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What is the cause of the striking and chronic disparities between standardized test scores of black and white children in the USA? There is clearly something wrong, yet the debate seems to continually and solely swirl around issues of unequal funding. Last summer, for example, after the murder of George Floyd, the founder of Black Lives Matter told NBC’s Meet the Press that greater funding in education was necessary for greater equality of educational opportunity. Reports are continually churned out showing financial disparities between schools in black and white neighborhoods and calling for increased funding of schools in these under-funded areas. This is certainly true and necessary. Yet, a startling piece of research shows that funding alone is not the answer. If the United States is serious about equality of educational opportunity, it must finally address the findings of one of the landmarks of educational research: The Coleman Report of 1966.   

Background and Challenges

In the mid-1960s a vast majority of America’s public schools were racially segregated and, on average, African American students performed poorly compared to white students. It was therefore assumed that school segregation was the primary cause of this inequality. There were black schools and white schools and the white schools were just much better due to better funding, facilities and teachers. The Coleman Report of 1966 (On Equality of Educational Opportunity) showed, however, that if segregated black and white schools of equal quality and funding could be compared, white students still outperformed black students. There had to be another reason, besides money, as to why white students were doing so much better than black students in America’s public education system.

Indeed, sociologist James Coleman showed that a child’s socio-economic background was the overwhelming predictive factor for that child’s success in school. The social and economic experience of the black student in America was far more adverse than that of the white student and this was all the difference. The message was clear: education does not change society, society must make education possible through economic reform. The free, public school system was simply not working as the mechanism for change and equal opportunity that it had been traditionally purported to be, because economic inequality, violent neighborhoods and racism had prevented this.

Coleman’s results indicated that the best versions of the American public school could be built in the poorest areas of the inner city, but they probably would not change much of anything. Only by improving the social, familial and/or economic conditions of the disadvantaged child could education finally work. The achievement gaps that exist now between black and white students, shockingly, have not changed significantly since the 1960s. It is estimated that, at our current pace, black and white students will not show equal achievement levels for decades. Therefore, the Coleman Report still demands that we create the conditions for an equal educational opportunity for all.

Absent, however, from the debate on educational equality, has been how the free, public school system, with its putatively universal standards and curriculum, might be tweaked or even totally reformed to better serve African American youth, and youth in general. The Coleman Report also can imply that a school system geared for the success of white upper-middle class children should not be held as an inviolable icon to be worshipped by all. When we talk about schools it is a myth to believe that one size fits all. A two-pronged approach seems necessary: make the social and economic conditions of the black child healthier and open our country up to greater and greater educational experimentation, not uniformity. Abandon the common core idea and invite creativity, humanity and innovation.

50+ years later, we see that no significant policy changes have been based on this report and the American public school system is still failing black children, and still mired in de facto segregation due to residential segregation in the USA. For progress to occur we must know what to demand and we must have our demands based on something solid. The Coleman Report must be more utilized by the current protest movement.

The Report is Completed, Misrepresented and Buried

When the Coleman Report was commissioned by Congress in 1964, the average black student scored considerably lower than the average white student on standardized tests, and both groups of students were attending separate facilities, so it was easy to draw the conclusion that the separate facilities were of unequal quality. Thus, in 1964 Congress developed a civil rights law meant to ensure that integration was to occur throughout the United States by cutting off Federal funds from segregated school systems. As part of that Civil Rights Act, Congress authorized the Commissioner of Education to prepare a report to Congress, within two years of enactment, concerning the lack of availability of equal opportunities for individuals of color in public schools.

The commissioned survey was thus to document this lingering situation and Dr. James Coleman, a prestigious sociologist who had already demonstrated an ability to design and execute wide-ranging surveys (as was evidenced in his book Adolescent Society) was chosen to prepare this report. Over two years more than 4,000 schools, 60,000 teachers and 570,000 students were surveyed throughout the US.

Instead of just comparing and measuring “inputs” (a common practice at that time) – the facilities, the textbooks, teacher training and experience – Coleman wanted objective “outputs” and a way to correlate inputs and outputs. To his surprise, Coleman discovered that a student’s social class showed a consistent relationship to academic performance. If a student were black, the odds were very strong that he/she would be with classmates of an impoverished background and outputs would be poor. Coleman wrote, “One implication stands out above all: that schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context…the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront life at the end of school.”

The Office of Education, however, deliberately prepared a summary glossing over the most substantial findings of the report. The New York Times took this from the summary, apparently not bothering to read the 737 page report: “A survey of educational opportunities ordered by Congress has shown that predominantly Negro schools are inferior to those attended by whites and this tends to widen the achievement gap between the races.”

Limited Usage/Effect of the Coleman Report

It was only through Daniel Patrick Moynihan, more than two years later, that the Coleman Report was to have any effect. Moynihan was a professor at Harvard and advisor to President Nixon who had written about the black family. Coleman had indicated that placing students from lower socio-economic backgrounds into schools of students of higher socio-economic backgrounds would raise the educational output of poorer students while not adversely affecting the wealthier students.

Thus, Moynihan encouraged President Nixon to employ the Coleman Report to effect a near total desegregation of Southern public schools. From the late 1960s to 1980 levels of segregation continually dropped in the USA. White-flight after 1980 reversed these achievements and we are nearly back to 1960s levels of de facto segregation in our schools. Unfortunately, however, even the desegregation which had occurred through Moynihan’s instigation failed to significantly narrow the performance gap between white and black students.

A New Orientation Is Called For

The Coleman Report stands, then, as a reminder of our unfinished business. Desegregation does not seem to work as expected. Pouring money into the schools will not work. The “excellent teacher” approach will not work as it is nearly impossible to train thousands upon thousands of “super-teachers”.  Why, 50+ years later, have we not figured this thing out?

We have to improve social conditions that have adverse impacts on the psychology of African American children and ALSO do what the Coleman Report would seem to suggest we need to do: finally abandon the ideals of mid-19th Century America, that a universal, one-size-fits-all, system of education will ensure equality for differing classes and races. We have yet to try changing the school system so that it is better geared to helping students living under adverse circumstances to benefit from formal education. We have yet to embrace an experimental attitude toward teaching methods and curricula which may truly meet the needs of students who are not from dominant culture backgrounds. Schools may still be the answer.

We have to admit that we have different social classes and different cultures in the USA and begin developing schools accordingly. The dominant culture model lacks relevance and meaning anyway as it inculcates competition and callousness instead of humane and democratic values. A book like Ways with Words by Sally Brice Heath may point in the right direction. This book strongly suggests that when teachers are properly chosen and methods thoughtfully developed based on the cultural backgrounds of students, amazing progress can occur.

Many inner-city charter schools have become pseudo-military institutions of extreme discipline where the average to above average black student in a public school class will be removed from his/her peers and subjected to a military-style education. This is an unacceptable way to treat black youth. The moral choice is clear – the violence and corrosive atmosphere of the inner city must be changed. Our schools must be changed too.

Since the Coleman Report there has been miniscule change in the performance gap between black and white students.  Coleman stands as an unaccepted challenge. The protests surrounding the senseless death of George Floyd pulled thousands into the street in protest. This same passion and indignation must be harnessed to tackle the central problem of the Coleman Report – what changes must be made to our societies, and especially our schools, to bring about true equality of opportunity?

About the Author

Daniel Gauss is a BA graduate of the University of Wisconsin (where he studied sociology) and MA graduate of Teachers College at Columbia University (where he studied education). He has worked in the field of education for over 20 years and currently teaches at an international school in Shenzhen, China. Additionally, he has been published on numerous platforms dealing with art, education, culture and religion.

The views are the personal views of the author. The author can be contacted at