Reflecting on Progress since the Coleman Report, 50 Years Later

February 11, 2016

By Kacy Martin


With All Deliberate Speed

With the 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report approaching, education researchers might pause to reflect on its findings and the progress our schools have made since its publication in 1967. In a series of articles in Education Next, economist Steven Rivkin details findings from his recent research about segregation in America’s urban schools.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Rivkin first recalls Coleman’s aims in the original document. The report sought to uncover extensive racial segregation within U.S. schools in the mid 1960s, and asked what impact segregation has on the educational opportunities for black students. To the first question, Coleman found that de facto segregation existed widely in all parts of the country. In the South, the Supreme Court had declared legally mandated segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). However, most schools remained effectively segregated throughout the decades that followed.

In response to the second question, Coleman declared that while segregation was prevalent, families were more responsible for learning than the environment in which students learned. Furthermore, he reported that that while discrepancies in resources existed, the differences varied more by region than by school.

Perhaps a product of the times, this proclamation misses the point. While the role of resources has been debated in recent years, the message sent to black students in segregated schools about their value is clear. As was stated in the Brown case, separate is inherently unequal because of the message of inferiority it communicates to students of color: “…if the colored children are denied the experience in school of associating with white children, who represent 90 percent of our national society in which these colored children must live, then the colored child’s curriculum is being greatly curtailed. The Topeka curriculum or any school curriculum cannot be equal under segregation.” Despite this ruling, most areas in the South took their time (Saint Louis, MO desegregated in earnest as late as 1980) in integrating its public schools.

The Quiet Segregation of the Post-Brown Era

Despite the good-faith efforts of some districts (and not-so-good-faith efforts of others) to integrate schools, Millikin v. Bradley in 1974, the Supreme Court found no constitutional violation when de facto segregation resulted from the private choices of families to live in one part of an urban area rather than another. Because of this ruling, many white suburban school districts were under no constitutional requirement to enroll black students after white students had fled inner-city school districts.

While it may appear that there is nothing to be done about people’s choices to live apart from those who are different than themselves, it is difficult to ignore the inequity that this isolation creates. This American Life took on the issue of de facto segregation in schools in a two-part series. Investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones puts the issue simply: “If you’re surrounded by a bunch of kids who are all behind, you stay behind. But if you’re in a classroom that has some kids behind and some kids advance, the kids who are behind tend to catch up. These kids in these classes in schools with concentrated poverty don’t have that. They don’t have that effect of kids who can help boost them. Everyone’s behind.”

Most mandatory integration programs ended in the 1990’s, and segregation has gotten worse since. According to Rilken, the probability of black students’ exposure to white students in the 1980s was 36 percent. In 2012, it had dropped to 27 percent. While black students’ share of enrollment in urban schools has remained consistent since 1968, white student enrollment has declined from 80 percent in 1968 to 51 percent 2012. Still, though, most people look as these facts as a result of families living where they want to live, and hesitate to attempt to impede their ability to do so.

Housing Policy and Schools Today

Richard Florida’s work on urban development and inequity has long noted the wealth disparities created when people are allowed to develop and live in whichever area of a city they please. Unfortunately, those with wealth force out those without it, and urban areas are as segregated as ever.

A new study about housing segregation and schools finds that left to their own devices, developers and urban planners inadvertently exacerbate the segregation that has been demonstrably harming black Americans for centuries. However, there are policy actions that might begin working toward a solution.

Segregation indices are lower in cities where state governments are more involved in land use regulation, residential development, and growth management. Thus, strategies to reduce economic and racial segregation must be based in regional or state governments and involve central cities as well as suburbs. Florida writes, “Efforts to force wealthier parts of [the] city to build housing for low-income households, or inclusionary housing, are more effective at reducing segregation than bringing higher-income households into lower-income parts of the city.”

Fifty years after Coleman demonstrated the pervasiveness of segregation in all parts of this country, we might consider the policy changes that equate to more progress than proverbially throwing up our hands.


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