Education

James Coleman, Author of Landmark Education Studies, Dies

By Peter Schmidt — April 05, 1995 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

James S. Coleman, the renowned sociologist whose research shaped many of the nation’s most contentious education debates, has died of prostate cancer at the age of 68.

Mr. Coleman, who spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, died March 25 at the university’s hospital.

Education researchers said last week that Mr. Coleman’s landmark studies on such subjects as school desegregation and the merits of private and parochial schools likely will continue to influence education policy.

“I am hard-pressed to think of any researcher who has had a bigger impact on the education debates of the last half century,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant secretary for research in the U.S. Education Department.

“This is really a towering figure,” Mr. Finn said. “This was one of those giants on whose shoulders other researchers stand.”

Mr. Coleman had spent much of the past four decades in the public eye, generating 30 books and a long list of studies that both won numerous awards and provoked widespread condemnation. (See Education Week, 9/7/81.)

He tackled some of education’s toughest issues and seemed willing to reach unexpected or unwelcome conclusions--and, on occasion, to change his mind.

“He was a man of uncommon courage and extraordinary personal integrity,” said Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and another former head of the Education Department’s research branch. Ms. Ravitch last week compared Mr. Coleman to a boxer in his ability to endure the attacks his research brought upon him.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said Mr. Coleman was “forever exploring new avenues and ways of making inferences from the data that other people might have missed.”

Richard Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University, described Mr. Coleman as “a person who said what he thought and what the evidence said, regardless of whether he felt it was the right thing to say, or the socially acceptable thing to say, in other people’s eyes.”

“Even those of us who disagreed with him were always stimulated to think differently about the issues,” Mr. Elmore said.

Shedding Light, Feeling Heat

Born in Bedford, Ind., Mr. Coleman attended Purdue University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, then switched fields in graduate school, earning a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1955.

Former colleagues said Mr. Coleman believed social-science research had an important role to play in the nation’s public-policy debates, and this inspired him to turn his attention to the high-visibility debates of his day. In 1966, it led him to produce what remains his best-known work, a desegregation study titled Equality of Educational Opportunity, now commonly known as the Coleman Report.

That study reached the conclusion that lower-class black students fared better academically after being placed in integrated, middle-class schools. That finding helped persuade courts and policymakers to embrace mandatory busing to promote integration.

The study also profoundly influenced educational research by looking beyond the resources put into schools, focusing instead on the outcomes--the level of education they produced. This new focus “had an enormous impact on the nature and quality of educational research” and remains a driving force behind several movements in the field, according to Robert M. McClure, a director of a school-improvement project at the National Education Association.

In 1975, Mr. Coleman issued a desegregation report analyzing cities that had undertaken busing for racial integration. It found that such programs had led to massive white flight. The findings were “used almost instantly around the country, and misused as if the basic goal of any educational plan should be to stabilize white enrollment,” said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy who directs a Harvard University center focused on school desegregation.

Outraged civil-rights leaders, social scientists, and educational leaders responded by sharply criticizing Mr. Coleman’s methodology and motives.

In 1981, he triggered another uproar by releasing a report that compared public schools unfavorably with their private and Roman Catholic counterparts.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 1995 edition of Education Week as James Coleman, Author of Landmark Education Studies, Dies


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP