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PISA2018-2.1 – The Coleman Report and Public Education

Sociologist James Coleman was commissioned in 1964 to prepare a report on the availability of education for individuals to achieve equal educational opportunities irrespective of race, religion or national origin. It grew out of the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was grounded to that extent in the Supreme Court decision of 1954, Brown vs the Board of Education, known in shorthand as Brown, a decision still debated and one resisted in states both north and south, then and now.

Published mid-1966 the Coleman Report found family background was the primary determinant of educational achievement and that the nature of the school population was also significantly influential. Though it concluded that money was not the principal determinant, later research found funding levels make a difference where less advantaged children are concerned.

Choice of school is an outgrowth of the findings of Brown and are not some special, fundamental and universal democratic principal unless it is part of the ordinary rights of every citizen, one which governments are required to uphold and fund!

James Coleman, a pioneering sociologist, started out as a chemical engineer but then switched to social sciences gaining a PhD from Columbia University in 1955. Four years later he founded the first sociology department, first termed Social Relations, at Johns Hopkins University. Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, wrote an outstanding article for the Johns Hopkins University Magazine of Winter 2016.

In mid-1964, in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which amongst other things required, in Section 402, that a survey be conducted “concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public educational institutions” and that a report be made within two years to the President and Congress.

Two years later, Coleman “checked into a motel in Washington, D.C., and shut himself off from the outside world”. It was 12 years since the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown vs the Board of Education, or Brown for short, in which U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools were otherwise equal in quality. The case has become iconic in the US and around the world and required to be taught in US schools.


Distinguished education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings (University of Wisconsin, Madison) addressed the Supreme Court decision of 1954 in her wonderful DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Lecture of the American Education Research Association Annual Meeting in April 2004, “Landing on the Wrong Note: The Price We Paid for Brown”.[1] She said, “Issues of race and racism permeate U.S. culture—through law, language, politics, economics, symbols, art, public policy—and the prevalence of race is not merely in those spaces seen as racially defined spaces.” Brown followed a century of cases before the courts which attempted to remove the discrimination levelled against African Americans in US schools, as was the case in near every aspect of American life.

Ladson-Billings pointed to the “flaw” in Brown, as legal scholar Charles Lawrence pointed out, that it fostered thinking about segregation “in a way that allowed both judiciary and society at large to deny the reality of race in America”. The “institution of segregation is organic and selfperpetuating and cannot be dismantled via public sanction. It must be affirmatively destroyed.” She continued, “Black children suffered injury not because they were sitting in classrooms with other Black children, but rather because they were in those classrooms within a larger system that defined them and their schools as inferior”.

The judgement sought to address segregation and thereby serve Black interests. But it also sought to address White interests because, as the US Justice Department pointed out in its amicus brief to the Court, the US faced opprobrium internationally through its segregationist policies which challenged its standing in the foreign policy arena. “The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world, of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and secure form of government yet devised by man.”

Advocates of desegregation were unprepared for the reaction to the judgement. States, in the north and the south, did everything they could to avoid implementing the judgement as state legislatures and school boards throughout the South began a campaign of “economic reprisal and intimidation against Black educators”. One of the costs was the loss of African American jobs in teaching, some 38,000 of the 82,000 jobs before the judgement. Though especially in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s efforts at desegregation continued, resistance emerged after the election of Richard Nixon as President in 1968 and efforts were made to reverse decisions which had “forced integration too far”. “Segregation academies” were established by 1971 catering to some half million White children.

Ladson-Billings observed, “Had the Supreme Court’s remedy focused on the quality of education students received, White working class and poor students could have been folded into the decision in a way that might benefit them rather than underscore the adversarial relationship between Blacks and Whites. Instead, the focus on school desegregation obscured the more pressing need for quality education”.

Among the outcomes was the magnet school which continued segregation directed at Latino as well as Black students. By the time Ladson-Billings was addressing the 2004 Conference, the average enrolment of White students at the 12 largest city schools was just under 13% and the highest was 27% (San Diego). Without the inclusion of social scientists and the enthusiasm of community and civil rights activists, “the Brown decision omitted the perspectives and insights of educators, particularly teachers”.

Ladson-Billings concluded, “The nation has never fully and honestly dealt with its “race” problem”. “Might [Brown] be a place to argue that real education is impossible in isolation from diverse and critical perspectives? Might it be a place to begin to examine not just the mis-education of children of color and the poor but also that of White, middleclass children whose limited perspectives severely hamper their ability to function effectively in the global community?” That was in 2004, 16 years ago!


With a little over a year to meet the Congressional deadline, Coleman began his task in the Fall of 1965, establishing a team to survey the entire nation to determine whether public education was fair. They distributed one of the largest social science surveys ever conducted. Coleman’s questionnaires asked what had never been asked before. The completed surveys delivered to Coleman had been filled out by 600,000 students and 60,000 teachers from 4,000 schools and included “self-administered tests by teachers to determine baseline knowledge and what they brought to the classroom”.

“Very little was known at the time about America’s schools. Funding and resource distribution were a mystery. Test scores of whites and blacks had never been compared because standardized tests, ubiquitous today, did not yet exist nationwide. And no one had conducted studies analyzing the elements necessary for successful learning. Coleman’s questions were ones that no one had asked, let alone to such a wide degree. And from the beginning, he had taken this mammoth task and made it even harder by asking more questions. Rather than simply look at the resources and funds going into schools as directed by the government, Coleman wanted to understand outcomes. How well were kids learning? What might influence a child’s capacity to learn? Was it teachers? Peers? Families?”

The government had already formed a view as to what would be found: that some districts were likely under funding schools with predominantly minority students. Coleman’s 737-page report was filled with complex data-sets, graphs and charts that Dickinson says, “upended many assumptions about integration, education, and funding. Yes, segregation still existed, but what the survey unearthed about the nation’s educational system surprised most everyone, including some of the researchers.”

Coleman found the physical amenities were not the most important factor in the child’s educational success. Neither was funding (“which turned out to be relatively equal within regions”). “Instead, a student’s family background, coupled with a diverse socioeconomic mix in the classroom, appeared to be the biggest determinant of how well a child would learn.[2] No one had said this before, backing it up with data. What’s more, Coleman was the first to document what came to be known as the achievement gap—African-American children were several grade levels behind their white counterparts in school.”

The Report, seemingly obscure, was described by one person as having “dynamite in the results”. Fifty years on “it is still being still being parsed by academics, policymakers, and educators alike”. But the report drew other important conclusions.

“The other important revelation in the report was the pivotal importance of the social and economic composition of the student body.[3] “Other kids strongly influenced a child’s achievement. “The research results indicate that a child’s performance, especially a working-class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by his going to school with children who come from different backgrounds,” Coleman said. “If you integrate children of different backgrounds and socioeconomics, kids perform better.” This didn’t necessarily mean children from more affluent families; it could also mean kids whose parents placed more value on college, regardless of income.

The report also illuminated what would later become known as the achievement gap. The survey results found that while resources may be relatively equal within regions, educational outcomes were not.”

Dickinson points out, “The report revealed student sentiments as well”, [James] McPartland [one-time student of Coleman and later Professor at Johns Hopkins] said. It showed that black kids more than white kids felt that their future was not something they could influence, or as McPartland put it, “When asked, ‘What’s more important in school, good luck or hard work?’ the black kids would say, ‘Good luck, because it’s not in my hands.'” The report explained it this way: “It appears that children from advantaged groups assume that the environment will respond if they are able enough to affect it; children from disadvantaged groups do not make this assumption but in many cases assume that nothing they will do can affect the environment—it will give benefits or withhold them but not as a consequence of their own action.”[4]

“Finally, Coleman dispelled the idea that responsibility for education rested solely on teachers. A child’s learning is a “function more of the characteristics of his classmates than of those of the teacher,” he said.”

Dickinson concludes by observing that the Office of Education quickly determined the report to be incendiary and tried to divert attention from the findings. The press release about the Report occurred July 2 1966, the Saturday of the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Perhaps not unexpectedly and despite the [important] finding that the easy way out was NOT [shifting to the suburbs] and sending children to a homogeneous school, embracing a practice of sending children to a school where different social classes were intermingled did not eventuate. Others reasoned that since money was not the critical issue there was no reason to spend more money on schools. Conservatives and liberals argued different agendas.

Discrimination continues in education and everywhere, especially where the Republican Party has a majority in the State Legislature, through voter suppression measures requiring of intending voters documentation which discriminates against less advantaged citizens, limiting voting booth distribution in districts dominated by minorities and so on. When White executives are being recruited to jobs in another state one of the issues they ask about is whether schools are available which do not have a majority Black or minority enrolment! Because such schools are believed to deliver inferior results.


[1] The reference in the title of Landson-Billings’ paper to the “wrong note” is to the music of Ornette Coleman, alto-saxophonist, innovator and composer, one of the founders of “free jazz”. His album “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was one of some five seminal albums of jazz released at the close of the 1950s. Coleman died aged 85 in 2015 of a cardiac arrest.

[2] This is now widely accepted: the recent research of Hong Son Nghiem of the University of Queensland and colleagues is amongst the most comprehensive. “Children of parents who had both completed Year 12 had significantly higher test scores on all subjects. The residential neighbourhood and its characteristics such as household income were also found to be important. One of the strongest predictors of a child’s success is their level of development at preschool.”

[3] Studies in Australia by Laura Perry and Andrew McConney of Murdoch University found that children from low socio-economic background performed significantly better in classes of high socioeconomic background students than they did in classes of low SES children

[4]The 2018 PISA Report drew the same conclusions, as noted in Part 1 of this set: “of all the judgements people make about themselves, the most influential is how capable they think they are of completing a task successfully. More generally, research shows that the belief that we are responsible for the results of our behaviour influences motivation, such that people are more likely to invest effort if they believe it will lead to the results they are trying to achieve.”