the end of school, which is obviously in part a result of the school." Harvard's Thomas Pettigrew noted: "Never once was it said that schools make no difference. The belief that Coleman hit was the belief that you could make a difference with money. …

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