It's not often that NYTimes conservative columnist, David Brooks, finds any way to use science try to justify the lifestyles of the rich and separate, but someone sent him news of a study that he obviously felt he could manipulate to rationalize the continuing resegregation of America and its schools.
What most people know, even those who do not read the results of scientific studies, is that diversity is important for healthy communities, whether business communities concerned with productivity or artistic groups in search of new forms, problem solving groups in search of solutions, or school systems in search of higher achievement for all children.
A clip from TMoE (pp. 37-41) on Coleman's findings almost a half century ago:
Good fences make good neighbors. When ethnic groups clash, we usually try to encourage peace by integrating them. Let them get to know one another or perform a joint activity. This may be the wrong approach. Alex Rutherford, Dion Harmon and others studied ethnically diverse areas and came to a different conclusion. Peace is not the result of integrated coexistence. It is the result of well-defined geographic and political boundaries. For example, Switzerland is an ethnically diverse place, but mountains and lakes clearly define each group’s spot. Even in the former Yugoslavia, amid widespread ethnic violence, peace prevailed where there were clear boundaries.Too bad Brooks did not read to the bottom of the abstract, where he would would have found this:
The theory and the data also show that people who are in fully integrated societies will also successfully live in peace.
A clip from TMoE (pp. 37-41) on Coleman's findings almost a half century ago:
The mandate for the Coleman report came from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required a research study be con- ducted within two years of passage to identify where educational resources in public educational institutions were lacking due to “race, color, religion, or national origin” (Lagemann, 2000, p. 193). Almost overnight, previous education program evaluation criteria based on resource inputs shifted to program outputs as the mandate for tracking education program effective- ness was written into federal legislation.
While everyone, including James Coleman, expected to find large dif- ferences in achievement based on large differences in resources between the 600,000 children that his study included in 4,000 Black and White schools, the findings confounded expectations. As Coleman scholar, Ger- ald Grant (2009) points out Coleman found discrepancies in spending be- tween Black and White schools to be less than expected, due to infusions of cash by Southern states in hopes of maintaining the “separate but equal” apartheid systems. But, even where resource differences were large, Cole- man found these disparities in Black schools influenced student achieve- ment differences much less than “who you went to school with”:
Simply put, Coleman found that the achievement of both poor and rich children was depressed by attending a school where most children came from low-income families. More important to the goal of achieving equal ed- ucational opportunity, he found that the achievement of poor children was raised by attending a predominantly middle-class school, while the achieve- ment of affluent children in the school was not harmed. This was true even if per-pupil expenditures were the same at both schools. No research over the past 40 years has overturned Coleman’s finding. . . . (p. 159)
Coleman and his team (1966) found, too, that non-Asian minority chil- dren are more affected by social composition than are White children, and that “if a minority pupil from a home without much educational strength is put with schoolmates with strong educational backgrounds, his achieve- ment is likely to increase” (p. 22). Though this finding is commonly cited in analyses and interpretations of the Coleman study, the dynamics that shape this social fact are most often attributed to the social capital that accrues for various reasons when poor children go to school with middle class children. Coleman, however, clearly introduces a race element beyond socioeconomic status that is related to the effects of oppression and de- moralization that is rarely cited. Therefore, we include this rather lengthy quote below, which if attended to by policy makers, would doubtless create an added urgency to dust off long-neglected integration plans. Notice that Coleman remains loyal to and supportive of the charge given to him under Section 402 of Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide data related to “the lack of equal educational opportunity for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin . . . ,” even though his investigations have led him to findings that even Coleman could not have predicted:
This analysis has concentrated on the educational opportunities offered by the schools in terms of the student body composition, facilities, curriculums, and teachers. This emphasis, while entirely appropriate as a response to the legislation for the survey, nevertheless neglects important factors in the variability between individual pupils within the same school: this variability is roughly four times as large as the variability between schools. For example, a pupil attitude factor, which appears to have a stronger relationship to achievement than do all the “school” factors together, is the extent to which an individual feels that he has some control over his own destiny [italics added]. . . . The responses of pupils, except for Orientals, have far less conviction than Whites that they can affect their own environments and futures. When they do, however, their achievement is higher than that of Whites who lack that conviction.
Furthermore, while this characteristic shows little relationship to most school factors, it is related, for Negroes, to the proportion of Whites in the schools. Those Negroes in schools with a higher proportion of Whites have a greater sense of control. This finding suggests that the direction such an attitude takes may be associated with the pupil’s school experience as well as the experience in the larger community. (p. 23)
Coleman found hope, then, strongly correlated with the presence of a sense of autonomy, which is more easily demonstrated, measured, and retained where racial and economic mixing prevails, rather than in racially and eco- nomically segregated environments—whether that segregation is sustained by antiquated beliefs, legal maneuvering, or by outdated school assessment practices. And it was this “pupil attitude factor” of hope that had a greater effect on achievement than all other school effects examined in the Coleman study, which remains the largest research undertaking of its kind in U.S. educational history.
The Coleman findings on socioeconomic status and school achievement echoed the findings of another large, longitudinal study a few years earlier, whose similar results on the topic were similarly ignored (for similar reasons, we may assume). The federal research project in 1960, Project Talent, involved detailed questionnaires in over 1,300 high schools and a series of tests for 440,000 students that included achievement, attitudinal, interest, and aptitude tests, surveys, and questionnaires. Instruments were administered in 1960 when students were ninth graders and again in 1963 when they were seniors. By 1973, it is clear that Washington’s elite had digested the implications of these studies, as expressed here by fiscal and monetary expert, Alice Rivlin (1973):
The most general result of these statistical studies [the Coleman Study and the Project Talent study] has been the finding that variables reflecting the socioeconomic characteristics of students and their families explain most of the variation in test scores, and variables reflecting school characteristics or resource inputs explain very little.
These results should not be exaggerated—they do not prove that “schools don’t matter”—but they certainly provide a basis for considerable skepti- cism about using test scores as measures of the output of the education industry as such. Test score changes may primarily reflect changes in the school population and the way it is mixed, rather than the productivity of school resources themselves. (p. 424)
Lagemann (2000) recounts the drama surrounding the release of the Coleman Report’s initial findings in 1966, and the subsequent “firestorm” set off within the Johnson Administration, which knew that Coleman’s findings could sabotage the Administration’s strategy of using the federal purse to buy Southern support to end apartheid schooling in the South, as set forth by ESEA the year before. Johnson knew that Republicans, already resistant to more federal spending, would seize and exploit the counter- intuitive fact that spending levels were clearly not the prime factor in performance discrepancies. Coleman’s findings, too, offered a swipe at a core component of the American secular faith in education and educational op- portunity as “the chief instrument for redressing the inequalities of American life” (Kantor, 1991, p. 50).
This lofty notion had, indeed, fed the Jeffersonian belief, later transferred to Horace Mann, that education may provide solutions to social problems that were thought to be the result of the poor’s own shortcom- ings. Blaming the poor for their poverty is as traditional as our Calvinist forefathers of Puritan New England, who viewed the socioeconomically unfit as having earned their lack of status through their own moral failings (Rippa, 1996). These shortcomings, in turn, might signal the column of the celestial tally sheet to which all souls had been added who were not a part of the Elect, or God’s elite. From this early theological base, there eventu- ally grew the Protestant economic catechism of the Gilded Age, with ample doses thrown in of Social Darwinism, which “held that responsibility for poverty lay not with the business cycle or the existence of a capitalist reserve army of the unemployed, but with the moral failure of the poor themselves to conduct proper family economy” (Dawley, 1993, p. 27).
By the 1960s the poor’s personal flaws and the lifestyles they spawned were bundled within a new and encompassing concept known as the “culture of poverty,” which acknowledged structural barriers as well as the traditional blaming of the victim:7
First, though it acknowledged the structural sources of deprivation, the culture of poverty thesis tended to focus attention more on the personal characteristics of the poor themselves than on the economic and social con- ditions that shaped their lives (Aaron, 1978, p. 20). Consequently, and this is the second point, because it implied that people were poor due to their own attitudes, behaviors, and life-styles, it suggested that changing the poor rather than redistributing income or creating jobs was the best way to elimi- nate the problem of poverty. (p. 55)
The third characteristic that Kantor (1991) attributes to the “culture- of-poverty thesis” was its belief that, since the economic and psychological conditions left the poor without the “will and capacity to attack the sources of their own deprivation” (p. 55), professional intervention was required, which assured a powerful role for the liberal public policy makers during the 1960s. Such interventions, however, did not disrupt the underlying assumptions of economic order, systems of privilege, or existing power relations, as initiatives to help the poor focused more on education and training programs. As noted earlier, these kinds of compensatory solutions could be provided without disrupting the social and economic structures that would have been challenged by job creation programs or other alterations to economic and socio-cultural patterns. The preferred compensatory strategies adopted by liberals could “compensate for capitalism’s inevitable flaws and omissions without interfering with its internal workings” (Kantor quoting Brinkley, 1991, p. 56).
Coleman’s findings, however, were not governed by any of these assumptions. His findings clearly suggest the need for structural alterations to the racial and socioeconomic organization of schools, while clearly pointing to the limited value of simply adding resources without structural modifications. The initial findings of the Coleman Report, therefore, were appropriately muted by Johnson’s White House; the media, with no open controversy to sell copy and with its accepted narrative wisdom to protect, largely ignored the complete findings when they did appear late in 1966 (Coleman et al, 1966). Both liberal and conservative policy people, then, read the Coleman Report looking for ideological ammunition, and they found it. Conservatives centrally concerned with cutting costs and conserv- ing the status quo cherry-picked Coleman’s findings (Alexander, 1997) to argue that “throwing money”8 at educational problems couldn’t fix them, while liberals used Coleman’s findings related to social capital and the importance of racial and economic mixing to argue for mandatory busing policies to achieve racial balance. Coleman remained disappointed (Coleman,1972) at the reception of the study, and he remained throughout his life an advocate for removing all barriers to socioeconomic integration, even as an interim measure toward achieving equity and equality (Kahlenberg, 2001). Kahlenberg (2001) cites Coleman from a rare interview in 1972, in which his claim for the significance of social capital is made unequivocal:
Coleman said that research continued to show that “a child’s performance, especially a working-class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by his going to a school with children who come from educationally stronger back- grounds.” Coleman declared flatly: “A child’s learning is a function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher.” (p. 62)
How different today’s education reform agenda might be if Coleman’s core finding had been acknowledged and taken to heart for its central truth: schools alone can never consistently close the gaps in achievement that reflect deep differences in levels of autonomy and privilege, wide disparities in opportunity, deep veins of racism, and an ongoing and deepening hope gap. How different our schools might be if we were to take seriously what good research already tells us, or if we as a society were to fund other social science research with the potential to matter in the health of our neighbor- hoods and our world. Or, how differently our schools and our perception of schools might be if we were to conceive of educational improvement as one important component of a comprehensive commitment to social and economic renewal, in a way that acknowledges the wisdom expressed by Jean Anyon’s (1997) quip: “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door” (p. 168).