Trashing The Coleman Report

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What is it about the scholarship of James Coleman that so often makes him the target of calumny, denunciation, and unprofessorial mudslinging by his fellow social scientists, even as he is lionized in the popular press, asked to speak to distinguished gatherings, and invited to testify before Congressional committees? Although academics are not regularly given to praising each other's work, they are usually courteous, even respectful, when discussing it. One notices, then, when a highly regarded econometrician writes that the latest Coleman report "reeks with incompetence and irresponsibility" and when an able political scientist teams up with an experienced sociologist to announce that ''James Coleman has done education a major disservice."

The explanation for these attacks, I believe, has at least partly to do with three characteristics of Mr. Coleman and his research:

  • He does not shy away from studying taboo topics and controversial issues. Indeed, he seems rather to relish them.
  • He is not afraid to report findings that are counter-intuitive, that fly in the face of conventional wisdom, or that powerful interest groups find objectionable.
  • He is not diffident about drawing conclusions, policy implications, and recommendations from his findings. To the contrary. Nor does he hesitate to change his mind when presented with new information.
  • Public and Private Schools embodies all three traits. In it, Mr. Coleman and associates addressed the heretofore unexamined issue of the educational prowess of non-public versus public (secondary) schools. They found, among other things, that private schools are somewhat more effective when gauged by the academic achievement of their students. As for the volatile questions of government policies toward such schools, they concluded that "the factual premises underlying policies that would facilitate use of private schools are much better supported on the whole than those underlying policies that would constrain their use."

    Had Mr. Coleman wished to minimize conflict, he would have presented only his data and portions of his analysis, stopping short of the policy pronouncements that they had suggested to him. Certainly he knows how to do that kind of "conventional" scholarship. One of the nation's most accomplished social scientists, he established his reputation with such sober and unnewsworthy treatises as Models of Change and Response Uncertainty and Introduction to Mathematical Sociology.

    Certainly, too, the most important findings to emerge from Mr. Coleman's analysis of the data on 59,000 students and 1,016 high schools could have been presented in descriptive and factual terms that would have stirred hope in the hearts of parents and teachers and drawn accolades from most of the education community without even getting near the heated issue of private-school aid.

    For the public-private comparison was an almost incidental byproduct of a very large government survey of high-school students and their postsecondary pursuits. And the single most significant product of Mr. Coleman's scrutiny pertains to the characteristics of different learning environments and their relationship to student achievement, aspirations, and self-esteem. He would have made a large contribution to our understanding of American education had he simply reported that, whether they enroll in public or private schools, students tend to learn more in structured, disciplined classrooms with high standards, motivated teachers, lots of homework, and regular attendance than in haphazard, lax environments.

    The significance of the discovery that school characteristics do matter, and that they can be purposefully altered in ways that constructively affect school results, is linked to the fact that much educational research of recent years, including Mr. Coleman's own celebrated 1966 report on Equality of Educational Opportunity, has been construed (often incorrectly) to show that "schools don't matter" and that it is the attributes of students rather than classrooms that determine how much gets learned.

    But Mr. Coleman elected not to avoid controversy, to hide in an academic cloister, or to burden his findings with so many qualifications and exceptions as to obscure the policy conclusions that he adduced from them. Rather, he plunged into the policy arena with seeming gusto.

    For he knew full well that the issue of aiding private-school students via tuition tax-credits or other means is very much with us; that it is not about to go away; and that those charged with resolving it cannot wait until scholars work out their methodological differences.

    To those who have dealt with the issue in recent years, it has been astonishing how little is known about private schools. In large measure this vacuum results from inattention-verging-on-hostility on the part of the federal government. Little research has been commissioned. Proposals to do it have usually been denied, almost as if studying private education will encourage it, something wholly unpalatable to the prevailing ideological tastes of federal officials and of the education establishment generally.

    Hence the nation finds itself giving the most serious consideration to aiding private schools without knowing much about what they are and do or how well they do it. With scant understanding of the likely effects of governmental aid. Without even--to my knowledge--a good opinion poll dealing with such basic and touchy questions as how much aid might induce how many parents to transfer their children from public to private schools.

    Amid such ignorance, federal policymakers must make momentous decisions. It is in that context that Mr. Coleman set out to cast some light on the prevailing darkness. And stirred up a hornet's nest of buzzing, stinging controversy from those who envy his celebrity, who do not like what he found, who disapprove of his research methodology, who are not persuaded by his analyses, or simply disagree with the implications and recommendations that he drew from it.

    Setting aside the ideological arguments--for the public-policy desirability of aiding private education must be weighed on many scales besides those of sociological analysis--it would seem that the Coleman study may usefully be discussed in terms of an inherent tension within applied social science: between the goal of precision and the goal of usefulness. Scholarly precision almost always entails long delays and myriad technicalities, exceptions, complexities, and cautions. Usefulness, at least to policymakers, demands timeliness and clarity, even simplicity. For while reality to a scholar my be endlessly complicated, reality to a Congressman eventually means voting yea or nay. Though social scientists may lament it until their computers burn out, policymakers can seldom wait for the results to be retabulated, the analyses to be re-analyzed, and the scholarly footnotes to be published. They must grapple with the pressing issue of the day. And there are few more pressing than what to do about the unsatisfactory condition of American schools and how to design a satisfactory niche for nongovernmental education within our public-policy edifice.

    In seeking to be timely and relevant, Mr. Coleman made compromises. Limited by a data base that could not answer all the questions or sustain all the analyses that would have been desirable, he made bold assumptions, used alternative methods, and employed controversial techniques. By choosing to highlight the conclusions most germane to the immediate policy debates, he obscured some of his most powerful and durable findings. By not giving his fellow social scientists much time to examine his work before it hit the front pages, he invited a round of second-guessing, criticism, even resentment. By slipping as far as he did into an advocacy role, he may have gotten too close to the "usefulness" end of the spectrum--and too far from "precision."

    The methodological disputes will continue to rage with- in the social-science community, even as the policy debates persist in Washington. And this is as it should be. Objective scrutiny and reanalysis by scholars of each other's work over time yields perhaps the closest approximation of truth that a civilized society can produce. But objectivity is in short supply, especially in applied social science. Mr. Coleman's critics aver that he tailored his analysis to clothe his own policy preferences in ways that ripped the fabric of his data. Yet one doubts that many of his reviewers would have taken such pains or been so perturbed had Mr. Coleman reported that public schools are educationally more effective than private schools, and that therefore we should support the former and deny aid to the latter. And one is obliged to ask whether critiques that are tinged with ideology and policy preferences (and, sometimes, with personal animosities) deserve the much-sought but seldom-earned badge of objectivity. Certainly it is of scant benefit when they, too, oversimplify and exaggerate, as when they put the label "bad research" on a complex study that contains much that is worth knowing--and that stimulates thinking, challenges conventions, and gores a few oxen along the way.

    Mr. Coleman went too far, knows it, and is making some revisions. But he has already illuminated a bulb or two in a very dark room and for this he should be thanked, not pilloried, by scholars, educators, and lawmakers alike. Gratitude is also due the National Center for Educational Statistics, which commissioned Mr. Coleman's work and is encouraging its reanalysis. Difficult policy decisions lie ahead, and the information contained in Public and Private Schools will help those who must make them. Even those who disagree with its author's prescriptions.

    Vol. 01, Issue 01, Page 24

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