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A Glimpse into the Coleman Report

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

It feels like any discussion about the achievement gap wouldn't be complete without some knowledge of the Coleman Report, so I set out to learn about what the report is about. Commissioned by Congress to investigate "Equality of Educational Opportunity," then John Hopkins' sociologist James Coleman led the massive study. It was enormous because Coleman and his team collected data from 4,000 schools, 66,000 teachers, and almost 600,000 students. The report is widely considered the most important education study in the 20th century. Unlike previous studies, which focused on resources such as textbooks, facilities, extracurricular activities, or qualified teachers available to students, team Coleman emphasized the outcome of schooling, namely, the test scores.

To many people's surprise, the report concludes that schools do not matter much when it comes to a student's academic performance. Rather it is the student's family background, such as parental income and education, as well as the students' peers that would have a much larger impact on academic performance. Using the report's own words,

Taking all these results together, 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; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

This conclusion gave rise to many debates and controversies. The methodology used in the study was also challenged. Economist Hanushek went further to say that he would view Coleman's conclusion as hypotheses. Regardless, the report was the first to reveal what was later known as the achievement gap. Further, in Hanushek's view, "The largest impact of the Coleman Report has been in the linkage of education research to education policy."

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