Coleman Report: Race, Social Class, and Education
NOTE: Although I am linking to Education Week's article on the Coleman Report, you need to have a paid subscription to get into it. I'm sure most people don't have that, so I will also link to an older article on the report. When I write about what I think are some of the key points of the Education Week article, I promise I'll try to be "fair and balanced." Hopefully, I can do a little better job of that than Fox News.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Coleman Report. This Education Week article on it is more in depth than any that I've read before. (There is an older article on the Coleman Report here.) The study that resulted in the Coleman Report was ordered as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and hopes were high that the damaging effects of racism could be overcome in a relatively short time by having good schools. But when the report was released 40 years ago by the U.S. Office of Education, it said that the most important factor in determining the performance of children in school was not the school they attended, but their family background. It created a great deal of controversy because it concluded that schools generally can not overcome differences that are created by the families to which children were born. The Education Week article says that still hasn't changed.
“The Coleman Report basically opened up that question, and nobody’s been able to answer it satisfactorily since,” said David J. Armor, a researcher who worked on the original study and subsequent reanalysis. “No one has found a way, on a large-scale basis, to overcome the influence of family,” added Mr. Armor, currently a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
It seems odd to me that the Coleman Report created so much controversy. Should it be any surprise that schools can't do everything? Should it be any surprise that they can't be expected to overcome every problem in our society, especially when those problems become rooted in the home? (Duh!) Although we will win some battles now and then, it seems obvious that without good parents as partners, providing a good education for children is an uphill battle that schools will usually lose.
The report had another conclusion which doesn't surprise me:
The Coleman team also found that whom students went to school with was almost as important as family background in predicting academic success.
If I wanted to pull a Fox News here, I would probably say, "See! This proves my point that the make up of the students in a class is crucial." Actually, though, this was referring to social class. Specifically, they found that African-Americans did better when they went to school with middle-class students than when they went to school with lower-class students, and this became fuel for the policy of forced busing. In a later report by Coleman, he concluded that that policy had failed.
I think the differences between going to school with lower class kids and middle class kids had a lot more to do with attitudes than whether or not the kids were black or white. Upper-middle class families, regardless of their race, tend to put the most emphasis on education, because their economic success has been based on their careers. The parents in these families know that in order for their children to live as well as they did, they'll have to do well in school. I've read that in sociology books, and I've seen that in students that I've had. Lower-class people, on the other hand, tend to be afflicted with a sense of hopelessness, and this affects a lot of their kids' attitudes toward school. Obviously, schools need to try to alter this outlook, but I think the evidence shows that so far, we haven't been very successful at that. But that doesn't mean that there aren't any lower class kids who see education as important. Some do, and there is no more important challenge for public education than to find a way to provide these kids with a healthy learning environment.
Education Week's article says that some people reacted to the Coleman Report by saying that schools don't matter. How dumb can you get! As Daniel Patrick Moynihan (my all-time favorite senator) and a collaborator of his said, "Children don't think up algebra on their own."
If someone thinks education should be able to cure all of society's ills in a generation or two, I guess school doesn't matter. We can't single-handedly overcome the effects of hundreds of years of racism, and we usually can't overcome the effects of lousy parenting. We also can't operate in a vacuum, and pretend that so many of the things that are screwed up in our society don't exist. We can, however, offer every individual student the opportunity to be successful. Unfortunately, because of things in their lives over which schools have no control, there are a depressingly high number of lower class kids who won't take advantage of that opportunity. Some will, however, and to those kids, regardless of their social class, school definitely matters.