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The Coleman Report: Recalling the Circumstances Of Its Release

To the Editor:

In an issue full of useful information about school desegregation, I was dismayed by an article which perpetuates some of the dangerous misinformation about the 1966 Coleman Report that has caused so much damage to school reform over the years. ("Echoes of the Coleman Report," March 24, 1999).

The article says that "the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare quietly released" the report before a holiday "so it would receive little notice," because it "cast doubt on the theory propounded by civil rights groups that minority children were shortchanged by their schools." The implication is that social science had proved that this "theory" was false, and HEW was trying to cover this up. This is a gross distortion of the facts.

As assistant U.S. commissioner of education for equal educational opportunity during the Johnson administration, I was very much involved in the struggle within the department concerning the release of the report, and can set some of the record straight.

A major problem some of us had with the draft report submitted by the Coleman group was that it seemed to state that school factors could have little effect on student achievement, but the data presented only showed that school factors measured in the study had little effect. These data did not include most of the factors we thought were negatively affecting minority children--for example, low expectations, inferior curriculum, poor staff morale and training, disorderly schools, and others--and they didn't show what could happen if poor children were provided better schooling than the status quo reported in the study.

That poor and minority children generally did poorly in school was well-known before the study was done, and we felt that to issue a report finding that "a child's family background" is a good "predictor" of school achievement would only mislead people about our congressional mandate to report to the nation "concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities."

I submitted a series of memorandums trying to get these (and other) problems with the report corrected before the July 1966 deadline set by Congress for release of the report, but only a few changes were made in the summary and press release to try to reduce the damage we thought might be caused by unwarranted generalizations about whether improving schools could affect children's equal educational opportunity.

Unfortunately, after the report was published, it was (and still is) generally interpreted in just the way we feared, with school officials and politicians claiming that there is little they can do to improve schooling for poor and minority children, because "science" has proven that their low achievement is caused by their home background, and that schools can do little about it.

By the late 1970s, this misuse of the Coleman data had become so damaging to the cause of school reform that I persuaded the sociologist James S. Coleman to come to New York and repudiate these unwarranted conclusions at a public meeting. This he generously did, producing a news story that stated: "The notion that schools can't help poor children overcome the effects of their family background was buried" at the meeting, with Mr. Coleman helping in "shoveling it under," even though his report "is often used in arguments that schools have little effect on children" (Education USA, Nov. 5, 1979).

Sadly, this news has not permeated the educational policy and research communities, or the media, because the misinterpretations of the 1966 Coleman study and its history persist to this day.

David S. Seeley
Professor of Education
College of Staten Island, CUNY
Staten Island, N.Y.

Parent Polls Show Interest in Schools

To the Editor:

A recent article painted an incomplete picture regarding parent involvement in public schools ("Parents Express Scant Interest in Helping Govern Schools," March 24, 1999). Despite the article's claim that parents are not "very enthusiastic about parental involvement in school governance," the Public Agenda survey reported on in fact found that 74 percent of parents are more involved in their children's education than their own parents were.

The expanded online version of the poll points to the fact that a majority of parents feel comfortable evaluating the quality of their child's teachers, helping decide budget issues, and participating in school management committees.

This confirms the findings of a poll commissioned by the National PTA. Our study found that 91 percent of parents surveyed believe that it is extremely important for parents to be involved in their children's schools, and that 75 percent favor federal programs to help schools get parents more involved with their children's education.

Other polls have also indicated that parents have a great interest in school matters. Phi Delta Kappa, for example, conducted a poll with the Gallup Organization in 1998 and found that a majority of parents would like greater input in the allocation of school funds, the selection and hiring of administrators and principals, and the choice of the curriculum offered.

The National PTA hopes that in the future you will include the results of a variety of studies when covering educational issues, in order to provide more-balanced information to parents seeking greater involvement in their children's education.

Lois Jean White
National pta
Chicago, Ill.

K-12, College Plan: A Reality Check

To the Editor:

Charles B. Reed's thoughtful suggestions on cooperation between universities and K-12 schools seem a less-than-adequate response to the pressures created by declines in minority student enrollment following the affirmative action debacle ("Taking Action on K-12, University Cooperation," March 24, 1999).

Teachers are essential catalysts at the interface between students and their respective schools, especially for the heterogeneous student population in K-12 education. Yet, omitted from Mr. Reed's prescriptions for the anticipated victories that he promises "will occur in the classroom" after fruitful university and K-12 collaboration is any recognition that most public school teachers, however well trained, are necessarily "reactors" rather than "leaders."

They are expected to be system-dependent, team-playing, risk averse participants in the largely authoritarian, hierarchical, bureaucratic organizational structure of the typical school culture. The safest behavior for teachers is to "do the right thing"--conform to school or district policy--even when that may be harmful to students.

It requires professional judgment, independently exercised by a true professional, to instead "do things right"--select from options chosen to best meet identified and understood student needs. The overemphasis on giving the same treatment for all, based on standardized-test scores (used to measure both student "achievement" and teacher "effectiveness"), encourages many students to prove their competency rather than improve it.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities offer special inducements to the top several percent of high school graduates, the signal to all the others being, "You don't deserve an equal opportunity." The idea of equal opportunity is a myth. Students have no control over how system players react, even when they are willing to accept individual responsibility for their success or failure.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once quipped that if humans were fish, we would have to discover water, an allusion to insensitivity to "acceptable" practice. Colleges that want to improve minority student enrollments need to look beyond platitudes and traditional, politically acceptable but educationally deficient shibboleths. Mr. Reed's suggestions do not seem sufficiently committed to finding viable solutions to the damage that already has been done. It's time to discover the water.

Ed Meyer
Fairfield, Conn.

Thank Microsoft for Records Leadership

To the Editor:

Re: Your March 3, 1999, article, "Gates Downloads a Proposal for Schools." As the former chairwoman of the Exchange of Permanent Records Electronically for Students and Schools Committee responsible for development of the American National Standards Institute's standard for student records, I feel it is important to correct a misconception conveyed in the article's following statement:

"There are other, partially overlapping, initiatives to set technical standards for software for the education market. One narrowly focused standard, called Speedee Express, is used for applications that transmit student transcripts between districts and--its original purpose--between schools and colleges."

Our intent and focus when developing the Speedee Express student record to meet the needs of elementary and secondary schools was to provide a standard way of electronically conveying student information that would enable its appropriate placement into instructional programs, which goes well beyond transcripts. The ANSI-accredited record format allows for the reporting of information related to demographics, health, testing, academic history, and special program participation.

It is very gratifying that Microsoft is incorporating the Speedee Express data elements defined in the ANSI standard, because they were established and are maintained by educators in a vendor-neutral environment under the auspices of the ANSI Accredited Standards Committee X12 for Electronic Data Interchange. Kudos to Microsoft for its leadership.

Jill Hanson
Everett, Wash.

Science-Fair Item's Emphasis Is Wrong

To the Editor:

I was surprised to read your Take Note column headlined "Lead Findings" in the March 24, 1999, issue. The story (a 6th grader's lead testing and findings) clearly implies that the extraordinary findings of a scientific experiment should in some way compensate for a rather ordinary experiment. The story is a newsworthy one, and the student should be praised for her confidence in her unusual findings. But suggesting that unusual findings should be used as an indication of quality in a science-fair project is a dangerous message.

We have already seen that pressure for certain results (publishable data, achievement on test scores) has a tendency to pull emphasis away from the quality of the process. As educators, I believe that we should be emphasizing the ingenuity and creativity that are promoted by science fairs, instead of joining in the national obsession for results.

D. Snow
Oak Park, Ill.

Direct Instruction Raises Achievement

To the Editor:

Why don't teachers and school administrators let go of their ideological concerns and embrace a program like Direct Instruction that works in the classroom ("A Direct Challenge," March 17, 1999)? Why isn't improving student achievement their one and only goal?

In your article, Lawrence J. Schweinhart, the research-division chairman for the High/Scope Educational Foundation, admits that Direct Instruction raises achievement "if that were the only goal in the world. ... " What other possible goals could there be? And why are teachers so overly sensitive that they can't take a little constructive criticism regarding their teaching performance? Again, improving instruction and achievement does not seem to be their goal.

Angela M. Penzkover
Appleton, Wis.

Vol. 18, Issue 31, Page 43

Published in Print: April 14, 1999, as Letters

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