50 Years Seeking Educational Equality: Revisiting the Coleman Report

One of the most influential and hotly debated education studies in American history turns 50 this weekend. See what's changed on five key education issues in the decades since James S. Coleman published his landmark report.

On this weekend in 1966, researcher James S. Coleman and his colleagues released: “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” The 737-page report to Congress was dense with charts, tables, and head-poundingly complex analysis of the disparities between white and black students in public schools, and the effects of that inequity on academic achievement.

“You read the overview and you wouldn’t know the dynamite that’s coming up,” said James McPartland, a Johns Hopkins University researcher and one of the original seven authors in Coleman’s research team.

In the decades since, what came to be known as the Coleman report has been one of the most influential and hotly debated education studies in American history. It identified families, not just schools, as key drivers of student achievement. In the heat of the Civil Rights movement, it found strong benefits of integrated schools for black and white students alike. And it included some prescient findings about how students’ mindset and motivation contribute to their learning.

In the charts below, we look at what the Coleman report had to say about six key education issues—school segregation, testing, academic mindset, college enrollment, and teachers—and what we know now.

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School Segregation

In 1966, the researchers on "Equality in Educational Opportunity" compared school-by-school racial demographic data with student surveys, in which children picked out cartoon classrooms with different levels of diversity.

The picture has changed in schools today, where Latino, Asian, and other ethnic groups besides black and white make up notable percentages of American schools. But racial and socioeconomic isolation remains an issue:

"Almost 80 percent of all white pupils in 1st grade and 12th grade attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent white. … More than 65 percent of all [black] pupils in the 1st grade attend schools that are between 90 and 100 percent [black.]" SOURCE: "Equality in Educational Opportunity"


Despite progress from the late 1960s through the 1980s, the percentage of racially and economically isolated schools has risen since 2001.

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SOURCE: Government Accountability Office

Student Testing

Standardized student testing had not taken hold nationwide in 1966; researchers included their own academic tests for students and teachers in their surveys.

"One of the real handicaps to an effective assessment of equality of education for children of minority groups is the fact that few communities have given systematic testing and fewer still have evaluated the academic performance and attitudes of these children toward education." SOURCE: "Equality in Educational Opportunity"


The National Assessment of Educational Progress, launched a few years after the Coleman report, provides a window into both steady progress and persistent achievement gaps among young people nationwide. For example, while black 9-year-olds in 2012 performed significantly better in reading and math than their 1975 counterparts, they still have not caught up to the average performance of white 9-year-olds in 1975.

SOURCE: : NAEP Data Explorer, Education Week

Motivation and Mindset

Coleman and his colleagues found deep divisions between black and white students in how much they believed their own effort could make a difference in their academic achievement and later success in life—a concept now called academic or growth mindset.


The researchers found this sense of control "extremely highly related to achievement."

"It appears that children from advantaged groups assume that the environment will respond if they are able enough to affect it; children from disadvantaged groups do not make this assumption, but in many cases assume that nothing they will do can affect the environment—it will give benefits or withhold them but not as a consequence of their own action."

SOURCE: "Equality in Educational Opportunity"


Building an academic mindset has become a centerpiece of many school turnaround models targeting poor and minority students. Scroll over the photo for a look at one of these schools.

SOURCE: Education Week

College Enrollment

More students from all racial backgrounds are attending college than ever before. As the charts below show, while black students' enrollment in college has grown significantly since 1966, the enrollment rate of students of other races, such as Latino and Asian-American, has grown even more.

SOURCES: "Equality in Educational Opportunity," "Condition of Education 2016," National Center on Education Statistics



In 1966, the teaching force looked different for the average white student’s school versus one attended by the average black student.

RELATED STORIES: Quiz: What Did 'Teacher Quality' Look Like in 1966?

SOURCES: "Equality in Educational Opportunity," National Center for Education Statistics


Source: Sarah D. Sparks | Design & Visualization: Sumi Bannerjee and Gina Tomko

A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 2016 edition of Education Week