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