An influential and controversial study, published by the US Government in 1966, under the title Equality of Educational Opportunity. The coauthored report was based on an extensive survey of educational opportunity (the national sample included almost 650 000 students and teachers in more than 3000 schools), was mandated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was directed by the sociologist James Coleman. It was a landmark in policy research, being one of the first social scientific studies specifically commissioned by Congress in order to inform government policy, following those done on the military during the Second World War. The research design adopted for the investigation changed the whole direction of policy research in education and was widely imitated by later researchers. The results shaped school desegregation policy for many years following publication of the Report.
The study began with the controversial and innovative premise that equality of opportunity should be assessed by equality of outcome rather than equality of input. The researchers therefore collected data, not only on the educational resources available to different groups of children, but also on students’ achievements (as measured by, for example, test scores). For the first time it was possible to provide an informed answer to the question of how much, and in what ways, schools were able to overcome the inequalities (notably those associated with race) with which children came to school. Coleman himself later argued that the most important research findings of the study were twofold. First, it showed that variations in school quality (as indexed by the usual measures such as per pupil expenditure, size of school library, and so on) showed little association with levels of educational attainment, when students of comparable social backgrounds were compared across schools. (Differences in students’ family backgrounds, by comparison, showed a substantial association with achievement.) Second, a student's educational attainment was not only related to his or her own family background, but also (less strongly) to the backgrounds of the other students in the school. These findings had clear implications for social engineering: opportunities could best be equalized via strategies of desegregation of schools (for example by busing). They challenged a major plank of Lyndon Johnson's vision for the Great Society; namely, that increased spending on education could rectify social deficits.
The report was a focus of controversy both among academic researchers and in the political arena for many years. It was widely misinterpreted as an argument that ‘schools don't matter, only families matter’. Ironically, some of Coleman's subsequent work was designed to identify those characteristics of schools which did matter, so that the impact of school relative to that of family could be increased. For example, later research (reported in High School Achievement, 1982, and The Impact of Communities, 1987) suggested that, after controlling for background and other effects, pupils in private Catholic schools did better than others, because of the higher academic demands and disciplinary standards set in these schools, and because of the kinds of families and communities to which the children belonged. This second set of factors was discussed by Coleman under the heading of social capital.