This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the report “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” The study came to be known as the Coleman report after its lead author, University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman. And it changed the debate on how schools, families, and communities affect student learning.
Johns Hopkins University researcher James McPartland, the study’s only living co-author, talked with Education Week Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks earlier this month about the report’s legacy. The transcript of their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The study came out in the heat of desegregation efforts. What lessons do your findings then have for the school diversity discussions today?
McPartland: There really was a great distinction for both black and white kids of their test scores and their racial attitudes by the [percentage of white students] in their class. The more desegregated [the class], the higher the test scores for both blacks and whites and the more accepting were their racial attitudes.
One of the big findings of Coleman was, of course, climate, the school environment of fellow students. That was more important than the quality of the teachers and facilities [in influencing student achievement]. I am a desegregation advocate. A parent should be able to consider that diversity is part of learning, growing up. It will benefit in the long run. It will not hurt the test scores. Parents should have more information to evaluate [the benefits of diversity] as an element of their school choice.
What have people most often misunderstood about the report?
McPartland: I think it’s overstated the weakness of schools. Only about 15 percent of the total variance [in achievement] was due to schools. The reason: There was very little variation in the schools [at the time]. They were all having similar effects, not weak effects. There was kind of a move [after Coleman] into research and development, inventing new school models and then evaluating them so we could see the potential of a school that was really created to have an impact on lower-class kids.
Today’s debates on the role of mindset and motivation in learning were foreshadowed in the findings, weren’t they?
McPartland: We call it control of environment, a sense of utility. Do my actions count? Can I change my life or am I just a billiard ball in the social forces of the world? It turned out that was a big black-white student difference. Black kids really felt more futile and [that] life is more luck than effort. That also has become a part of reform. I think that is another consequence of the Coleman [report]. It was not a matter of self-esteem, it was a matter of feeling in control of your future. How can you build that into a school experience? I think that was an overlooked finding for a while.
What has the study shown about teachers’ role in learning?
McPartland: We did give teachers a test—voluntary, not timed or anything, just fill out the questionnaire. It was hardly a precise measure of knowledge or teaching ability. Teacher quality was measured by this silly little 20-item test. It was the most important teacher variable as I recall, which seemed to say you want the best teachers. You want a well-trained, intellectual presence in the classroom.
[In the findings, there] was very little on instruction. How do you teach reading comprehension? How do you teach math problem-solving? All those nitty-gritty details of how you engage a kid’s mind and energies in a classroom. We really did not touch that at all. It was more about things you would spend money on.
This was a huge undertaking—a study of more than 650,000 students in districts nationwide and one of the first educational equity studies. Were there any times you worried it wouldn’t come together?
McPartland: The whole sample was in this box—all of the cards, addresses, everything. [Once, colleague Bob York and I] hop on the train out of Washington on our way to Princeton with my box of the whole sample. We said, “Let’s go to the bar [car] and have a drink.” I left the box on the seat. We go back. The whole Coleman study is gone.
It is a true story. I only told Coleman the story years later.
The car has been [decoupled], it is on its way to Harrisburg [Pa.]. I got off at Philadelphia and went to the station master and said, “I am with the federal government; you have got to stop that train.” Somehow, they found the train. They found the box, and they took the box off at the Harrisburg station. I rented a car, got it back to Princeton by our 9 a.m. meeting. No one ever knew the difference.
A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Landmark Equity Study Turns 50