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50 years after the Coleman Report

Op-ed: The Coleman Report is 50 years old, but it's findings regarding education are just being put to use now

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare rocked the nation's education establishment by releasing an 800-page report by James Coleman, a little known Johns Hopkins professor, and his team of researchers finding that the socioeconomic status of a child's family and peers are better predictors of academic success than actual schooling.

Harvard scholars concluded that the so-called Coleman Report (formally the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report) "turned understanding of a major area of social policy upside down as perhaps no comparable event in the history of social science." Others called its findings — the result of more than 660,000 interviews at 4,000 schools across the country over two years — "revolutionary." It is considered one of the largest and most comprehensive sociological studies of its kind.

Yet it is only now that ideas put forth by Coleman are gaining some limited traction at the local and national level.

The report became public while President Lyndon Johnson was waging his "War on Poverty." Needless to say, Johnson was disappointed. He had been hoping the federal study would show that a lack of adequate resources for schools (quality teachers, textbooks, and adequate facilities etc.), especially in the Southern states, was depriving poor and minority students of a quality education — a problem perhaps easier to address than poverty itself.

Coleman's plan to improve academic outcomes, also shocking at the time, was to mix poor children in classrooms with middle class children. And so, in the late '60s and early '70s, some communities began busing black students to majority white schools; the political backlash was severe, and the courts eventually struck down this approach. Today, however, after years of not addressing the effects of being poor on schooling, more and more communities and policy makers are turning to remedies proposed by Coleman.

The shift comes at an ironic time: Poverty levels have reverted to 1960 figures. The U.S. Census Bureau announced two years ago that the poverty rate was 14 percent — essentially the same as in 1967, three years after the start of the War on Poverty. The bureau also noted that while the overall population grew by only 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, the number of poor increased by 56 percent. Last year, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that a majority of students attending the nation's public schools now come from low-income families, and the number of schools with high concentrations of poor students is on the rise. In 2000, 12 percent of schools had a student population that was at least 75 percent low income; eight years later that number rose to 17 percent.

Studies are also accumulating to support Coleman's finding. A group of researchers at Columbia University, in a study for the Century Foundation, found "diversity makes us smarter." They concluded that "students who are exposed to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving."

Among the Coleman related efforts today:

•The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, has identified an increasing number of school districts pursuing a policy of mixing students of different income levels. In 1996, there were two such districts, whereas today there are 91. Districts that emphasize socioeconomic status avoid the legal impediments of using race and are able to connect to findings by Coleman that the status of classmates is a driver of student achievement.

•In Montgomery County, Maryland, developers have been required to set aside a certain percentage of housing for low-income families in affluent communities. These families send their children to more affluent schools. The program has demonstrated significant progress in reducing the achievement gap.

•Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins professor, is working on a proposal to support new mixed income schools in the Baltimore area.

•And earlier this year, President Barack Obama introduced the Stronger Together program that provides grants to school districts promoting economic integration. And he selected John B. King as secretary of education last year; Mr. King is a strong supporter of economically integrated classrooms and has expressed concern that the nation's education system had become deeply segregated. (Mr. Obama has been criticized for the past seven years for focusing his school reform efforts on testing, accountability and implementing Common Core standards and ignoring the effects of poverty on learning.)

Just before taking office in January, Mr. King said, "Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children — black or white, rich or poor — is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools."

Coleman couldn't have said it better.

In October, the Johns Hopkins School of Education will be hosting the Coleman at 50 Conference: Its Relevance to Policy and Practice Today. Information: education.jhu.edu/coleman.

A former member of the Baltimore school board and the Maryland House of Delegates, James Campbell is a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. His email is jcamp@jhu.edu.

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