The Legacy of the Coleman Report

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Thanks so much. Good evening, everybody.

So, it is a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the warm introduction and also for being an important mentor and teacher. And I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to work together in New York. It's a pleasure to be here with you and at Johns Hopkins. Certainly this is an institution that is contributing mightily to the improvement of education, both through research and the preparation of educators who can be transformative in classrooms and schools around the country.

Also I want to recognize, I don't know if Bob Balfanz is here, but he has been such a wonderful partner to us at the Department in leading the Success Mentor's Initiative as part of the President's My Brother's Keeper. The Success Mentor's Initiative is focused on leveraging research that Bob has committed his life to on behalf of boys and young men of color. I'm grateful to him for his leadership and to Bob Slateman as well for his long leadership around the importance of literacy and research-based curricula.

So it's a pleasure to be here today to talk about the legacy of the Coleman Report. My colleagues at the Department will tell you that since I was a high school social studies teacher, you could take the teacher out of the classroom, but not the social studies classroom out of the teacher. So I will set our conversation in its historical context. It's worth remembering.

At the time of the Coleman Report, there were many advocates, educators, and observers who expected the answers that you would find would focus solely on the issue of resources. There were many who thought, "If only we had more resources in the highest-needs schools, it would make all of the difference." And that made sense in that historical moment, and it's worth remembering it.

Then, sadly, and not so different from now, schools were highly segregated. And we were just emerging from a long history of intentional under-resourcing of not only the highest-needs schools, but particularly schools serving African-American students. It was not hard to find a school or schools in the same community, one serving white students, one serving African-American students, where the school serving African-American students had a poor, crumbling facility and books that were, at best, hand-me-downs from the white school.

It was not hard to find schools that were spending dramatically less and where resources—even from the early days of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—were being redirected. These resources were intended by the federal government for the highest-needs students, but were being redirected to affluent students. And so it's not surprising that people expected the Coleman Report to point solely to issues of resource and equity.

But of course, the Coleman Report introduces much more in complexity, seven-hundred-plus pages worth of complexity, into our discussion of educational inputs, and importantly, educational outputs.

All right, put squarely on the table, there's the question of the relationship between the two. So much of the conversation pre-Coleman Report was focused just on the issue of inputs. And the Coleman Report marks an important shift in educational research and policy to a focus on outcomes, and what we can learn about outcomes.

One of the findings that obviously drew the most attention, that's really drawn the attention in your conversations over the last two days, was the notion that family background and other socioeconomic factors were more important than what happened in schools. And unfortunately, those seven-hundred-plus pages were reduced, as often happens in our political environment, stripped of nuance and used by some to make the argument that schools don't matter. That the only thing that matters is poverty and students' demographics, and to argue, in fact, that demography is destiny.

And, sadly, today from legislative chambers to school board meetings to the blogosphere, you see that same argument being made. It is clear that is not what the report intended to say. But the report has been reduced to that meaning and to that argument by some. Of course, it's worth noting that there are others who make a differently naive argument that school is all that matters and that we can ignore the factors in students' lives outside of school and still expect to close achievement gaps and ensure equity.

Clearly, neither of those two views is supported by the evidence. The evidence is not okay with that. School clearly matters, and we have decades of evidence that shows that important interventions can make a difference in student outcomes, whether they are the right literacy interventions or the right interventions early on with students who are on the path to dropping out. The right interventions can make a difference in student outcomes.

At the same time, there's no question that out-of-school factors matter. Students who are homeless or who are hungry or struggling with health issues or in families that are suffering with domestic violence or substance abuse – of course those things have an impact on those students. And so I want to suggest in our conversation today that one of the powerful legacies of the Coleman Report that is maybe under-attended to is this call for all of us (and this is the right setting to do it) to focus our energy as researchers, as policymakers, and as educators, on evidence. Evidence about what matters. Evidence about what matters inside and outside of schools to improve student outcomes.

Certainly it has been a priority for us in the Obama Administration over the last eight years to build a stronger evidence base about what works, what makes a difference for our kids. Certainly our investments in the Investing in Innovation Program, our support for the Institute of Education Sciences, are all driven by a commitment to build a stronger, richer evidence base about what will make a difference in improving outcomes for our highest-needs students.

And we've learned a lot over the last eight years about evidence of interventions that matter. I mentioned Bob Balfanz's work on identifying students early. Bob would identify students early who may be on the path to dropping out. We know chronic absenteeism can be a significant predictor of students dropping out. And we know that if we meaningfully intervene with those students who are chronically absent, providing them with mentoring or addressing the housing or transportation challenges in the way of their regular attendance at school, we can make a real difference.

We know from the evidence in the NRDC study the difference it made in New York, to New York City, to adopt a small school strategy: a demonstrable difference in graduation rates and academic outcomes for students moving from middle school into high school who went to high schools that were created because of a desire to improve performance dramatically for the students most at risk. And those were hard political fights in New York City. But the NRDC study illustrates that those fights were worth having because going to a different school mattered for students' life outcomes.

Certainly we see evidence around charters – another issue that generates its share of controversy. But there is now a growing pile of evidence that high-performing urban charters can be life changing for students. I think the best schools in Boston, that I was privileged to be a part of, are helping to close the achievement gap. And they improved not only outcomes in K-12, but in outcomes that last into college and beyond.

Now, the settings in which each of those interventions are implemented matter a lot. The details matter. There are folks who are quick to say, well, if we know that Boston charters are making a big difference that means all charters are good. And what we should do is have all charters everywhere. Clearly, that is wrong. We know that charters are not uniformly good and that authorizing – charter authorizing—matters a lot. The recruitment of the right teachers and the right leaders matters a lot.

And so part of our research challenge has to be to ask, "What are the underlying conditions for success? What makes an intervention matter in one context or another?" And this work is incredibly urgent. Urgent because we know the gaps we face. We know that we can look anywhere in this country and see 30- to 40-point achievement gaps for our low-income students, for our students of color, for our English learners, for our students with disabilities.

Despite having the highest graduation rate we've ever had as a country at 82 percent, we still see students who leave school without even a high school diploma. And we know the prospects that they then have in our economy. We know that in too many places the students who need the most get the least. Less access to effective teachers. Less access to art and music. Less access to school counselors. Our recent Civil Rights Data Collection shows that we have 1.6 million kids who go to schools where there is a civilian law enforcement officer and no school counselor. What does that say about our priorities?

And so we know we have an urgent need to do better. And research and evidence can inform that. And we know that schools can be a part of the difference in that community interventions need to be paired with those schools. We know that from evidence. And as David pointed out, I know that very much personally from my own experience. I would not be standing here but for incredible New York City public school teachers who saved my life.

I grew up in Brooklyn in New York City. My mother passed away when I was eight in October of my fourth grade year. I lived with my father, who was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's. And I didn't know what home was going to be like from one night to the next. I recall a night when he woke me up at two in the morning and said, "It's time to go to school." And I said, "No it's not. It's the middle of the night." And he insisted, "It's time to go to school." I remember clinging to the banister of the staircase in my house saying, "No, Daddy. It's not time to go to school. It's the middle of the night." And I remember not understanding what was wrong with him.

My life, at that point, could have gone in many different directions. But I'm here today because I had amazing teachers at PS 276 in Canarsie, and Mark Twain Junior High School on Coney Island. They could have looked at me and said, "Here's an African-American, Latino male student going to a New York City public school with a family in crisis. What chance does he have? Demography is destiny." But instead what they said was, "No. This is a young person we can invest in and who we can give hope." And they made school a place where I could be a kid when I couldn't be a kid outside of school.

They made school a place that was academically engaging when we read the New York Times every day. When we did productions of a Midsummer Night's Dream and Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I remember those things like it was yesterday. I remember being the rose in the garden in Alice in Wonderland – the red, felt petals sticking out of my head. I remember going to the ballet, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History and being exposed to this whole world of possibility beyond my home and neighborhood. That saved my life. The investment that they made in me saved my life.

So when I hear folks say, "Well, schools don't matter, there's nothing schools can do." I know that evidence proves them wrong. I know I prove them wrong. The fact that I'm standing here today proves them wrong. So the question then is: What are the interventions that matter? We have a new opportunity as a country to figure out the interventions that matter, and to invest in those interventions.

The President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December. It's a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. And when the President signed it, he talked about the civil rights legacy of that law. It was a civil rights law then, it is a civil rights law now. Its focus is ensuring that we provide equitable opportunity for the highest-needs students.

And the new version of the law builds in a commitment to evidence. Schools and districts and states must think about their investment of the Title I dollars that they receive from the federal government. States and districts must think about interventions in schools that are struggling. The law requires—consistent with Andrea's presentation—that all states commit to college- and career-ready standards. It requires, for the first time, that all states commit to work to ensure that all their high school students graduate ready for credit-bearing coursework.

The law requires that states and districts intervene meaningfully in schools that are among the lowest-performing, in schools that have struggling groups of students, and in schools that have chronically low graduation rates. The law requires attention to ensuring that all students have access to a well-rounded education. It requires transparency around opportunity gaps within schools. We know that there are differences in access to advanced coursework, for example, for our students of color and their peers. And the law requires transparency in a lot of those things and empowers states to address those inequities.

So for me, as we move toward the implementation of this new law, I want to suggest that there are four areas where I hope states will invest significant energy. That build on the evidence on what we know about what works for kids. The first is a commitment to early learning, which is present in the new law. It commits, for the first time, to early learning. It's a part of how we think about P-12, rather than K-12 education.

We know that there is about an eight to one or nine to one return on every dollar invested in high-quality early learning. States have an opportunity to have state-level conversations in which they engage stakeholders around how to ensure that all high-needs students have access to quality early learning.

Second, the law continues an emphasis on teacher quality. One of the interesting insights from the Coleman Report is that it looked at what in-school factors mattered. When we go back to the Coleman Report, teacher quality clearly mattered then. We know it matters now. We have decades of evidence that shows that the difference in which teacher you are assigned can have a profound impact on your long-term academic success and success in life.

There is an opportunity to focus on teacher quality in ESSA. Just last week, the Department of Education put out guidance on the use of Title II dollars, which are intended to focus on professional development. These funds could be used to create the very collaborative environments for teachers that many of our international competitors have. These dollars could be used to create career ladders that parallel the systems in places like Shanghai and Singapore, where there are mentor teachers who support teachers early in their careers. And then there are master teachers who support those mentors and who do professional development for teachers across regions. In those systems, there are opportunities for teachers to advance as they demonstrate success, and for master teachers to contribute to policy-level decision making.

Those are a few ways Title II dollars could be used. We describe that in our guidance, and states will make their own decisions. We also know that states can use those Title II dollars to strengthen teacher preparation in ways that we know make a difference—whether it's clinically rich teacher preparation or focusing on ensuring that teachers have the pedagogical content knowledge necessary to ensure their students' success.

We also have in the law the opportunity for communities to think about the wraparound services that they might partner with schools to deliver to address the challenges that students face outside of school. Embedded in ESSA is the President's Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which is focused on mobilizing community assets in support of kids in high-needs communities. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Indianola, Mississippi. I visited a Promise Neighborhood grantee in a high-needs rural area. The people there have invested in early learning and parent counseling and community mentors for young people in a way that's made a powerful difference in kindergarten readiness for their students.

We have powerful examples from around the country of wraparound services that matter. It is not to say that all community schools or all wraparound services are sure to work. They have to be targeted in the right ways. But we know that it can be done – whether it's the kinds of interventions that Bob's work has suggested on chronic absenteeism, or programs like the nurse family visitation program which has tremendous evidence of effectiveness when you engage with moms during the prenatal period and early in a child's infancy to help moms make good decisions around kids' early environment. We have an opportunity in ESSA to pursue those kinds of interventions.

Fourth and perhaps most challenging—and David alluded to this—is the question of school diversity. As we think about that question, we have to acknowledge that we are not as far as, I think, even the authors of the Coleman Report would have expected 50 years ago. Indeed, we have significant evidence that there are many communities around the country that are having more racial and socioeconomic isolation today than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

We know that this has consequences. The Coleman Report discusses the issue of peer effects. And we know that it matters to have classrooms that are socioeconomically and racially diverse. We know that it matters for low-income students to have access to those classrooms. Part of it is about the peer effects that the Coleman Report identified. And part of it is about the harsh political reality that schools that serve more affluent students get more resources as a general matter. And if you design a system in which students of poverty are concentrated and isolated in certain schools, they are likely to get less resources.

So we know that there are examples all over the country that have committed to this work and are working to increase the socioeconomic and racial diversity of their schools in smart ways. A few weeks ago I was in Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford has led a very intentional effort to build two-way programs to increase diversity, where students from the suburbs come into the city of Hartford for programs that are of interest to their families. And students from Hartford go out into suburban communities. And the students can talk powerfully about the difference it made for them.

They knew the difference in the opportunities that were available in diverse schools. But they also knew the difference it was making to participate in diverse learning communities. And not just for low-income students or students of color, but also for affluent students and white students.

The reality is that all of our children are likely to live in worlds in which their co-workers are of a different race. Their supervisor or boss follows a different religion. Their customer is in another country, speaking a different language, and living in a different culture. And so we need all American people to be prepared to experience diversity. Diversity has its own merits. We also know that there are significant benefits to long-term academic outcomes.

The Century Foundation did a powerful report on the 90-plus communities around the country that are engaged in this work of creating socioeconomically diverse schools. In New York, while I was there, one of the things that we worked on was a pilot grant program that supported communities around the state in taking on this issue and trying to develop more diverse school communities. And the President has proposed an effort called Stronger Together that will invest $120 million to accelerate efforts around the country to create diverse schools.

As we confront the consequences of our racial and socioeconomic isolation, this work takes on even more importance. A couple of months ago, I was in St. Paul, Minnesota visiting a school where Philando Castile worked. He was the cafeteria supervisor in a school in St. Paul, and was killed in an interaction with police in Falcon Heights, just outside of St. Paul. And I went there, really, to mourn with the families at the school and his colleagues. He was beloved in the school community. And one of the things that I was so struck by is that across lines of race and class, folks had so little sense of what life was like for each other.

And so when we look at what's happening in places like Charlotte, or what we've seen in Baton Rouge, and in Dallas, and in so many places – too many to name them all—we can see that it's not separate from what happens inside of our schools. School is the place where we can prepare young people to be citizens of a diverse country, and to participate in diverse communities. And that challenge, which the Coleman Report author has grappled with, remains with us. Even more than 50 years later.

The final point I'll make is that at the end of the day, one of the most important things that we can do is to keep learning about what works. That's why the work here at Johns Hopkins is so important. That's why the research community is so important. We have worked and we continue to learn. We have, for example, emerging evidence, which is probably not surprising to Bob Slateman, but is maybe surprising to others in the research community, about the power of curriculum and choices about curriculum as well as the materials that are in front of teachers and students as they do their work.

We need to build on that evidence base. We have more to learn. We have more to learn about the kinds of training experiences that will matter for teacher effectiveness. We know, for example, we have work to do around teacher diversity. But only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color. Only 2 percent of our teachers are African-American men. We've got to grapple with the consequences of that and ask what we can do about that. How might we change that? We need more evidence.

Similarly, we see emerging evidence about the role of implicit bias. We see it in criminal justice issues, but we also see it in classrooms, given the recent research on implicit bias that can be seen in some pre-K classrooms. We know, for example, from the Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection, that African-American students are more than three times as likely to be suspended from pre-K. That's right, students in pre-K, 4-year-olds.

So we need evidence about how we intervene in meaningful ways that help – we can't get rid of implicit bias, but we know that there might be training strategies that help us to reduce its impact, to mitigate its impact. And so, part of our commitment, even as we pursue these evidence-based strategies around supporting our students, has to be to continue to build that evidence base. To continue to learn. To continue to ask, "How do we get better as a country?"

And that's ultimately one of the great beauties of America. I was just at the opening of the new museum on the National Mall. It was powerful to be there for the opening of the museum. And one of the themes for many of the speakers was that the museum points to a fundamental truth about America—that we have fallen short many, many times from our expressed values. And the museum tells that story. Whether it's the institution of slavery, whether it is the impact of segregation, whether it is standing in front of Emmett Till's coffin.

It tells the story of the ways that we have fallen short, but it also tells the story of the ways we, together as a country, continuously ask, "How do we get closer to living out our values around equality of opportunity and democracy?" And educational research is very much a part of that conversation. We owe a debt of gratitude to the authors of the Coleman Report for their contribution, and a debt of gratitude to all of us who participated in the conversation over the last two days. The research and the work are about helping us become more true to our values. Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you.