11 minute read

James S. Coleman (1926–1995)

Career, Contributions and Controversies, Redefining American Education, Contribution to Education

A major twentieth-century figure in the sociology of education, James S. Coleman was a social theorist and an empirical researcher with a prevailing interest in social problems in education–tackling issues that were sometimes unpopular. Richard Elmore describes Coleman as a "person who said what he thought and what the evidence said, regardless of whether he felt it was the right thing to say, or the socially acceptable thing to say, in other people's eyes. Even those who disagreed with him were always stimulated to think differently about the issues" (Schmidt, p. 11).


Coleman was born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1926 and attended Purdue University, earning a B.S. in chemical engineering in 1949. Switching to sociology, he received his Ph.D. in 1955 from Columbia University, where his thesis, published in 1961, was a study of adolescent society. His major work was done as professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Sociology (1960–1972) and at the University of Chicago in Sociology and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) as a research director (1956–1959 and 1973–1995). He published more than thirty books and many articles. Besides being president of the American Sociological Association (1993–1997), he worked on the creation of the National Educational Longitudinal Study database, which he used extensively in his research.

Coleman made many important contributions to the sociology of education. First, in the mid-1960s, the so-called Coleman Report (1966) examined the effects of differentiated resources on student achievement, with the intention of showing that children attending impoverished schools (a disproportionate number of whom were African American) would perform badly. Second, in the 1970s, he analyzed the effects of forced racial integration (busing) on "white flight," becoming an advocate of school choice for impoverished families. Third, in the 1980s, he explored (with Sally Kilgore and Thomas Hoffer) the differential achievement of poor children attending private, Catholic, and public schools. Before his death in 1995, he treated schools as "output-driven systems," becoming a critic of the popular "portfolio analysis," which he believed produced inadequate measures of student performance and weakened incentives for teachers to improve their performance.

Contributions and Controversies

In 1964 Congress ordered the U.S. Commissioner of Education to investigate "the lack of availability of equal education opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin." The Coleman Report, the result of a national study of 600,000 students, 60,000 teachers, and 4,000 public schools, attempted to relate family background (including race and socioeconomic status) and school equity variables (including the integration of white and African-American children) to students' test results and their attitudes toward attending higher education.

Coleman found, surprisingly, that students' test outcomes were unrelated to the usual characteristics of schools (e.g., the quality of school facilities, programs, and teachers). Instead, the improvement in academic results among minority children was significantly linked to the quality of the student body– as measured by the proportion of students with encyclopedias in their home and the proportion with high aspirations. He wrote, "These minority children have a serious educational deficiency at the start of school, which is obviously not a result of school; and they have an even more serious deficiency at the end of school, which is obviously in part a result of [a segregated] school" (1966, p. 22). Racial integration was, according to this study, the key social factor in improving student outcomes.

As for the policy effects of Coleman's research, Hallinan noted in 2000 that the findings of the landmark study "were among the most influential factors leading to the desegregation of the American public school system" (p. 76). Nevertheless, the study's heavy emphasis on the effects of family background on children's education lies in sharp contrast to prevailing opinion. Critics (e.g., Adam Gamoran, Walter Secada, and Cora Marrett in 2000), while admitting the significance of the Coleman Report, reproached it as "the most spectacular failure to connect the collective with the individual in an educational setting. Variation in school conditions [beyond racial integration] was largely unrelated to differences in student outcomes, as school-level effects were dwarfed by the powerful influence of home environment for student learning" (p. 37).

Although the Coleman Report was used extensively by integrationists, by the mid-1970s Coleman's research showed that forced busing of students for "racial balance" was actually compromising the education of bused students by the loss of middle-class (and largely white) students in urban schools. In a study of school choice, Coleman and colleagues (1977) explained that the equalizing effects of the common school are greatest when students from diverse backgrounds–who live in the same locality–attend school together. In his view, forced busing tends to "increase the gap in educational opportunity between those with money and those without" because affluent parents can "buy their way out" of bad schools either by moving to better neighborhoods, to the suburbs, or by enrolling offspring in a private school (p. 6).

Although the location of the school that students attend is largely determined by where they live, the same cannot be said for their parents' place of work. Coleman pointed out that technological and economic changes (e.g., access to automobiles, better commuter routes, and greater affluence) tend to make residential neighborhoods more racially and socioeconomically homogeneous.

Convinced that the quality of an educational experience is associated with the composition of the student body, Coleman asked whether parents, who could choose to live far from their place of employment, might also choose where their children attend school. He describes two methods for bringing about educational equality: court-imposed efforts to achieve racial balance (e.g., busing) and policies to remove economic restraints that decrease the ability of parents to make educational choices, by providing vouchers or through competition within the public school system (e.g., magnet schools, charter schools, and open enrollment/transfer plans). Coleman traced both approaches to the "egalitarian" impulse of achieving racial integration in schools, although he favored measures that expand rather than diminish parental options.

By the 1980s, Coleman (along with Kilgore and Hoffer, 1982a) analyzed the High School and Beyond (HSB) data set–the nation's largest longitudinal study of schools effects, involving 28,000 sample students attending 1,015 public and private schools. In 1980, sophomore and senior students from public and private high schools were tested in language arts, science, social studies, and mathematics. Using the data as a synthetic cohort, Coleman and colleagues found that Catholic schools upheld the "common school ideal"; that is, the effects of family background on achievement were lower in the Catholic schools. "Average" students were more likely to take rigorous academic courses, thereby producing better results. Thus, Catholic schools avoided the "stratifying" practices, in Coleman's words, of a "'public' school system that no longer integrates the various segments of the population of students, but appears no more egalitarian than private education, and considerably less egalitarian in outcome than the major portion of the private sector in America–the Catholic schools" (1982a, p. 196).

Social capital was defined by Coleman as "the set of resources that inhere in family relations and in community social organization and that are useful for the cognitive or social development of a child or young person" (1990, p. 300). He thus found an empirical referent for his social theory, based on a largescale national survey: that the Catholic parish, which supported the parish school, united to improve the education of children: the corollary of the phrase, "it takes a village to raise a child." Coleman and Hoffer discovered that since Catholic high schools possessed more "social capital," their students tended to outperform public school pupils from similar backgrounds and neighborhoods. He further explained the importance of social cohesion that has diminished with social progress.

Primordial social organization has depended on a vast supply of social capital, on a normative structure which enforced obligations, guaranteed trustworthiness, induced efforts on behalf of others, and on behalf of the primordial corporate bodies themselves, and suppressed free riding. The social capital has been eroded, leaving many lacunas. Perhaps the most important area in which erosion has occurred is in the regeneration of society through the nurturing of the next generation [e.g., education]. (1990, p. 651)

Coleman's research managed to stir up considerable controversy when he applied his theories and methods to the field of educational sociology. The work Public and Private High Schools (1987) written with Hoffer was perceived to threaten the hegemony of public schools and to elevate the effectiveness of faith-based (Roman Catholic) schools in the authors' attempt to help inner-city students. Its release brought negative reactions from the more liberal, public school establishment, as well as many of the radical equalitarians who had supported his earlier research on school integration.And a number of researchers, such as Jay Noel in 1982 and Karl Alexander and Aaron Palls in 1985, attacked Coleman's study of differing achievement in Catholic and public high schools. J. Douglas Willms, for example, reanalyzed the High School and Beyond data set and published the results in 1985, having studied 21,772 public and Catholic school students and using longitudinal data (sophomores and seniors). He determined that "no pervasive Catholic-school effect," was present although "we cannot be certain that the tests were sensitive enough to detect differences between Catholic and public school effects on students' achievement" (p. 113).

Redefining American Education

Coleman's work shows a pattern in which the process of social progress depends, to a large extent, on the extension of rights, choice, and resources to disenfranchised groups. He argues that any new "allocation of rights" results not simply from new information but from a multistage process including: "information changes beliefs; the new beliefs show a conflict of rights; [and] the conflict of rights comes to be resolved by a change in one or the other right." (1990, p. 56)

For example, Coleman interpreted the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court decision as vindicating the right of African-American parents not to have their children assigned to distant schools when schools attended by white children were closer. The findings from the Coleman Report suggested that children from poor backgrounds perform better academically when they attend school with children from more affluent families. In this case, African-American children benefit when they are bused to distant (integrated) schools. Thus, new information "brought into conflict the right to equal educational opportunity and the right of parents not to have their children assigned to a distant school on the basis of an arbitrary ground such as race" (Coleman et al. 1966, p. 56). Coleman thought a final resolution to the busing and integration issue had yet to occur.

Toward the end of his life, Coleman asked how educational systems might be more accountable, especially when evaluating students' academic achievement. In an essay published posthumously (1997), he advocated the principle of "output-driven" systems "in which the rewards and punishments for performance in productive activity come from the recipient of the product" (p. 25). He noted that educators sought alternatives to standardized testing, especially avoiding multiple-choice tests, for both good reasons (because there are more accurate methods of assessment) and bad reasons (such as the supposed stigma connected with poor scores or grades).

For instance, Coleman examined the increasingly popular method of alternative performance assessment, the use of portfolios. He contended that portfolio analysis, based on the idea that academic achievement is analogous to artistic or athletic performance, is attractive to many educators. In Coleman's judgment, however, the use of portfolios was subjective in nature, lacking in external standards, determined by teachers' vested interests, and without a stimulus for improvement. Coleman objected to such "soft" measures, stating that "the strongest drive toward performance assessment comes from the leveling impulse: i.e., from the aim of eliminating comparative evaluation in schools" (1997, p. 37).

Contribution to Education

Thus, in his last publications, as in his earlier ones, Coleman grounded his theoretical ideas in rigorous empirical data and an insistence on being able to measure academic results. Portfolios were to Coleman just another mushy example of educational predeterminism, rather than realistic, hard-nosed, data-based outcomes. To Coleman, nothing in social life was easy. For as he explained, "the threat [portfolios] pose is not inherent in performance assessment, but lies in the ease with which performance assessment can be made compatible with reduced performance levels by those who would eliminate competition in schools" (1997, p. 37). Even in death, Coleman managed to capture attention and stir controversy.


ALEXANDER, KARL L., and PALLAS, AARON M. 1985. "School Sector and Cognitive Performance: What Is a Little a Little?" Sociology of Education 58:115–128.

COLEMAN, JAMES S. 1961. The Adolescent Society. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

COLEMAN, JAMES S. 1990. Equality and Achievement in Education. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

COLEMAN, JAMES S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

COLEMAN, JAMES S., and HOFFER, THOMAS. 1987. Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities. New York: Basic Books.

COLEMAN, JAMES S.; HOFFER, THOMAS; and KILGORE, SALLY. 1982a. "Achievement and Segregation in Secondary Schools: A Further Look at Public and Private School Differences." Sociology of Education 55:162–182.

COLEMAN, JAMES S.; HOFFER, THOMAS; and KILGORE, SALLY. 1982b. High School Achievement: Public, Catholic and Private Schools Compared. New York: Basic Books.

COLEMAN, JAMES S., et al. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

COLEMAN, JAMES S., et al. 1977. Parents, Teachers, and Children: Prospects for Choice in American Education. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies.

COLEMAN, JAMES S., et al. 1997. Redesigning American Education. Boulder, CO: Westview.

COOPER, BRUCE S. 1995. "In Memoriam: Tribute to James S. Coleman: The Man and His Research." Journal of Research on Christian Education 4 (2):151–156.

GAMORAN, ADAM; SECADA, WALTER G.; and MARRETT, CORA B. 2000. "The Organizational Context of Teaching and Learning." In Handbook of the Sociology of Education, ed. Maureen T. Hallinan. New York: Kluwer.

HALLINAN, MAUREEN T. 2000. "On the Linkages between Sociology of Race and Ethnicity and Sociology of Education." In Handbook of the Sociology of Education, ed. Maureen T. Hallinan. New York: Kluwer.

NOELL, JAY. 1982. "Public and Catholic Schools: A Reanalysis of 'Public and Private Schools."' Sociology of Education 55:123–132.

SCHMIDT, PETER. 1995. "James S. Coleman, Author of Landmark Education Studies, Dies." Education Week April 5:11–12.

WILLMS, J. DOUGLAS. 1985. "Catholic-School Effects on Academic Achievement: New Evidence from the High School and Beyond Follow-Up Study." Sociology of Education 58 (2):98–114.



Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE)