A modest, yet radical proposal

Adam Emerson

Now that MacArthur “genius” Roland G. Fryer’s new paper on school inputs and effectiveness is beginning to get attention, it seems appropriate to look back at the most pioneering of studies on inputs and student achievement, the Coleman Report of 1966.

Sociologist James S. Coleman (1926-1995) released “Equality of Educational Opportunity” after conducting one of the largest studies of its kind in American history and one which ultimately found that how well we enhance school inputs — money, teacher credentials, library materials — has little correlation to how well students perform. Fryer and co-author Will Dobbie, both of Harvard University, similarly looked at the input measures at 35 charter schools and found that the most traditional measures — class size, per-pupil spending, certified or uncertified teachers — are not correlated with school effectiveness. Instead, Fryer and Dobbie show that frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time and high expectations “explains approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness.”

Modern-day reform critics and even historians tend to lose sight of the suggestions Coleman himself proposed in journal after journal in the years following his landmark report. In particular, Coleman took to The Public Interest in 1966 to suggest what he called “a modest, yet radical proposal” to achieve equality of educational opportunity.

Specifically, he wrote:

a) For those children whose family and neighborhood are educationally disadvantaged, it is important to replace this family environment as much as possible with an educational environment — by starting school at an earlier age, and by having a school which begins very early in the day and ends very late.

b) It is important to reduce the social and racial homogeneity of the school environment, so that those agents of education that do show some effectiveness — teachers and other students — are not mere replicas of the student himself. In the present organization of schools, it is the neighborhood school that most insures such homogeneity.

c) The educational program of the school should be made more effective than it is at present. The weakness of this program is apparent in its inability to overcome initial differences. It is hard to believe that we are so inept in educating our young that we can do no more than leave young adults in the same relative competitive positions we found them in as children.

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1 comment

Anonymous December 22, 2011 - 11:49 am

a) Who decides which students are educationally disadvantaged enough to require extended school hours? How do they decide? How will schools be staffed and managed when it comes time to accommodate these extra demands? There are enough prohibitive problems here to render the whole thing implausible when considered on a large scale. In essence, this would be akin to the State taking partial custody of many children, a concept which should only be considered in extreme circumstances of abuse, neglect, etc. However unfortunate it may be when a child grows up in a less-than-ideal family situation, the government cannot and should not ROUTINELY place itself in the middle of the parent-child relationship and render judgment on the quality of that relationship. A radical idea to be sure, but not a good one.

b) Since 1966, forced busing has been tried many times in many cities with little to no success. He acknowledges that this is not the best way to achieve heterogeneity, but then proposes racial quotas for schools accepting federal funding, which is an equally poor idea.

c) Fine idea. Bad schools should be better than they are. But, this is not actually a proposal at all. It is merely a complaint, and one that makes little sense to boot. It would be great if all children received a quality education. And if they did, each child would be in roughly the same relative competitive position as when they began. That would actually be a good thing because the worst outcome is when a student’s ability to compete decreases as they get older. So I guess I don’t understand what he is talking about. Ultimately, the goal is to IMPROVE one’s competitive position. The educational system can be a tool to help the individual achieve that goal.

On that note, I would encourage all to read the last two paragraphs of the Coleman article, in which he makes his strongest and most sensible points. There is no question that he ended the piece as he did for a reason. Interesting how the author of this post leaves out any mention of Coleman’s concluding paragraphs.

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