Why Did It Take So Long for Class-Based School Integration to Take Hold?
Half a century ago, the Coleman Report revealed that socioeconomic diversity is key to removing racial inequalities in education.
A dozen years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education had famously declared that schools segregated by race were inherently unequal and ushered in decades of efforts to desegregate schools by race. But the Coleman Report, which Education Week said is “widely regarded as the most important education study of the 20th century,” put a twist on Brown. It found that if one’s goal were to raise the academic achievement of pupils, then promoting a socioeconomic mix of students was even more important than changing the racial composition of the school.
The impetus for the study was to get at the root of educational inequality by race. Authorized by Congress as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the study was designed to examine inequality of opportunity in education “by reasons of race, color, religion or national origin.” Many expected the report to find the source of inequality in achievement between racial groups to be unequal spending between black and white schools, or racial school segregation itself.
A report conceived of as part of an effort to address racial inequality found that class inequality—and class segregation—mattered most. Racial school integration did generally benefit black students, the report found, but the “beneficial effect of a student body with a high proportion of white students comes not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on average, found among whites.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. Senator who assembled a Harvard University study group to examine the Coleman Report’s findings, suggested, “we should begin to see that the underlying reality is not race but social class.” Dozens of subsequent studies, using more sophisticated techniques than those available to Coleman, have affirmed his results.
For years after its publication, the Coleman Report’s key finding about socioeconomic integration was largely ignored by shapers of public policy, in part because it was seen as politically volatile. Liberals focused on equalizing school spending and racially desegregating schools, while conservatives advocated teacher accountability measures and private school vouchers. Once exception was Duluth, Minnesota, where, in 1972, policymakers floated the idea of integrating schools by socioeconomic status. In an interview, Coleman endorsed the proposal, saying “a child’s performance, especially a working-class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by going to a school with children who come from educationally stronger backgrounds.” But the Duluth plan met political resistance and never got off the ground.
Advocates of racial desegregation noted that while the Constitution requires the desegregation of schools that were once officially segregated by race, the Fourteenth Amendment doesn’t say anything about desegregation by economic status. This was unfortunate from an educational standpoint, Coleman noted, because racial desegregation did not always result in economic desegregation. For example, in Boston, Coleman noted, the racial-desegregation plan “involved primarily lower-class communities,” exempting “most of the higher-achieving middle-class schools in the suburbs” and was therefore unlikely to yield “beneficial effects on achievement.” By contrast, in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, racial school integration involved both working-class black students Schools Are Finally Applying Lessons From the Coleman Report and Integrating Based on Class - The Atlantic:
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