‘Coleman Fallacy’ Diverts Us From Needed Reforms

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To the Editor:

To support her plea to postpone education standards until society reduces social inequalities, Rona Wilensky claims that low academic achievement is caused not so much by education policies, but by students’ socioeconomic status ("Mediocrity: Deplorable, Yes. Until We Consider the Alternative," Commentary, March 22, 2006). This perpetuates the misuse of the 1966 Coleman Report that for years has given American society a supposedly scientific excuse to avoid undertaking the kind of in-depth redesign of our education systems needed to help children reach much higher levels of learning.

Ironically, the same issue includes Vivien Stewart’s Commentary, “China’s Modernization Plan,” which relates how that nation is radically raising the achievement of millions of its students. Few of these children have “the privileges of white middle- and upper-class students,” without which, Ms. Wilensky writes, it is “difficult, if not impossible,” to pass advanced courses. Luckily for the Chinese, they seem undeterred by the “Coleman fallacy.”

Having been part of the Johnson administration’s team that sponsored the Coleman study, I persuaded James S. Coleman in 1979 to publicly repudiate this misuse of his research. The resulting news report stated that 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” (Education USA, Nov. 5, 1979).

Ms. Wilensky is right that we should reduce social inequalities and amend current accountability policies to better reflect and encourage progress toward more-relevant achievement and to avoid hurting children caught in the transition to higher expectations. But the “Coleman fallacy” should stay dead and buried, since it is a major block to making the deep changes needed, both in and out of schools, to produce the kind of high-quality education that will help children meet higher standards.

David S. Seeley
City University of New York
College of Staten Island
Staten Island, N.Y.

The writer was an assistant U.S. commissioner of education during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He later was a chief education adviser to Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York.

Vol. 25, Issue 32, Page 34

Published in Print: April 19, 2006, as ‘Coleman Fallacy’ Diverts Us From Needed Reforms

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