One of the serious problems posed by the likely Trump administration’s policy on public education is that it sidesteps entirely the deeply troubling challenges on the ground for children and their teachers. While the only education idea being mentioned by the new administration is the rapid expansion of privatization—a kind of school choice which has shown itself not only to be unavailable to the poorest children but also threatening to the financial stability of the public schools in the poorest communities, there is indisputable evidence that the standardized test scores by which we now judge schools derive far more from poverty and economic segregation than the school teachers we are blaming. Yet addressing poverty both outside the school and inside has slipped off the radar as, once again, the proposal to privatize is being prescribed as a remedy.
Last fall’s issue of the Russell Sage Journal, The Coleman Report and Educational Inequality Fifty Years Later (Vol 2, No 5) calls our attention back to the matter we need to be considering. The journal is edited by Karl Alexander, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist who authored a longitudinal study reaching back to the 1982 first grade year of a group of Baltimore’s young adults: The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. Alexander introduces the collection of articles with a short history of 50 years of research on the topics of The Coleman Report: Is It Family or School? Getting the Question Right. His topic and the subject of all the studies in this journal is to further untangle and identify the many strands of the opportunity gap across our nation’s schools.
Alexander explains that The Coleman Report, published in 1966, has been misconstrued over the years by those who have used it to prove that “schools make no difference” and to insist that we accept a binary explanation for school achievement as driven (or held back) by either the school or the family.
Here, according to Alexander is what may be fairly concluded from the 1966 research of James Coleman and his colleagues: Family background is of great importance for school achievement; the influence of the family does not appear to diminish over the child’s school years. Neither the impact of one school or another nor the impact of facilities nor the impact of curriculum is as great as the impact of the student’s family background. Of in-school factors that matter to children, the teacher is the most important. Finally, “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”
Overall, writes Alexander as he summarizes the meaning of The Coleman Report: “Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: The schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.” Alexander elaborates: “In fact, school influence on children’s achievement is so deeply embedded in children’s family life that they hardly are separate. These tight linkages across institutional contexts additionally imply that the social organization of schooling, as constructed back then and still today, functions mainly to maintain or reproduce children’s place in the social order. To illustrate, in 2005 nationally, poor students were in the majority in 84 percent of schools with minority enrollments of 90 to 100 percent; in schools with minority enrollments of 10 percent or less, just 18 percent of schools had majority low-poverty enrollments. The insight that the social composition of the student body is the strongest school-based correlate of student achievement, independent of the child’s family background, pinpoints the particular mechanism that channels family influence through the school: neighborhood residential segregation… High poverty neighborhoods and high-poverty schools are population aggregates. Their properties do not inhere in any single family, and they have consequences beyond those located at the interior of family life… As the national commitment to school desegregation has waned, segregation at the school level has increased…”
Alexander briefly reviews five decades of research on the effects of family, school, and neighborhood (including residential segregation) and summarizes: “Attempts to parse the ‘whether’ of school versus family seek a definitive answer, but this false dichotomy fundamentally misconstrues the backdrop to children’s learning. Family matters, to be sure, but school also matters, and it is how the two intersect that sets children on their developmental paths… In generating opportunity, family and school are indeed in tension, but it is a tension not captured in the ‘school versus family’ framing…. (W)hat counts is the balance between private family resources and public resources in support of children’s learning. At present, the private and public resources invested in children’s schooling are highly unequal, and they favor families of means.”
Alexander adds, however, that even the poorest schools are positively impacting the lives and learning of their students: “But it also needs to be said that schools do not simply reinforce patterns of family advantage and disadvantage. Rather, poor children fall behind when their learning depends on the sparse resources available to them at home and in their communities. Their schools, even those burdened by concentrated poverty, help them to keep up academically. From research on summer learning loss we learn that the portion of school influence that is separable from family serves to lift up poor children, not hold them back.”