Coleman Report Brings Revolution, No Solution

A Blueprint For Urban Education

It is now a year and a half since the publications of Equal Educational Opportunity, the so-called "Coleman Report" on discrimination in the nation's schools. Tattered copies have disappeared into the bottom drawers of journalists' desks, and public discussion of the report is entombed in jargonized trade journals. Few would guess that the "Coleman Report" has brought U.S. education to the verge of an unprecedented revolution.

There is little doubt it has. After months of eager study, Ed Schools are bursting with new plans to remold the nation's rotting urban schools. With harried city politicians begging for help, everything points toward dramatic change.

Almost everything, that is. For despite the promise, the experts remain oddly silent, producing no answers. The activity goes on but behind the scenes. The ideas travel in scholarly channels, unintelligble to layman and politician alike.

The explanations--simple but profoundly frightening--is few experts agree on what the reports suggests. The largest study of discrimination ever, it applied computers to education on a revolutionary scale. But like any innovation, it is plagued with problems--in this case, statistical issues which must be debated in the methodologists's bewildering tongue. Education has become a social science, with the emphasis on science. But while its methods match physics' in complexity, they don't yet in certainty.

Lack of certainty, of course, is not necessarily inaccuracy, and few dispute the revolutionary nature of Coleman's contribution. For the first time, it is providing real hints about how children learn and why disadvantaged children don't.


Though Congress authorized and financed the study, it apparantly intended no bombshells. Commissioned under a little-known clause of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the study's mandate was for a survey "concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities" because of race, religion, or national origin. Congress probably expected a study of the traditional sort--documenting secregation and gross inequalities of financing or facilities between minority and majority schools. The one innovation was to be the size of the study which, for the first time, would study discrimination on a national, not just local or regional, basis.

Coleman, however, had other ideas. A professor of social Relations at Johns Hopkins, his size, soft voice, and boxer's nose suggest the aging athlete more than the reformer academic. But his first step was to discard the primary assumption of all past discrimination studies -- that equal educational opportunity consists of the quantity of the things you put into a school: curricula, classrooms, facilities. According to Coleman, this standard lets schools off too easily. It implies that the burden of learning falls on the child, while society's responsibility ends with getting students to schools and spending equal amounts on each one. Given the handicaps of underprivileged children, Coleman saw the needs for a radical redefinition of educational opportunity.

He supplied one. "The difference in achievement," explained Coleman at a Harvard colloquium on the document, "at grade twelve between the average Negro and the average white is, in effect, the degree of inequality of opportunity, and the reduction of that inequality is the responsibility of the school." With this concept at the heart of the survey, Coleman could make his effort more than a catalogue of the nation's school books and black-boards. He asked what now seems the obvious question: why don't poor children achieve?

The answer fills 737 densely-packed pages. Coleman started by documenting the achievement gap between minority and majority children (Negroes, though of prime interest, were only one of several minority groups studied). To no one's surprise, he found minority children enter school at a lower achievement level than their majority counterparts, and fall further behind as their schooling progress. Coleman also discovered, again shocking few, that segregation is still the rule in U.S. schools. Sixtyfive per cent of all Negroes, and 80 per cent of all whites, attend schools filled 90 per cent by their own race.

But the real surprises cropped up when Coleman studied the factors associated with low achievement. Of the four he uncovered, the least influential was schools facilities, so long used as the criterion of quality education. According to the Report, school facilities are substantially the same in all schools, minority and majority, across the country. Per pupil expenditure, curricula, all the physical trappings of education, simply do not explain why Negro children leave city schools as near-illiterates.

A much better guide, Coleman found, is the quality of teachers--measured in years of schooling and verbal ability. Teachers of children from minority groups are generally less competent.

But by far the most important factors are sociological--the social class of each student, and the social class of his fellow students. Crippled by low parent education and lack of stimulus, students of low socio-economic background must fight extra hard to overcome home influences. But progress becomes almost impossible when fellow-students come from the same backgrounds, and suffer the same handicaps. Lacking examples of ambition or achievement, the class gels into a self-retarding mass.

Coleman himself made no attempts to formulate Policy, but the Report's implications are obvious. It makes the strongest case ever for integration.

Oddly, Coleman did almost no work on the relationship between race and achievement--the effects of racial mixing on minority education. But the logic of the statistics on race and class in the U.S. makes the omission almost irrelevant. As long as schools fail to mix disadvantaged children of any race with more advantaged peers, they cannot provide equal educational opportunity. Since the vast majority of Negroes are poor, and the Negro middle-class all but non-existent, racial segregation equals social segregation. Integration is thus essential to improving Negro education. (Actually, since the Report's publication, other studies, most notably the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's Racial Isolation in the Public School, have found Coleman's data suggests racial mixing, regardless of class, improves minority achievement.

Facts and Morality