UNMATERIALIZED PROMISES, DAMAGED PSYCHES, & STAINED SOULS: REVISITING THE COLEMAN REPORT ON ITS 50th
Updated: Mar 22, 2018
In my November 25, 2016 blog, Translating Theory into Practice, or Vice Versa?, I quoted Fritz Mondale to illuminate my point that whether you’re translating theory into practice or vice versa, there are equally sound and evidence-based arguments residing on both sides of the fence. Senator Mondale, seeking to better understand integrated education, said, "I had hoped to find research to support or to conclusively oppose my belief that quality integrated education is the most promising approach. For every study that contains a recommendation, there is another, equally well documented study, challenging the conclusions of the first...No one seems to agree with anyone else's approach. But more distressing: no one seems to know what works."
The rise and fall of NCLB (2001) is symbolic of how inequality continues to be the beast that remains unconquered. Add the promise of one reform effort after another to the recent PISA study and the gut-shot that is the highest-achieving countries in the world spend considerably less money on schools per student than does the United States, and even the most inspired of education leaders could be discouraged.
As prominent sociologist James S. Coleman, and his colleagues discovered fifty years ago this July, poverty matters. The enduring message of the 749-page document may be found on page 325, the implication of which resonates fifty years later and some argue still exists today: “Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. For equality of educational opportunity through the school must imply a strong effect of schools that is independent of the child’s immediate social environment, and that strong independent effect is not present in American schools.”
But education leaders must not be discouraged by the fact that fifty years later the strong independent effect Coleman described as being absent in America's schools in the 1960s remains largely absent today. Instead, we need to use this seemingly immutable characteristic of public education to inspire us and influence our leadership style. As Peter Senge wrote, "Indeed, as most educators know only too well, few institutions are more immune to innovation than public education." Both the achievement gap and the opportunity gap are filled with well intentioned efforts that have cost billions are dollars. But the cost can best be measured by how America's schools remain largely unchanged. While there are multiple examples of schools that have beaten the odds, most look eerily like they did when Coleman studied them in the 1960s. My view from both the trenches (as a superintendent of a unified school district) and the balcony (as a professor and consultant of education leadership) has led me to conclude that education leaders are not encouraged to create or rewarded for innovation. In fact, the opposite is true. Especially at the policy and superintendent level where politics and adult agendas drive many decisions.
Here's the problem. Innovation is risky. It comes with a cost. Especially for superintendents and principals who are conditioned to rename and repackage old ideas, not devise new ones. It's tempting for a leader to simply keep the ship afloat. Institutional barriers make it very difficult to create new models of education. Senge nailed it. There is no framework for examining outliers and creating new models based on their success. My education leadership students and my colleagues alike know that I believe in the transformative powers of swift and positive change and that it alone is the only way to create the dynamic school culture (and I have seen the destructive powers of a negative school and district culture) that Coleman characterized as the independent effect.
Changing the culture of a school or district is difficult, but not impossible, because its collective behaviors are woven into its DNA. It's the womb from which the charter school movement was conceived - easier to start from scratch.
Leadership behaviors that fly in the face of adult agendas and the institutional barriers that the agenda-bearers hide behind are often not embraced. If you're lucky enough to be a leader in an environment that encourages innovation consider yourself lucky. If the Coleman Report is ever to be rendered irrelevant instead of a stain on the soul of public education it will be because of selfless leaders who put kids first, even before themselves. In public education there are more often consequences, not rewards, for those of us who dare step outside the lines to challenge the status quo.