Misreading the Coleman report

 I am signed up to read the Direct Instruction list, which is both inspiring with its stories of success against great odds — DI is largely limited to special ed situations, although it works like a charm in regular classrooms — and its contrast with the dispiriting reality of public schools in general, which achieve massive failure at great expense even when all the odds favor them.

Recently, someone wrote (as part of a longer post):

I’ve read the entire Coleman report; Coleman makes the distinction that teacher quality is the definitive variable. I think we can deduce from “teacher quality” that what we are really talking about is what the teacher is doing in the classroom, or more simply put: how the teacher is teaching.

However, we cannot deduce any such thing. Coleman explained what he meant, later in life. Here’s my response:

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I had the privilege of a slight acquaintance with James Coleman, near the end of his career. I was a (non-traditional age ~ 50) grad student in Linguistics at the University of Minnesota (1988-1992) and working at the student newspaper, so when he came to campus as a visiting scholar I assigned myself to write about him. I had read a talk he gave as his acceptance speech for an award in the Sociology of Education, and he was pleased about that, and was generous with his time for an interview. A couple of years later, speaking at a conference of the National Association of Scholars, he spoke again on the same subject — the extent to which research in sociology, and in education in particular, is distorted by political pressures.

Neither talk is available online, as far as I know, though I had copies in my extra-essential stash of articles up until the day I retired, and they’re still packed away in one of those moving boxes. But they were published in the NAS journal Academic Questions,

Coleman, James S.
Response to the Sociology of Education Award
(vol. 2, no. 3; Summer 1989)
The Sidney Hook Memorial Award Address: On the Self-Suppression of Academic Freedom
(vol. 4, no. 1; Winter 1990–1991)

so it is possible to know, what he felt himself unable to say in the Coleman Report, what he meant by “teacher quality” — teachers’ scores on a basic test of spelling and vocabulary.

Those of you who keep up with these matters will immediately recognize this is a proxy for IQ, which was and is radioactive, but it’s bad enough without knowing that. How could he make a recommendation that would drive a highly disproportionate number of black teachers out of their jobs? (Propose hiking the passing score on Praxis tests, and see what happens.) How could he ask grad students and untenured junior faculty to work on a subject that would blight their careers? (Look what happened to Richard Herrnstein Arthur Jensen in 1969, when he candidly answered the question about how much the achievement gap could be reduced. “Not much,” he said.)

So what Coleman said instead was true, but misleading. Black children did better in classrooms where a majority of their classmates were white. Well, duh. Classrooms with a majority of while children didn’t have the barely literate teachers found in black segregated schools. If they had black teachers, which was probably rare, they were likely the best teachers in the school. They had to be.

This well-intentioned misdirection had catastrophic effects. The obvious response, if majority-white classrooms helped minority kids, was to bus kids around like sacks of cement so as many classrooms as possible had white majorities. Parents, both black and white, objected to having their children used as objects in other children’s education, and there was a massive flight of middle-class families out of city schools and out of center cities altogether. Classmates’ race might not matter all that much, but SES did.
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(I think I should have said “vocabulary,” rather than including spelling.)

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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