Toward Open Schools
by JAMES S. COLEMAN
Since the publication, in July, 1966, of the Office of Education’s report to Congress and the President on “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” there has been much speculation and discussion concerning the policy implications of the report. The report itself, which focused principally on inequalities experienced by Negroes and other racial and ethnic minorities, contained only research results, not policy recommendations. Indeed, if recommendations bad been requested, they could hardly have been given – for the facts themselves point to no obvious solution.
In some part, the difficulties and complexity of any solution derive from the premise that our society is committed to overcoming, not merely inequalities in the distribution of educational resources (classrooms, teachers, libraries, etc.), but inequalities in the oppor-tunity for educational achievement. This is a task far more ambitious than has ever been attempted by any society: – not just to offer, in a passive way equal access to educational resources, but to provide an educational environment that will free a child’s potentialities for learning from the inequalities imposed upon him by the accident of birth into one or another home and social environment.
The difficulty that attends this task can be seen by confronting some of the results published in the report with one another. First, the inequality in results of elementary and secondary schooling for different ethnic groups, as measured by standardized tests, is very large for Negroes, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and Mexican Americans. At the beginning of the twelfth grade, these groups were, on the average, three, four, or five grade levels behind whites in reading comprehension, and four, five, or six grade levels behind in mathematics achievement. Second, the evidence revealed that within broad geographic regions, and for each racial or ethnic group, the physical and economic resources going into a school had very little relation to the achievement coming out of it. This was perhaps the most surprising result to some persons: that variations in teacher salaries, library facilities, laboratories, school size, guidance facilities had little relation to student achievement – when the family backgrounds of the students were roughly equated. Such equating of background is necessary because, within each racial or ethnic group, the factor that showed the clearest relation to a child’s achievement was his home background — the educational and economic resources provided within his home.
This pair of results taken together — the serious differences in educational output and their lack of relation to differences in the input of conventional educational facilities – create the complexity of the problem. For if it were otherwise, we could give simple prescriptions: increase teachers’ salaries, lower classroom size, enlarge libraries, and so on. But the evidence does not allow such simple answers.
Heterogeneity and achievement
Another finding of the survey does give some indication of how different schools have different effects. The finding is that students do better when they are in schools where their fellow students come from backgrounds strong in educational motivation and resources. The results might be paraphrased by the statement that the educational resources provided by a child’s fellow students are more important for his achievement than are the resources provided by the school board. This effect appears to be particularly great for students who themselves come from educationally-deprived backgrounds. For example, it is about twice as great for Negroes as for whites.
Reconstructing the environment
I suggest that the matter may be better dealt with by inquiring more fully into the question of how a child’s achievement is affected by, the educational resources brought to school by other children. The evidence on this matter is not strong, but it is suggestive.
It is, for instance, a simple fact that the teacher cannot teach beyond the level of the most advanced students in the class, and cannot easily demand performance beyond that level, Thus, a comparison of Negro students (having similar family backgrounds) in lower class and largely segregated schools with those in middle class and often integrated schools shows that the former get higher grades than the latter, but their performance on standardized tests is lower. The student in a lower class school is being rewarded more highly for lower performance – not as much can be demanded of him.
It is also clear that going to school with other children whose vocabulary is larger than one’s own demands and creates a larger vocabulary. Sitting next to a child who is performing at a high level provides a challenge to better performance. The psychological environment may be less comfortable for a lower class child (and there is some evidence that it is), but be learns more.
In short, there is some indication that these middle class schools have their effects through providing a social environment that is more demanding and more stimulating. And once we consider this, we realize that integration is not the only means, nor even necessarily the most efficient means, for increasing lower-class achievement. There may be other and better ways of creating such an environment
For whatever the benefits of integration, it is also true that even in socially or racially integrated schools a child’s family background shows a very high relation to his performance. The findings of the Report are quite unambiguous on this score. Even if the school is integrated, the heterogeneity of backgrounds with which children enter school is largely preserved in the heterogeneity of their performance when they finish. As the Report indicates, integration provides benefits to the underprivileged. But it takes only a small step toward equality of educational opportunity.
Thus a more intense reconstruction of the child’s social environment than that provided by school integration is necessary to remove the handicap of a poor family background. It is such reconstruction that is important — whether it be provided through other children, through tutorial programs, through artificial environments created by computer consoles, or by some other means. The goal of increasing lower-class Negro achievement may be affected through a wide variety of means, which reconstruct a child’s social and intellectual environment in any of several ways.
But if we recognize that racial and class integration does not in itself provide a full enough reconstruction of the environment, what happens then to the goal of racial integration in the schools? If more efficient methods for increasing achievement are found, as is likely to be the case, does this imply abandonment of attempts to overcome de facto segregation?
To answer this question requires a full recognition that there are two separable goals involved in current discussions for reorganizing schools. The aim of racial integration of our schools should be recognized as distinct from the aim of providing equal opportunity for educational performance. To confound these two aims impedes the achievement of either. It is important to know, as the Office of Education survey shows, that integration aids equality of educational opportunity; that white children perform no less well in a school with a large minority of Negroes than in an all-white middle class school; that Negro students perform somewhat better in such a school than in a predominantly Negro lower class school. Conversely, of course, greater equality of performance facilitates integration, making “grouping” or “tracking” within schools unnecessary. But integration is important to both white and Negro children principally for other reasons. We are committed to becoming a truly multiracial society. Yet most white children grow up having no conception of Negroes as individuals, and thus develop wholly unnatural and am-bivalent reactions to Negroes as a group; most Negro children are in a similar circumstance. All educational policies must recognize the legitimacy and importance of the aim of racial integration. But we should not confound it with the aim of increasing equality of educational performance. Thus the proposals I shall make, though they stem from a single overall principle for reorganizing our schools, are directed to these two goals as separable goals.
From closed to open schools
The general principle underlying the proposals may be described as the transformation of schools from closed institutions to open ones – the creation of “open schools.”
The general idea is to conceive of the school very differently from the way we have done in the past — not as a building into which a child vanishes in the morning and from which lie emerges in the afternoon, but as a “home base” that carries out some teaching functions but which serves principally to coordinate his activities and to perform guidance and testing functions. The specific ways of “opening up” the schools are indicated below.
The essential aims of the elementary school, if the opportunity for further learning is not to be blocked, are the learning of only two things: reading and arithmetic. It is in teaching these basic skills that present schools most often fail for lower class children, and thus handicap them for further learning. Many new methods for teaching these subjects have been developed in recent years; and there is much interest of persons outside the schools in helping to solve the problem; yet the school is trapped by its own organizational weight — innovations cannot be lightly adopted by a massive educational system, and local arrangements that use community resources outside the school cannot easily be fitted into the school’s organization.
In an open school, the teaching of elementary-level reading and arithmetic would be opened up to entrepreneurs outside the school, under contract with the school system to teach only reading or only arithmetic, and paid on the basis of increased performance by the child on standardized tests. The methods used by such contractors may only be surmised; the successful ones would presumably involve massive restructuring of the verbal or mathematical environment. The methods might range from new phonetic systems for teaching reading or new methods for teaching numerical problem-solving to locally sponsored tutorial programs or the use of new technological aids such as talking typewriters and computer consoles. The payment-by–results would quickly eliminate the unsuccessful contractors, and the contractors would provide testing grounds for innovations that could subsequently be used by the school.
One important element that this would introduce into schools is the possibility of parental choice. Each parent would have the choice of sending his child to any of the reading or arithmetic programs outside the school, on released time, or leaving him wholly within the school to learn his reading and arithmetic there. The school would find it necessary to compete with the system’s external contractors to provide better education, and the parent could, for the first time in education, have the full privileges of consumer’s choice.
One simple control would be necessary to insure that this did not lead to re-segregation of the school along racial or class lines; no contractor could accept from any one school a higher proportion of whites than existed in that school, nor a higher proportion of students whose parents were above a certain educational level than existed in the school.
This means of opening up the school, through released time, private contractors, payment by results, and free choice for the consumer, could be easily extended to specific core subjects in high school. It should be a potentially profitable activity to the contractor, but with the profitability wholly contingent upon results, so that the incentives of these teachers and educational entrepreneurs are tied wholly to improving a child’s achievement beyond the level that would otherwise be expected of him.
The use of released time and private contracts would be diversified in later years of school, so that a potential contractor could apply for a contract in any of a wide range of subjects, some taught within the school, but others not. The many post-high school business and technical schools that now exist would be potential contractors, but always with the public school establishing the criteria for achievement, and testing the results.
It would still remain the case that the child would stay within the school for much of his time; and in those schools that stood up well to the competition, most children would choose to take all their work in the school. At the same time, some schools might lose most of their teaching functions — if they did not deserve to keep them.
A second major means of opening up the school is directed wholly at the problem of racial and class integration, just as the first is directed wholly at the problem of achievement. The school would be opened up through intensifying the interactions between students who have different home-base schools. To create integrated schools in large urban centers becomes almost impossible; but to bring about social integration through schools is not. Again, the point is to discard the idea of the school as a closed institution, and think of it as a base of operations. Thus, rather than having classes scheduled in the school throughout the year, some classes would be scheduled with children from other schools, sometimes in their own school, sometimes in the other — but deliberately designed to establish continuing relationships between children across racial and social class lines. Certain extra curricular activities can be organized on a cross-school basis, arranged to fit with the cross-school class schedules. Thus children from different home base schools would not be competing against each other, but would be members of the same team or club. An intensified program of interscholastic activities, including debates and academic competitions as well as sports events, could achieve the aims of social integration — possibly not as fully as in the best integrated schools, but also possibly even more so — and certainly more so than in many integrated schools.
This second means of opening up the school could in part be accomplished through outside organizations acting as contractors, in somewhat the same way as the reading and mathematics contractors described earlier. Community organizations could design specific cultural enrichment programs or community action programs involving students from several schools of different racial or class composition, with students engaging in such programs by their own or parent’s choice. Thus, resources that exist outside the school could come to play an increasing part in education, through contracts with the schools. Some such programs might be community improvement activities, in which white and Negro high school students learn simultaneously to work together and to aid the community. But the essential element in such programs is that they should not be carried out by the school, in which case they would quickly die after the first enthusiasm had gone, but be undertaken by outside groups under contract to the school, and with the free choice of parent or child.
A widening of horizons
The idea of opening up the school, of conceiving of the home school as a center of operations, while it can aid the two goals of performance and integration described above, is much more than an ad hoc device for accomplishing these goals. It allows the parent what he has never had within the public school system: a freedom of choice as a consumer, as well as the opportunity to help establish special purpose programs, clinics and centers to beat the school at its own game. It allows educational innovations the opportunity to prove themselves, insofar as they can attract and hold students. The contract centers provide the school with a source of innovation as well as a source of competition to measure its own efforts, neither of which it has had in the past. The inter-school scheduling and inter-scholastic academic events widen horizons of both teachers and children, and provide a means of diffusing both the techniques and content of education, a means which is not possible so long as a school is a closed institution.
A still further problem that has always confronted public education, and has become intense in New York recently, is the issue of parental control versus control by the educational bureaucracy. This issue is ordinarily seen as one of legitimacy: how far is it legitimate for parents to exert organized influence over school policies? But the issue need not be seen this way. The public educational system is a monopoly, and such issues of control always arise in monopolies, where consumers lack a free choice. As consumers, they have a legitimate interest in what that monopoly offers them, and can only exercise this interest through organized power. But such issues do not arise where the consumer can implement his interest through the exercise of free choice between competing offerings. Until now, this exercise of choice has only been available for those who could afford to buy education outside the public schools.
It is especially appropriate and necessary that such an opening up of schools occur in a period when the interest of all society has become focused on the schools. The time is past when society as a whole, parents as individuals, and interested groups outside the school were willing to leave the task of education wholly to the public education system, to watch children vanish into the school in the morning and emerge from it in the afternoon, without being able to affect what goes on behind the school doors.
The office of Education report on “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” popularly known as “the Coleman Report,” has received extraordinary publicity; its findings on the school experiences of Negro children have been intensively studied and widely debated. Mr. Coleman wrote a first summary of his findings in THE PUBLIC INTEREST, No. 4, Summer 1966. Here he returns to discuss some of the implications of the report and of its reception. – Eds. (more…)