Equity & Diversity Q&A

Landmark Equity Study Turns 50

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 19, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
James McPartland

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.

See Also

Watch the entire conversation with James McPartland.

Educational Equality and the Landmark Coleman Report: A Video Q&A

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.

Lawyers George E.C. Hayes, left, Thurgood Marshall, center, and James M. Nabrit led the 1954 court fight to desegregate schools. Twelve years later, the Coleman study found segregation was still an issue.

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

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Student Achievement Webinar Examining the Evidence: What We’re Learning From the Field About Implementing High-Dosage Tutoring Programs
Tutoring programs have become a leading strategy to address COVID-19 learning loss. What evidence-based principles can district and school leaders draw on to design, implement, measure, and improve high-quality tutoring programs? And what are districts

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity The Vast Majority of School Boards Lack Latino Voices. What Can Be Done About It?
Diverse school board members means more opportunities for equitable policies, Latino leaders say
5 min read
Stephanie Parra, Governing Board Member at Phoenix Union School District and Executive Director of ALL in Education Arizona, sits for a portrait at the nonprofit’s space at Galvanize Phoenix in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 15, 2021. Phoenix Union is majority BIPOC students, but school board and educator demographics in Arizona lag behind in representation and opportunity.
Stephanie Parra, Governing Board Member at Phoenix Union School District and Executive Director of ALL in Education Arizona, sits for a portrait at the nonprofit’s space at Galvanize Phoenix in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 15, 2021. Phoenix Union is majority BIPOC students, but school board and educator demographics in Arizona lag behind in representation and opportunity.
Caitlin O’Hara for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Infographic How Do Educators Feel About Staff Diversity? We Asked
Educators of color and white educators have different opinions on whether and how administrators should address the lack of staff diversity.
1 min read
Image of chairs lined up.
marchmeena29/iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Opinion 'What Are You Doing to Help Students Understand Systemic Racism and Combat It?'
Creating the conditions for effective dialogues and incorporating student voice are two ways to help students become anti-racist.
11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Opinion Anti-Racist Teaching Strategies for Predominantly White Schools
Creating common vocabulary and safe places for students and strengthening their critical-analysis skills support anti-racist teaching.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty