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Remember the Coleman Report

Randall F. Clemens

I originally posted this blog on March 02, 2010.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated a study of educational opportunity among students. In 1966 James Coleman presented the Equality of Educational Opportunity Study. Known as the Coleman Report, the findings were and are striking. They led to a shift of focus from inputs to outputs, from money spent to scores attained.

I’ve heard some describe the findings of the report as more money does not equal higher achievement. That’s true, but incomplete. The findings illustrate that variables such as per pupil spending and teacher to student ratio have little effect in comparison to socio-economic status. 

Yesterday President Obama announced ‘turnaround’ grants for underperforming schools in order to improve the percentage of students who graduate. Schools in each qualified state will compete for funds based on proposals that demonstrate their willingness to change. Some options include removing the principal and a portion of the staff, restructuring governance, and changing instructional programs.

Within the past year, our administration has introduced two new competitive grant programs for considerable sums of money–$4.35 billion for Race to the Top and $900 million for the newest grant. Reform is important and necessary. A disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic students do not graduate, do not go to college, do not lead happy lives. Spending money to fund a new reading program, unfortunately, will not initiate systemic, sustainable change. Replacing leadership, teachers, or governance structures probably won’t help much either. We may see bumps in achievement, but they will fade.

Public education is not doomed. For widespread, lasting change, however, our administration must consider a broader array of social reform programs. Money is important, but we need to fund the right things. The Coleman Report reminds us of the influence of a spectrum of factors including access to healthcare, stable housing, and early and adult education. The Great Society, which led to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is the source of both praise and criticism. The intent was good and ambitious. The results were uneven and sometimes uninspiring. Perhaps it’s time we begin to speak of a new generation of progressive initiatives, a chorus of reforms to improve schools and communities together.