Professor's work was misinterpreted


Sociologist James S. Coleman had more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame. But when he died in Chicago 10 days ago, the news trickled out and found its way to obituary pages deep within the nation's newspapers.

Had Dr. Coleman died a quarter of a century earlier, when he was head of the social relations department at the Johns Hopkins University and the chief author of the 1966 "Coleman Report," the news would have recommended itself immediately to front pages.

In those days, the Hopkins professor was reviled in the South, then undergoing massive school desegregation, much of it relying on the Coleman Report as a rationale for busing to achieve racial balance.

Five years later, after he had moved to Chicago, Dr. Coleman appeared to reverse himself on busing, declaring that it had only produced white flight from the cities. Then he was reviled by Northern liberals and busing proponents.

(Black nationalists also criticized Dr. Coleman's famous report. Floyd McKissick, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, said the Coleman Report implied: "Mix Negroes with Negroes and you get stupidity.")

But the truth is that the $1.5 million government-sponsored report, "Equality of Educational Opportunity," did not advocate busing, and Dr. Coleman went to his grave last week at the age of 68 believing that the report had been widely misinterpreted by the media and education policy-makers.

The Coleman Report was a monumental undertaking, involving 4,000 schools, 600,000 students and 60,000 teachers and relying on economic statistics that lumped African-Americans with four other minorities and poor whites.

It's worth considering, nearly 30 years later, what the Coleman Report did find: The social and educational backgrounds of students and teachers, not the quality of school facilities or even class size, are the key factors in academic success. "Ghetto" schools -- the word wasn't yet politically incorrect -- don't help a child overcome the disadvantages of a poor home environment. There is some gain in educational motivation for poor kids who mix with middle-income students in school, and no educational harm to the middle-income students.

Although it advocated racial integration and said integration was better than "compensatory" programs at poor schools, the report never recommended busing. When I interviewed Dr. Coleman in 1973, just before he left Hopkins after 14 years to return to the University of Chicago, he insisted that the work had been misinterpreted. When I suggested that he'd be remembered for the 1966 report, he replied, "God forbid."

L Dr. Coleman's 15 minutes weren't the minutes he had in mind.

Perhaps what happened to him is what often happens to academics who venture into matters of great social import and controversy.

Unlike other professors whose work is part and parcel of their advocacy, such as Gary Orfield, a desegregation expert at Harvard, Dr. Coleman tried to keep out of the political fray. (He was a poor public speaker whose ideas were difficult to sort out.)

James M. McPartland, who heads the Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools, came to Hopkins as a graduate sociology student to work under Dr. Coleman.

"I've been shocked and disappointed at the obituaries for Coleman because they've all missed the point about him," Dr. McPartland said. "That business about busing in the '60s and '70s is only a tiny, relatively insignificant part of his work. He was an expert on structural and organizational changes in education. He was the first to advocate cooperative learning in schools. He explored the fundamental problems of mass education in America. There are those of us who place him among the great thinkers -- Marx, Freud, Weber."

Dr. Coleman, a boxer in his teen years, was known as a workaholic who spent 18 hours a day on the job. He did take time for what Dr. McPartland called a "few well-chosen incidents of social action." He was arrested with most of his family in the demonstrations that eventually integrated Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn. A few years later he was one of the signers of an open letter calling for a halt to the American bombing of North Vietnam. He also joined an effort to achieve racial balance and stability (with a black majority) at then-Pimlico Junior High School in Northwest Baltimore.

That effort failed, as did others in the early '70s to desegregate city elementary and middle schools. But Baltimore then, as in 1966, and as now, had too many African-American children concentrated in the inner city to even think about large-scale desegregation. "White flight" was a fact in Baltimore long before the Coleman Report.

Dr. Coleman knew this. As early as 1972, he was advocating entirely new roles for schools, which he said hadn't adjusted to an "information-rich society." He said society had to change its thinking about schools as places where children gather in the presence of teachers and "learn" reading, writing and arithmetic.

Few listened. The din of the busing argument was simply too loud.

Donte finished first

A few weeks ago, we said that Donte Everett, the talented young chess player at City College, had finished 14th in his category at last year's national chess championships.

Actually, the City team finished 14th; Donte finished first. This correction gives us a chance to wish City many checkmates in this year's championships this weekend in Chicago.

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