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Coleman Report, Forty Years On

Coleman Report, Forty Years On

July 2007

Adam Gamoran
Geoffrey Borman
Adam Gamoran
Geoffrey Borman
Recent papers by UW-Madison professors Adam Gamoran and Geoffrey Borman review the 1966 “Equality of Educational Opportunity” report on the 40th anniversary of its publication, and both reach provoking conclusions. Published in 1966, the EEO report is also known as the Coleman Report, after its principal author, sociologist James Coleman. It found that U.S. schools were highly segregated and noted inequalities in American public schooling, not only between schools but also within schools.

The Coleman report was authorized as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was conceived within the context of the legal system’s growing reliance on social science to inform legal decisions, most notably Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In the decades following the report’s publication there was a dramatic drop in school segregation in the Southern U.S. There also was a significant decline in the proportion of Black students attending 90-100% minority schools in the nation as a whole. But the gains in desegregation peaked in the 1980s and were practically reversed in the 1990s.

Gamoran’s paper finds that:

  • According to some indicators, levels of segregation are nearly as high today as they were in 1966.
  • Although Black-White achievement gaps are smaller today than they were in 1966, they remain substantial.

Newer and more sophisticated analytical methods have allowed researchers to mine Coleman’s original data and to tease out more specific information than was apparent 40 years ago, uncovering more striking realities. UW-Madison education professor Geoffrey Borman has separated differences in student achievement that can be attributed to students’ individual backgrounds from the school’s social composition. Borman says these differences provide evidence that going to a high-poverty school, or a highly segregated African-American school, has a profound effect on a students’ achievement outcomes, above and beyond the effect of his or her individual poverty or minority status.

In particular, Borman found that

  • Even after taking into account students’ family background, a large proportion of the variation in student achievement can be explained by school characteristics. Fully 40% of the differences in student achievement can be found between schools.
  • Inequalities in student achievement within schools are explained in part by teachers’ biases favoring middle-class students and by schools’ greater reliance on academic and nonacademic tracking.

Gamoran’s study, coauthored with Daniel A. Long, Department of Sociology, Wesleyan University, concludes that contemporary policies could bring about equal opportunity in two ways. First, policies could be enacted across the board that have greater benefits for disadvantaged students than for their more advantaged peers. Second, policies that have similar effects on all students could be focused mainly on disadvantaged students. The school choice provision of NCLB may fit the first category, in that private schools have in some studies been shown to benefit minority students more than other students. NCLB policies on teacher qualifications, evidence-based practice, and tutoring may fit the second category.

Borman’s study, coauthored with WCER researcher N. Maritza Dowling, concludes that “going to a high-poverty school or a highly segregated African American school has a profound effect on a student’s achievement outcomes, above and beyond the effect of his or her individual poverty or minority status. Specifically, both the racial/ethnic and social class composition of a student’s school are approximately 150% more important than a student’s individual race/ethnicity or social class for understanding educational outcomes. In dramatic contrast to previous analyses of the Coleman data, these findings reveal that school context effects dwarf the effects of family background.”

Borman’s report was written with the support of a National Academy of Education/ Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship award. Other funding was provided by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR) and by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, OERI, National Institute on Educational Governance, Finance, Policymaking and Management.

Gamoran, Adam and Daniel A. Long
Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40-Year Retrospective
WCER Working Paper No. 2006-9
December 2006, 27 p.
Working Paper posted online

Borman, Geoffrey, and N. Maritza Dowling
Schools and Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Coleman’s Inequality of Educational Opportunity Data
(paper available on request: contact