Coleman: ‘It’s Gotten A Little Rough at Times’

September 07, 1981 4 min read

More than any other scholar--and perhaps more, even, than any one public official--James S. Coleman has influenced the policies that have changed America’s schools over the past two turbulent decades.

From his earlier work as a researcher and professor at Columbia and The John Hopkins Universities to his current role of professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and study director of the highly regarded National Opinion Research Center, Mr. Coleman has built a considerable reputation m academic circles as well as among politicians, judges, educators, and the public.

His standing among professionals in education has rested primarily on three major works:

  • The Adolescent Society, a 1961 study of American young people that presaged some of the social dislocations of the late 1960’s.
  • Equality of Educational Opportunity, the 1966 study that profoundly altered the thinking of educators with its assertion that schools were generally ineffective in breaking the poverty cycle. The “Coleman Report,” as it came to be called, gave rise to the widespread notion-a misinterpretation, Mr. Coleman says-that schools cannot make much difference in the lives of poor children.
    In addition, Mr. Coleman’s finding that disadvantaged black children learn better when surrounded by middle-class whites has frequently been cited by advocates of busing to achieve school desegregation.
  • Trends in School Segregation 1968-73, a 1976 re-examination of his own and other scholars’ perceptions of the problem. In this study, Mr. Coleman argued that desegregation orders often backfired, causing “white flight” and resegregation of urban schools. Anti-busing groups were quick to seize upon this new evidence to bolster their cause in the courts and in Congress.

The soft-spoken sociologist readily concedes his notoriety and influence with educators and the public. His latest report, and his advocacy of publicly-financed help for private school families, “wouldn’t have gotten the attention it did if someone else had done it,” he said recently.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he disavows the role of oracle.

Where he gets into trouble, Mr. Coleman says, is in advocating certain public policies that place him in an ideological camp-and in the misinterpretations and sloganeering that follow. He is not seeking to impose his beliefs on others, he insists, but he feels a responsibility to point out the policy implications of his research.

“I have two kinds of roles,” Mr. Coleman explains. “One is as an educational researcher. The other is as one who has ideas and beliefs about educational policy. It’s difficult to keep these separate personally, and it’s very difficult for anybody who’s reading anything to keep them separate.

''These two roles come to be confounded in one’s own work,” he adds. ''And they come to be confounded in the minds of people who read about results or public-policy advocacy.”

High School and Beyond, the longitudinal study of which Private and Public Schools is one section, first appealed to Mr. Coleman not because of his personal beliefs about education policy, but because the National Center for Education Statistics wanted him to develop a design and a data base that could be used for a variety of purposes.

''This has to do with a very strong ideological conviction I have,” Mr. Coleman says. “So far, educational research data have been available only to academics. My feeling is that those educational research data ought to be available to interest groups, to interested parties- whether it’s just to fight something in the state legislature or whatever.”

Mr. Coleman says he believes that education policymakers must be more “political” than they have been in the past--that is, responsive to parents and taxpayers--if schools are to thrive. Many of public education’s problems stem from citizens’ feeling of helplessness to influence the schools, argues the researcher, who attended public schools himself.

“My belief is that the truth is arrived at in educational policy not from some academic on high, but through conflict among informed interests,” he says. “My job is not to answer the questions but to inform the interests and depend on the conflict of interests to arrive at a viable policy.

“Some people (in social research) disagree with me,” he says with a shrug. ''They see the role of the researcher as that of adviser to the prince-as though there were a single policymaker in education.”

But despite the charges of his critics that Mr. Coleman distorts his information so that it seems to support certain public-policy directions, the benign-looking social scientist firmly maintains that his interest is in accuracy, not politics.

He says: ''Making policy is a part of the political process. That’s not a problem of the researcher. The problem of the researcher is to make sure the data are right. The problem of the political process is to decide which interests are legitimate and which interests are not legitimate."-P.C.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1981 edition of Education Week