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The Coleman Report and Its Critics: The Contested Meanings of Educational Equality in the 1960s and 1970s

Sociologist James S. Coleman’s 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity exposed the symbiotic relationship between a Great Society liberalism centrally occupied with racial inequality and newly authoritative, large-scale quantitative social science. Commissioned under the 1964 Civil Rights Act by the Office of Education of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the report counts among the most authoritative social scientific surveys of educational inequality of the twentieth century. It was published the year after the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), which itself represented an unprecedented expansion of federal involvement in the education of the nation’s poor children and allowed further federal oversight of school desegregation. Both Coleman’s scholarly stature (he was one of the nation’s leading mathematical sociologists and scholars of social organization) and the giant data set he used enhanced the document’s authority. Surveying about 600,000 children, 60,000 teachers, and roughly 4,000 schools using “regression analysis and all the other refinements of statistical science,” the report drew America’s gaze to what would later be termed the achievement gap.[i] In so doing, Coleman and his colleagues helped to launch a set of research agendas, and associated movements for testing and accountability, that continue to flourish.

Coleman’s work represented a substantive shift in American egalitarian thought about education by turning egalitarians’ attention from educational inputs (funding, facilities, teacher or curricular quality, extra-curricular offerings) to educational outputs (measured largely in terms of student test scores). A focus on outputs, he believed, allowed the measurement of educational effectiveness, that is how well schools produced certain levels of achievement in racially, socio-economically, and geographically diverse students.[ii]

And yet Coleman’s data, much to the author’s surprise, could not answer the central question he set out to address—What kinds of educational inputs would improve the academic performance of poor, minority students?—at least not in the way Coleman and most liberals hoped it would. In fact, his conclusions were downright depressing for those who wanted to believe schools could be the “great equalizers” Horace Mann had celebrated. Coleman wrote soberly in the report’s introduction of the persistence of racial gaps in academic achievement irrespective of levels of funding or other inputs:

For most minority groups, then, and most particularly the Negro, schools provide little opportunity for them to overcome this initial deficiency; in fact they fall farther behind the white majority in the development of several skills which are critical to making a living and participating fully in modern society. Whatever may be the combination of nonschool factors poverty, community attitudes, low educational level of parents-which put minority children at a disadvantage in verbal and nonverbal skills when they enter the first grade, the fact is the schools have not over-come it.[iii]

While the Coleman Report exposed disturbing patterns of racial and socio-economic inequality in academic performance, what sent “seismic shocks through the academic and bureaucratic worlds of education” was that the factors Coleman presumed to cause achievement gaps—inequality in educational inputs like facilities, extra-curricular and curricular offerings, teacher quality, per pupil spending—did not correlate with test score disparities in the ways he assumed they would. The government’s summary report downplayed the issue, but the implications were clear to most observers.[iv] As Henry Dyer, a participant in the Harvard seminar that Daniel Patrick Moynihan organized to consider the report in 1968, argued, “the Coleman results have the unfortunate, though perhaps inadvertent, effect of giving school systems the false impression that there is not much they can do to improve the achievement of their pupils.”[v]

Emerging the year after the Moynihan Report, as the “long hot summers” of urban unrest of the mid 1960s began, and as movements for community control and Black Power gained ground, the Coleman Report added fuel to already heated debates, especially over compensatory education, community control, and school desegregation. In addition, arguments emerged around three especially contentious issues: the utility and limits of school desegregation; who was to blame for achievement gaps; and the relationship between opportunity in school and opportunity in life.

One set of debates involved the ways the report’s strongly integrationist implications raised implicit questions about the academic potential of African American educational spaces. Integrationists celebrated the report as providing social scientific justification for integration by race and class, since Coleman found that one of the only factors that reliably correlated with improved test scores was the racial and socio-economic composition of a student’s classmates.[vi] This aspect of Coleman’s research initiated arguments about “peer effects” whose influence in educational research and popular social thought persist. In fact, from the 1960s through the mid 1970s, when Coleman issued another controversial report suggesting busing had caused white flight, Equality of Educational Opportunity served for many as a mandate for large-scale school desegregation plans, through busing if necessary.

And yet, advocates of community control, Pan-African or African American nationalist liberation schooling, and compensatory education worried that the Coleman Report implied that black children needed white children to learn and dismissed the academic, psychological, and political benefits of African American controlled educational spaces. Many advocates of community control and early versions of culturally sensitive pedagogy took offense at Coleman’s criticism of minority teachers who hailed from a students’ community.[vii] In addition, two other participants in the 1968 Harvard seminar, Charles Hamilton (who co-authored Black Power with Stokely Carmichael in 1967) as well as Noel Day (a sociologist, advocate of community control, and senior researcher at the Organization for Social and Technological Innovation in Cambridge), argued that Coleman relied on overly narrow definitions of educational success and failed to acknowledge how white-led institutions could damage African American self-esteem. Instead these authors called for an end to “one-way busing,” more African American educational leadership, culturally relevant pedagogy, better attention to the demands of African American parents, expanded offerings in Black history, and “experimental” all Black educational initiatives where educators could assess “how to better provide quality education in segregated schools.”[viii]  In fact, as sociologist Robert Newby argued, even when Coleman’s work was used to support integration, it often did so “for the wrong reasons.”  Bringing Americans “to the possible dilemma of ‘integration’ being racist,” Newby and colleagues worried that the social science used in Brown v. Board, and by implication in the Coleman Report, suggested that “demanding a place for black children in a white school is an admission of inherent black inferiority.”[ix]

Whether integration was the best—or the only—way to improve the academic performance of poor and minority students was of course related to a second, equally controversial question: who was ultimately to blame for achievement gaps. To many antiracist social scientists worried about the Moynihan Report, Coleman’s approach was troubling. While Coleman treated the broad context of housing and employment segregation shaping the nation’s increasingly segregated urban cores as an unfortunate but unavoidable part of the urban landscape, the most salient background factors shaping achievement gaps, the Coleman Report held, were those typically appealed to in deficiency paradigms: “poverty, community attitudes, and low educational level of parents.”[x]

Even social scientists who applauded Coleman’s integrationist emphasis questioned the ways the Coleman Report leaned towards blaming the victim.[xi] In an era when Arthur Jensen was providing hereditarian arguments renewed scholarly attention, Coleman’s reluctance to make clear causal arguments (since his correlational data could not sustain them) troubled many.

Part of the problem was that Coleman had a difficult time quantifying institutionalized racism in schools—an issue that African American communities across the North and West had protested throughout the twentieth century.[xii] This issue was featured centrally, however, in another leading social scientific analysis of racial inequality in the nation’s urban schools, which was published the year before the Coleman Report. Part social science, part reflection on a policy experiment, and part an “anguished cry” of a “involved observer,” Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto (1965) aimed “to describe and interpret what happens to human beings who are confined to depressed areas and whose access to the normal channels of economic mobility and opportunity is blocked.”[xiii] While the Coleman Report remained ambiguous about how institutionalized racism contributed to achievement gaps, in part due to methodological constraints, Clark chronicled how systemic discrimination harmed Harlem’s youth, relying on research that moved “…beyond…facts that are quantifiable and are computable, and that distort the actual lives of individual human beings into rigid statistics.”[xiv]

Describing segregated, urban African American communities as “social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies” whose “inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters” Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto was anything but causally ambiguous.[xv] It was the proliferation of racist assumptions about African American educational capacity, and the institutionalization of those ideas in educational policy and practice in Harlem’s white-run schools, Clark argued, that were the root of the problems Coleman measured. For Clark, widespread discrimination in tracking, guidance counseling, and school discipline, racially insensitive curricula and pedagogy, and teachers’ systematically low expectations for minority students created a situation in which “…the horror is that the results seem to justify the assumptions.”[xvi]

A third set of critiques of the Coleman Report emerged from a different corner of the academic world. Social scientists, many with socialist leanings and very loose associations with New Left movements, argued educational reform was the wrong tool if one’s goal was reducing inequality in wealth, income, or economic status.[xvii] The future co-author of Schooling in Capitalist America (1977), Samuel Bowles argued in a 1968 response to the Coleman Report that “the burden of achieving equality of educational opportunity should not, and cannot, be borne by the educational system alone.”[xviii] Christopher Jencks and colleagues’ Inequality (1972) elaborated and provided and empirical foundation for this line of analysis. Emerging from a Harvard seminar that reassessed Coleman’s data, Jencks’ work questioned whether increasing educational opportunity would have any effect on inequality in employment, income, social status, or job satisfaction among adults.[xix]

The debates the Coleman Report engendered, then, illuminate emerging fault lines, as well as points of overlap, among the interracial social scientific left of the 1960s and 1970s. Reflecting the well-known emphasis on learning for liberation—a central theme in African American educational history—Clark, Thompson, the Urban League’s Whitney Young, and other prominent voices on the social scientific African American left remained more optimistic about schooling’s liberatory potential than Coleman, Bowles, or Jencks.[xx] Russell Rickford’s history of Pan-African liberation schools in the 1970s shows how diverse and extensive African American commitments to schooling as tool in liberation struggles were in the Black Power Era.[xxi] And yet, on one point, many across the interracial left of the 1960s and 1970s seemed to agree: schools were limited in their egalitarian capacities if educators worked in isolation from activists in other reform sectors, especially those pursuing racial justice in housing, employment, health care, and social welfare organizations.[xxii] At the same time, some in the civil rights and Black Power communities drew a straight line between Coleman, Jenkins, and Jencks. In fact, some worried that both the Coleman Report and Jencks’s Inequality—regardless of their authors’ intentions—would rationalize reduced investments in the education of poor and minority students, essentially letting “schools off the hook.”[xxiii]

For scholars and educators hoping to promote educational equality today, the controversies surrounding the Coleman Report provide warnings: about the political dangers of theoretical ambiguity; the ways narrow visions of scientific authority can limit scholarly agendas; and the persistent American tendency to ask education to solve social problems—poverty, inequality, and racial hierarchy chief among them—that schooling has a difficult time alleviating alone.

Advocates of educational justice and equality might take from the Coleman Report’s history lessons about clarity and specificity. When calling for educational equality, regardless of whether one has opportunity-based or more substantive egalitarian notions in mind, being precise with notoriously capacious concepts can protect against misinterpretation. Of course, this is never foolproof. Even the clearest concepts can be used for purposes their authors don’t intend, as Alice O’Connor’s masterful history of the ways liberal poverty knowledge was misused in the twentieth century shows so well.[xxiv] And yet, as Jencks argued clearly in 1988, the enduring—especially bi-partisan—appeal of opportunity-based egalitarianism has been closely related to the concept’s ambiguity.[xxv] As conservative appropriations of Brown v. Board of Education to legitimize attacks on affirmative action and race-based school desegregation reveal, the same theoretical imprecision that allows for agreement across the aisle can enable ideas to be appropriated in ways their authors don’t intend.[xxvi] For leftists pursuing equal educational opportunity today, the ways the Coleman Report functioned like a Rorschach test—that its meaning and policy implications often lay in the eye of the beholder—should provide a cautionary tale.

Coleman’s history also points to the potential danger of popular new research methods driving rather than following pressing research questions. Historians of social science frequently point to the way new research capacities simultaneously expand and foreclose research agendas. Advances in polling techniques or survey research methods in the mid twentieth century reshaped American conceptions of self, society, and the nature of the social problems in their midst.[xxvii] As he introduced Dark Ghetto a year before the Coleman Report’s publication, Clark worried about this very problem, that traditional research methods ran the risk of simplifying “complex realities” and “subordinating the difficult and multifaceted realities to the constraints of the methods.”[xxviii] The lure, and the limits, of the hot new research method that enabled the Coleman Report should generate both hope and caution as we consider new quantitative research capacities in the current era of “big data.” Advances in data analysis techniques provide exciting new tools for measuring educational inequality across huge populations, large geographic expanses, across the life course, and between generations.[xxix] And yet, Clark’s warning, that we should not let the methods set the questions or the facts obscure a more nuanced truth, remain relevant as well.

And finally, the debate the Coleman Report generated is one of many in the long history of American tendencies to turn to education to solve large scale social problems, in the process encouraging us to ask too much of our schools. Why educational approaches to fighting poverty and inequality have persistently generated so much enthusiasm, even in moments—and the Coleman Report certainly generated one of one of them—when schooling’s limits as an egalitarian lever were as squarely in view as its potential, remains a pressing question for historians and advocates of social justice alike.

Leah Gordon is Assistant Professor of Education and (by courtesy) of History at Stanford University. She is the author of From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Professor Gordon is currently writing Imagining Opportunity: Education and Equality in Modern America, a history of American debates over schooling’s egalitarian capacities.

[i] Peter V. Marsden, “The Sociology of James S. Coleman.” Annual Review of Sociology 31 (2005): 1-24, 2-3; Godfrey Hodgson, “Do Schools Make a Difference?” in Donald M. Levine and Mary Jo Bane, eds., The ‘Inequality’ Controversy: Schooling and Distributive Justice, (New York, Basic Books, 1975) 22-44, 26; Joseph F. Kett, Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the 21st Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 240.

[ii] James S. Coleman, “”The Concept of Equality of Educational Opportunity”,” Harvard Educational Review 38, no. 1 (1968)., 14-16.

[iii] James S. Coleman et al., Equality of Educational Opportunity (New York: Arno Press, 1979, c1966), 21.

[iv] Hodgson, “Do Schools Make a Difference?” 27.

[v] Henry S. Dyer, “School Factors and Equal Educational Opportunity.” In Harvard Educational Review, ed. Equal Educational Opportunity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) 41-59, 49.

[vi] Coleman et al., Equality of Educational Opportunity, 22; Daniel P. Moynihan, “Sources of Resistance to the Coleman Report,” Harvard Educational Review, v38, no. 1: 1968, 23-36, 24.

[vii] Coleman was especially worried about situations in which “a school-child may be taught by a teacher who is not only without a college degree, but who has grown up and received his schooling in the local community, who has never been out of the State, who has a10th-grade vocabulary, and who shares the local community’s attitudes.” Coleman et al., Equality of Educational Opportunity, 37.

[viii] Charles V. Hamilton, “Race and Education: A Search for Legitimacy” in Harvard Educational Review eds.,

Equal Educational Opportunity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969) 187-202; Noel Day, “The Case for All-Black Schools,” in Harvard Educational Review, eds., Equal Educational Opportunity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1969) 205-212, 210.

[ix] Robert G. Newby, “Desegregation—Its Inequities and Paradoxes,” The Black Scholar 11, no. 1 (1979): 17-28, 67-68, 17.

[x] Coleman et al., Equality of Educational Opportunity, 21.

[xi] Walter R. Allen, Susan A. Suh, Gloria Gonzalez, and Joshua Yang, “Qui Bono? Explaining—or Defending—Winners and Losers in the Competition for Educational Achievement,” in Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva eds., White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology (Latham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 217-237, 222-223. On the complexities of racial causality see Paul W. Holland, “Causation and Race” in ibid, 93-109 and Tukufu Zuberi, Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

[xii] Davidson Douglas, Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865-1954 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008).

[xiii] Kenneth Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), xxii.

[xiv] Clark, Dark Ghetto, xxiii, xix, xxiv.

[xv] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 11. On theories of internal colonialism, see Katz, The Undeserving Poor, chap. 2 and Singh, Black is a Country, chap. 5.

[xvi] Clark, Dark Ghetto, 128.

[xvii] Kett, Merit, 247.

[xviii] Samuel Bowles, “Toward Equality?” Harvard Educational Review 38, no. 1 (1968): 94-98, 95.

[xix] Peter Michael Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan, The American Occupational Structure (New York: Wiley, 1967)

[xx] For a few examples of the voluminous historiography on “learning for liberation” in African American education, see James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press,1988); Hilary J. Moss, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Russell John Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Christopher M. Span, From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2009); Vanessa Siddle Walker, Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

[xxi] Rickford, We Are an African People.

[xxii] On this point, see Whitney Young, To Be Equal (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), especially p. 18.

[xxiii] Ron Etial Edmons, “A Black Response to Christopher Jencks,” Harvard Educational Review, 1975, cited in Newby, “Desegregation—Its Inequities and Paradoxes,” 27, 68.

[xxiv] Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[xxv] Christopher Jencks, “Whom Must We Treat Equally for Educational Opportunity to Be Equal?” Ethics 98, no. 3 (1988): 518-33, 533.

[xxvi] Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma,” The Journal of American History, 91, no. 1 (2004): 92-118; Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America (Lantham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, “Color Blindness, History, and the Law” in Wahneema H. Lubiano, The House That Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997) 280-288.

[xxvii] Sarah E. Igo, The Averaged America: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Leah N. Gordon, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

[xxviii] Clark, Dark Ghetto, xix.

[xxix] For examples of some of the most exciting new research exposing patterns of educational inequality made possible by methodological advances and new data sources see:;