Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Johnson:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The Johnson Years: The Coleman Report - Equal Educational Opportunity

In 1966, in an attempt to resolve this dilemma, professor James Coleman and others at The Johns Hopkins University were commissioned by U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe to conduct a major study of the question: which strategy was more likely to equalize educational opportunities for poor minority students-compensatory education or racial integration? Coleman's federally funded analysis, titled Equality of Educational Opportunity, concluded, first, that racial integration did little to boost academic achievement in urban schools. "Our interpretation of the data," Coleman wrote, "is that racial integration per se is unrelated to achievement insofar as the data can show a relationship." Coleman added, however, that compensatory education-whether offered in racially integrated or in racially segregated schools-was similarly unlikely to improve achievement levels. As Coleman explained, "differences in school facilities and curricula, which are made to improve schools, are so little related to differences in achievement levels of students that, with few exceptions, their efforts [or the effects of different classes or curricula] fail to appear in a survey of this magnitude."

Some of the studies done as part of a re-analysis of Coleman's data at Harvard reached similar conclusions, suggesting that the best way to improve academic achievement was neither to integrate students nor to offer compensatory programs but, rather, to raise overall family income. According to the work of sociologist David Armor, "programs which stress financial aid to disadvantaged black families may be just [as] important, if not more so, than programs aimed at integrating blacks into white neighborhoods and schools." Still another study concluded that the "racial composition of the school . . . does not have a substantial effect [on academic achievement]-not nearly so strong as the social class composition of the school." In other words, when it came to improving academic achievement in the inner city, what mattered most was neither special programs nor racial integration but, rather, family background and socio-economic status. This conclusion became more and more established over time, but policies at the state and federal level nonetheless continued to focus primarily on narrow school-based reforms.


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