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King Stresses Research to Counteract Discrimination in Schools

October 25, 2016

By James Campbell

When United States Secretary of Education John King delivered remarks at the conclusion of the Coleman at 50 Conference, he gave special recognition to the accomplishments of the School of Education (SOE).

“This is an institution that is contributing mightily to the improvement of education both though research and the preparation of educators who can be transformative in classrooms and schools across the country.”

The secretary cited two SOE professors for their leadership efforts: Robert Balfanz, who worked on the President’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative that addresses chronic absenteeism, and Robert Slavin for his efforts directed toward improving literacy.

The two-day event commemorated the release of the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report a half-century ago, otherwise known as the Coleman Report, by Johns Hopkins professor James Coleman and his team of researchers. The 700-plus page report is still considered one of the most comprehensive studies ever done of public education in the United States.

Watch video of leading researchers assess the effects of the Coleman Report.

In addition to Secretary King, the conference featured some of the nation’s leading scholars and policy-makers who discussed the report’s legacy and relevance. This included special presentations by Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (scroll to the bottom of the linked page), and James McPartland, a retired Johns Hopkins professor and co-author of the Coleman report.

In his introduction to the Secretary, David Steiner, director of SOE's Institute for Education Policy said King was the hardest working person he had ever met. The two worked together when Steiner was commissioner of schools for New York State and King was his deputy.

King said he agreed with the Coleman findings that teacher quality is one of the one of the most significant factors in determining how well a student does in school. Good teaching can make a difference in a child’s success in school and in life.

King, who was confirmed by Congress last March, said he wouldn’t be where he is today if not for some incredible New York City public school teachers following the death of his mother when he was 8 and his father three years later. His father suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease and would wake him in the dead of night to go to school.

“My teachers made school a place that was academically engaging, where we read The New York Times every day, where we did plays like Alice in Wonderland and where we went to museums to learn about other cultures. Their investment in me saved my life.”

He went on to earn a master’s degree in teaching from Columbia University and a doctorate in education from Yale law school. His first job was teaching social studies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then Boston.

King said the Coleman study was published at a time in the mid-1960s when schools serving African American students were intentionally receiving less financial resources than schools serving white students. “Students in the African-American schools would get the hand-me-down books, attend classes in rundown buildings and, in many cases, federal funds intended for higher-need schools were diverted to the more affluent schools in the same community.”

Congress had hoped the Coleman study would focus on the lack of adequate resources in schools, such as supplies, funding and facilities. But Coleman shifted the conversation to what happens outside the classroom, with its finding that the socioeconomic status of the family and surrounding community were more important to a student’s success. King credited Coleman for helping society realize that it mattered if a child came to school hungry, struggled with health issues, dealt with domestic violence and drug addiction at home, and was homeless.

He said the Obama administration has been committed to building a stronger evidence base on interventions that make a difference for students in the highest-need schools.

”One of the most powerful legacies of the Coleman Report is to focus our energies as researchers, policy-makers and educators on evidence,” said Secretary King. “Evidence about what matters inside and outside of school to improve student outcomes.”

He referred to Bob Balfanz's work on chronic absenteeism that identifies students at-risk of dropping out based on poor attendance, failing test scores and behavioral issues. King said the program demonstrates that meaningful interventions with chronically absent students, such as providing them with mentoring or services that address challenges they face at home, can make a significant difference in their lives.

King also stressed the importance of ongoing search in order to find new ways to facilitate student learning. He cited two areas of concern: the need to know more about the kind of training that makes for effective teaching and how to eliminate implicit bias in schools. Research shows that African American students are disciplined more often and receive more out-of-school suspensions than white students.

“African-American 4-year-olds are more than three times as likely as white students to be suspended from pre-K,” he said. “We know that in too many places, students who need help the most get the least—less access to quality teachers, less access to art and music and less access to school counselors. We have an urgent need to do better. That’s why research is so important. That’s why the work here at Johns Hopkins is so important.”