The Coleman Report at 50: Was Coleman “Right,” Have We Made Progress? What Have We Learned?

Fifty years after the release of the Coleman Report Johns Hopkins University commissioned fourteen scholars to examine the findings of the report and convened a conference to discuss the research papers. The papers can be read on the Russell Sage Foundation website.

Ten years after the 1954 Board v Board of Education Supreme Court decision called for the end of school segregation “with all deliberate speed,” the pace of desegregation was minimal; however, less than a year after the assassination of JFK President Johnson signed an iconic piece of legislation: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Under Title 1 of the law federal dollars would flow to high poverty schools; while the pace of school desegregation might be slow at least resources would assist schools in repairing the damage of segregation. The law also required a study to emphasize the “lack of availability of equal educational access.” The law stated,

The Commissioner [of Education] shall conduct a survey and make a report to the President and the Congress, within two years of the enactment, concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunity for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public institutions at all levels in the United States, its territories and possessions, and the District of Columbia.

James Coleman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University was commissioned to “conduct a survey and make a report to the President.”

The report concluded that school resource disparities revolving around race distinctively were not large … differences by race within the same geographic space generally were small, too small to account for what today we call the black-white achievement gap.

The report was not what Congress expected and it was released on the 4th of July in 1966, clearly hoping the report would not receive media scrutiny. The findings of the report were “truly groundbreaking … both surprising and, for many, disappointing.”

The key findings:

  1. differences across schools in average achievement levels were small compared to differences in achievement levels within schools;
  2. the differences in achievement levels detected did not align appreciably with differences in school resources other than the socioeconomic makeup of the student body; and
  3. family background factors afforded a much more powerful accounting of achievement differences than did any and all characteristics of the schools that children attended

Read the introductory paper here

Sean Reardon, from Stanford University, looks at the findings of the 1966 report and data today: do the findings hold up to scrutiny?

Rather depressingly Reardon finds “… clear evidence that one aspect of segregation in particular—the disparity in average school poverty rates between white and black students’ schools—is consistently the single most powerful correlate of achievement gaps.”

“This implies that high-poverty schools are, on average, much less effective than lower-poverty schools and suggests that strategies that reduce the differential exposure of black, Hispanic, and white students to poor schoolmates may lead to meaningful reductions in academic achievement gaps”

. “Coleman wrote, ‘the higher achievement of all racial and ethnic groups in schools with greater proportions of white students is largely, perhaps wholly, related to effects associated with the student body’s educational background and aspirations’. In other words, the negative association of segregation with academic achievement disparities appears to have been largely driven by the differences in the socioeconomic composition of the schools where black and white students were enrolled.”

“This study is not new in identifying a strong association between racial segregation and academic achievement gaps. It does, however, provide a much sharper description of the features of segregation patterns that are most strongly predictive of academic achievement gaps. The evidence here very clearly shows that racial differences in exposure to poor schoolmates are linked to achievement gaps. Black and Hispanic students’ test scores, relative to whites’, are much lower when black and Hispanic students attend schools with more poor schoolmates. Reducing school segregation—in particular, reducing racial disparities in exposure to poor schoolmates—may therefore be an effective means of improving the equality of students’ access to high-quality educational opportunities.”

Read the full Reardon paper here

The Reardon paper and the others clearly tell us that the focus on testing driven accountability, perhaps a planned cynical turn away from school integration strategies have been failures. No Child Left Behind (2002) and the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top (2010) assume that transparent testing with harsh sanctions to low performing schools, the encouragement of quasi-public charter schools and the use of dense algorithms to assess teacher performance can end the racial achievement gap. They have not only been a colossal failure, they have turned us away from the core problem – schools segregated socio-economically and racially result in significant academic achievement gaps.

While improving the quality of classroom teaching and school leadership, selecting appropriate high quality curriculum, effective professional development and collaborative school climates are all essential components the Coleman Report and the papers released at the conference all agree – school integration is the single most effective road to reducing/eliminating the academic achievement gap.

The Coleman Report did result in school integration efforts immediately after the release of the report and there were successes, largely in the South. Over the last twenty years the efforts have faded away. The UCLA Civil Rights Project  emphasizes the increase in segregated schools, especially in the Northeast, and, points to New York as the most segregated city. An example: the PS 191 – PS 199 battle on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, probably the most liberal enclave in the nation. PS 191 is an almost all white, high achieving, overcrowded school, PS 199 is an all minority, low achieving, underutilized school a few blocks away. A plan to change the zoning boundaries and move white students to the black school have been met with enormous resistance from the white parents and elected officials.  In other parts of the city and in other cities “controlled choice” have shown incremental progress, (Read about “controlled choice” here)

All the papers are available on the Russell Sage website and the links are available below. I spent an intellectually stimulating and thoughtful day in Baltimore (and the crab cakes were excellent). The conference was recorded and I will reference the link when available. I am an inveterate “question asker,” and I took full advantage of the opportunity. I believe the presenters agreed that the new Every Student Succeeds Act gives states an opportunity to move in a different direction. The law requires that states construct accountability systems and states will have wide latitude, and, hopefully will move away from the NCLB rigid, punitive system. Moving towards greater school integration; however, is an enormous lift,

Take a look at the papers below, contact the authors: use to debate/discuss in your classrooms, for the next year or so a window for change will be open, let’s not let it close without significant changes.


  The Coleman Report and Educational Inequality Fifty Years Later

2(5), pp. i–iii


The Coleman Report at Fifty: Its Legacy and Implications for Future Research on Equality of Opportunity

Karl AlexanderStephen L. Morgan

2(5), pp. 1–16

  1. The Legacy of EEO and Current Patterns of Educational Inequality
Is It Family or School? Getting the Question Right

Karl Alexander

2(5), pp. 18–33


School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps

Sean F. Reardon

2(5), pp. 34–57


Racial and Ethnic Gaps in Postsecondary Aspirations and Enrollment

Barbara SchneiderGuan Saw

2(5), pp. 58–82


Still No Effect of Resources, Even in the New Gilded Age?

Stephen L. MorganSol Bee Jung

2(5), pp. 83–116


First- and Second-Order Methodological Developments from the Coleman Report

Samuel R. Lucas

2(5), pp. 117–140

  1. Looking to the Future
Educational Equality Is a Multifaceted Issue: Why We Must Understand the School’s Sociocultural Context for Student Achievement

Prudence L. Carter

2(5), pp. 142–163


What If Coleman Had Known About Stereotype Threat? How Social-Psychological Theory Can Help Mitigate Educational Inequality

Geoffrey D. BormanJaymes Pyne

2(5), pp. 164–185


A New Framework for Understanding Parental Involvement: Setting the Stage for Academic Success

Angel L. HarrisKeith Robinson

2(5), pp. 186–201


Necessary but Not Sufficient: The Role of Policy for Advancing Programs of School, Family, and Community Partnerships

Joyce L. EpsteinSteven B. Sheldon

2(5), pp. 202–219


Accountability, Inequality, and Achievement: The Effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on Multiple Measures of Student Learning

Jennifer L. JenningsDouglas Lee Lauen

2(5), pp. 220–241


Can Technology Help Promote Equality of Educational Opportunities?

Brian JacobDan BergerCassandra HartSusanna Loeb

2(5), pp. 242–271


Connecting Research and Policy to Reduce Inequality

Ruth N. López Turley

2(5), pp. 272–285


One response to “The Coleman Report at 50: Was Coleman “Right,” Have We Made Progress? What Have We Learned?

  1. Even a January 2013 report out of Stanford revealed “There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in EVERY COUNTRY; surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States than in similar post-industrial countries, and not much larger than in the very highest scoring countries.”

    There’s more info here for anyone interested in fact-based truth vs. Donald Trump/Bill Gates delusional reasoning with alleged facts that are cherry picked and manipulated with lies.


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