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The Coleman Report at 50: A Prospectus

by Karl Alexander

July 2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report (EEOR), commonly known as the Coleman Report after the lead investigator of the EEOR research team, James S. Coleman. The EEOR is perhaps unrivaled in the annuals of social science research for its ambition and reach.  The Report was commissioned by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, locating it at the center of the struggle to desegregate America’s public schools. Congress directed the then Commissioner of Education to carry out a study of the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities” for minority children throughout the United States. The resulting exercise was the most ambitious application to that time of the use of survey research methodologies to inform national social policy.

The expectation was that the EEOR would document that the public schools attended by disadvantaged minorities remained segregated by race more than a decade after the Brown decision mandated the breakup of the southern states’ dual school system.  But more than that, it also was expected that the segregated schools attended by minority students would be found to be badly lacking in the resources needed to sustain academic excellence. The emerging ethos of the day was that all of America’s children should be afforded equal educational opportunity; it was expected that the EEOR would provide the scientific justification for a final, conclusive assault on school segregation.

The Report’s evidence and conclusions confirmed some of those expectations, but it also posed questions about the family’s influence on children’s school performance, and in pitting families against schools, it found in favor of family. This conclusion from the Report fundamentally reframed the debate about how to pursue the goal of furthering equal educational opportunity. According to the participants of a Harvard University year-long seminar on the Report (Mosteller & Moynihan 1972), the Report “turned understanding of a major area of social policy upside down as perhaps no comparable event in the history of social science.”

Some years later, a forty year stocktaking (Gamoran & Long 2006) concluded that the EEOR “inspired decades of research on school effects, on the impact of socioeconomic status (SES) on achievement, and on racial and ethnic disparities in academic achievement.” That agenda remains no less relevant today than it was during the civil rights era and the decades that followed.

The questions of  how well have the Report’s insights held up, and what is their continuing relevance to today’s educational and social policy debates? Will be the focus of our fall 2016 conference, “The Coleman Report 50 Years Later.” We will bring together the nation’s preeminent researchers and authorities on educational policy and practice to inform the question. And it is appropriate that this signature event take place at The Johns Hopkins University, as James Coleman was a member of the Hopkins faculty while he worked on the report and at the time of its release. His presence at Hopkins was transformative.  He founded what is now the Hopkins Department of Sociology and he helped launch the School of Education’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools, a world renowned education R & D center. Hopkins was “ground zero” for the EEOR and it is fitting that its 50th anniversary should be celebrated at Hopkins.

 

 

 

Johns Hopkins University Coleman at 50 Russell Sage Foundation Spencer Foundation William T Grant