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Scholars Present Papers on Coleman Report

By Jim Campbell

December 8, 2015

Thirteen of the nation’s leading education scholars presented papers for peer review last month at the Russell Sage Foundation on the significance of the 1966 Equal Opportunity Report, more commonly known as the Coleman Report. James Coleman, the late Johns Hopkins University professor, was the lead researcher on what many consider one of the most significant sociological studies ever done in the United States.

The Coleman study was ordered by Congress to determine the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunity" for minority students in the United States. Coleman and his team of researchers interviewed more than 600,000 students and 60,000 teachers in 4,000 schools across the country. It was considered the most ambitious use of survey research methodologies at the time and its findings stunned the education world.

Conventional thinking held that the report would show that low-income and minority students performed poorly because their schools lacked resources. Instead, the 700-page report found that family background and social composition of the school were more of a factor in student achievement than the quality of instruction. The Harvard Crimson said at the time: “The Coleman Report brought U.S. education to the verge of an unprecedented revolution.” The Hopkins professor was catapulted into the forefront of the national debate over how to best educate minority children.

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the report next year, Johns Hopkins professors, Karl Alexander and Stephen Morgan, invited scholars representing a variety of disciplines to offer their reflections on the report’s legacy. They asked the academicians to address two questions: “How have the insights held up over the years, and what is their continuing relevance to the current educational and social policy debate?”

Alexander began the workshop at the Russell Sage Foundation with his paper “Getting the Question Right.” He argued that the Coleman findings should not be framed as family-versus-school, as many suggest, but rather family and school working together on behalf of the child’s academic development. Morgan is studying how resources, such as teachers, facilities and supplies, affect achievement.

Sean Reardon of Stanford University is investigating segregation patterns and achievement. He asks the question: “Is it racial segregation per se that matters, or the association of racial segregation with unequal schooling or neighborhood conditions?” Angel Harris of Duke University is proposing new ways of measuring the impact of parental involvement on a child’s academic success. He contends that traditional measures are not working.

Ruth Turley Lopez of Rice University recommends more involvement with policy-makers at the local, state and federal levels. Since she has not seen progress in reducing educational inequality, she asks the question: “Why is there a disconnect between researchers and policy makers?” Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University explores how policies are put in place in schools. She says, “Policies tell educators to do something, but not how to enact a specific law or recommendation.”  

The papers will be formally presented on October 5 and 6, 2016, at the 50th anniversary conference on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, recognizing the release of the report. David Steiner, director of the School of Education’s Institute for Education Policy is inviting key policy-makers for their reactions to the findings and to discuss future implications of the report. The Russell Sage Foundation will publish the peer-reviewed articles in a special edition of the Journal of the Social Sciences that will be available at the conference. 






Johns Hopkins University Coleman at 50 Russell Sage Foundation Spencer Foundation William T Grant