That there are stark differences in the academic success of rich and poor students has been common knowledge for many years but what causes those differences remains a matter of intense debate. During the height of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued a report On Inequality of Educational Opportunity prepared by sociologist James Coleman of John Hopkins University.
The “Coleman Report,” as it became known, created a firestorm of controversy. Contrary to what many expected (and hoped) the report failed to find that good schools were the main predicator of student success; instead, Coleman said the family background of students was more important.
The Coleman Report had a profound influence on 20th century education policy. One response was to bus African-American students into suburban schools so they could associate with students from more affluent backgrounds. In 1975 Coleman issued another report, which indicated school desegregation had failed because of white flight. He was condemned by some for abandoning his earlier support for desegregation.
In another controversial study issued in 1981, Coleman hailed Catholic schools as best typifying the ideal of a common school because of having students of many diverse racial and economic backgrounds. He said these schools were doing a better job at educating the poor than public schools.
Coleman was known as a fiercely independent thinker who never shied away from controversy. He ended his career at the University of Chicago and died in 1995. While scholars today also stress the impact schools can have on poor children, few dispute Coleman’s seminal point that family background plays a crucial role in children’s future academic success.