The Danger Of Denying The Coleman Report

After 20 years in schools, it is completely obvious to me that schools are limited in their abilities to overcome every challenge that every child faces.

Even in affluent schools, children are plagued by all kinds of out-of-school factors including mental illness of various levels resulting in depression and drug addiction.  On an extreme level, poor students suffer disproportionately things like teen pregnancy and death by violence.  For my star student, my second year, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend over Thanksgiving break, poverty was, sadly, destiny.  I also had a student attempt suicide, unsuccessfully, thankfully.  Richer students actually have a higher rate of suicide.  Though these are extremes, they are examples of the sorts of things they mean when researchers talk about the major impact of out-of-school factors on educational outcomes.  Poor kids have more of these problems than rich kids, and since no school has the resources to ‘fix’ every problem that every child faces, many students are not able to succeed in school.

‘No Excuses’ reformers blame people like me of saying ‘Poverty is destiny’ and then even making the leap, as I read in a recent Huffington Post article by a KIPP supporter, to say that this is the same thing as saying ‘there are still people who believe that poor people can’t learn.’

In the 1960s there was an influential research paper now known as ‘The Coleman Report’ which estimated the influence of out-of-school factors on student achievement at about 70%.  That leaves 30% for the schools.  This is not the same thing as saying ‘poverty is destiny’ since not every student who lives in poverty necessarily gets 0% out of 70% on their out-of-school component.  Let’s say that ‘passing’ is 70%.  So a kid from a rich family who gets 60% out of 70% from that only needs to get 10% from the school to pass.  While a poor kid who gets 45% out of 70% from the family will need to get 25% out of 30% from the school.

So ‘some’ kids, in this way of looking at things have so many out-of-school factors holding them back, maybe they only get 20% out of 70% there, so no matter how good the school is, they have no chance to ‘pass.’  The school can’t overcome everything.

Incidentally, the reason that schools can’t overcome many things is that they do not have the resources.  So if many kids are suicidal and not able to concentrate on their studies, a school would need a team of psychiatrists and social workers and different counselors to even have a chance to prevent this kid from dropping out, and schools don’t have the money for this.  So it’s not that schools ‘can’t’ overcome many of the obstacles, but that schools ‘won’t’ because they simply don’t have the resources.

The same limitation exists in ‘good’ schools.  I teach at one of the best schools in the country, Stuyvesant High School.  We are not a ‘rich’ school as we have 30% free, and 12% free lunch, but the family support, for the most part, is there, and almost all of our students graduate and go to college.  But not all.  There is a small percent of kids who have serious problems.  Some of these kids are poor, but some are not.  Our counselors work very hard and do everything in their power.  We have the parents come in and some of them are willing to do whatever it takes to get their child back on track.  Still, we sometimes fail.  Perhaps some group of teachers and school staff could have prevented this student from dropping out, but it was beyond us.

One of my former students, who was a brilliant writer, dropped out two years ago and wrote this column about it for the school newspaper.  As the wound was still very fresh (he dropped out about a week before writing this), he definitely felt the school was to blame for this.  I know that I had him as a student twice and he was absent about 40% of the time and when I spoke to his mother, she spent a lot of time telling me that she was going to sue the school, which made it tough for us to focus the conversation on how to help this student.  The point is that students are very complicated people and even a team of very high paid doctors aren’t able to cure every patient.  Some things are out of their control.

The ‘No Excuses’ reformers are a group of people who include Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada.  At the TFA 20th anniversary summit, they had a panel discussion which, for me, was the moment that I became the Lex Luthor of TFA.  It is about an hour, but you can see it here.  Watching this I realized how out of touch these ‘reformers’ were.  By thinking that schools have such power to fix every problem of every kid and that they know of schools that are proving this, they send a pretty powerful message — one that politicians pick up on, which is that the ‘other’ schools need to get shut down and the ‘other’ teachers need to be fired.

Commenting about the Coleman conclusion that educational outcomes are said to be determined about 70% by out-of-school factors Joel Klein says:

We give the kids with the greatest challenges the crummiest education and then we say poverty is destiny.  If you take those same kids, give them a different education  you get different outcomes.  Ask these guys they’re doing it.  So when people say 70 of outcome is poverty they don’t hold constant the quality of the education so if the quality of the education is no good, you know pretty much what the outcomes are gonna be.

So it’s time for us to stop making excuses.  You know, the greatest comfort when I was chancellor would have been to be able to say ‘there’s only a little bit we can do for kids’ and then say ‘we did a little bit’ and declare victory.

But the problem with this logic is that if Coleman was right, then this type of radical reform might actually make things worse.  Klein is concerned that school leaders will not try very hard if they think that the in-school influence is limited or that they will celebrate and then stop trying after they have achieved marginal results.  But being pleased with realistic success is better than having even less success while attempting reckless solutions.  When Klein says that people who agree that schools are somewhat limited in what the can accomplish will be satisfied when they accomplish that ‘little bit’ he assumes that the radical and, I believe, reckless reforms will accomplish more than that ‘little bit.’  But so far, they have not.  Not only have they not accomplished a ‘little bit’ in the short term (unless you count some very creative definitions of ‘success’), but in the long term I see these reforms as ultimately harming the kids they were supposed to help.  Teaching becomes a temp job.  Schools become test-prep factories.  This is not what got us to have the top universities in the world.

I like analogies, so I’ll try a new one here.  The ed reform wars remind me of a baseball game where a team is down by ten runs.  The players will tell each other, “Don’t try to hit home runs.  Just get on base.”  Though this isn’t a radical reckless plan, it is the one that has the best chance of winning the game.  This is how I feel our education strategy should be when faced with the fact that poverty is destiny.  The ‘reformers’ would say that the best strategy is for everyone to try to hit homeruns.  And in theory, at least, IF it worked, they would win the game.  But it is a strategy that is extremely unlikely to work.  Yes, in theory scaring all the lazy teachers (and yes, I have known a few and have even been a little tired myself once or twice in my career) into working a little harder, putting an extra hour into planning lessons at night — it ‘might’ increase outcomes.  But it is proving to make people want to leave the profession or to game the system by teaching to the test.

And I think that everyone agrees that there is ‘some’ limit to what schools can overcome.  It really is just a matter of degree.  What do KIPP schools do when kids get addicted to drugs, get pregnant, or join gangs?  Are we to believe that they prevent 100% of their students from having these issues?  And though the ‘no excuses’ reformers claim never to use poverty as an excuse, why do they now hail ‘miracle schools’ that merely beat the average for their demographic, rather than the average across all demographics?  And why did KIPP use the ‘excuse’ that they were unable to find the right leader for the one and only ‘turnaround’ effort they tried at Cole Middle School in Denver when they attempted to keep the same kids who were already in that school rather than have the lottery that benefits from self-selection?

Denying the pretty obvious conclusion of The Coleman Report and using skewed statistics to ‘prove’ that schools have the ability to overcome every problem of every kid — without needing extra resources, has driven The United States mad with testing.  This country is suffering from a serious case of Testicular Cancer.

The thing everyone agrees on is that schools can be improved.  So ‘reformers’ think they can be improved a lot and I think they can only be improved a little.  But that doesn’t mean that I support using poverty as an ‘excuse’ for not trying to do better.  Nobody should ever not do the best they can, just because there is a feasible limit to what they can accomplish.  It is like if I own a coffee shop.  Even though I know that it is virtually impossible for me to make 100 million dollars a year, that doesn’t mean that I stop trying to maximize my profits.

We all want things to improve.  The strategies of the reformers have already made things worse, and it is time to hold them accountable for their lack of success.

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21 Responses to The Danger Of Denying The Coleman Report

  1. Terry says:

    Hasn’t TFA been around for twenty years? And their mission was to close the achievement gap? If you apply their high standards to themselves, they are abject failures.

    It is time to hold all these self proclaimed “reformers” accountable: Rhee, Bloomberg, Kopp, all Broad SFA’s, the list is endless. How long has Bloomberg had to ruin the city schools…isn’t the responsible at some point? Let’s calculate his VAM?

  2. Ed says:

    The reformers are hell-bent on putting themselves in Cooperstown while we’re all playing Moneyball.

  3. Yo Mista! says:

    Very well written. Thanks for the read.

  4. Pingback: Remainders: Teacher Olympics would test classroom acrobatics | GothamSchools

  5. Stefan Koster says:

    Thank you for these insights. I enjoy your posts a great deal, as I think they come from someone knowledgeable, smart and well versed in the educational drama that is surrounding us.

    My family lives in Manhattan and I have a daughter going into 6th grade middle school now. I have been researching Manhattan elementary and middle school district data for several years. From my vantage point I completely agree with your assessment that measurable, positive change cannot be achieved in leaps and bounds. It is incremental at best and takes many years to develop. My research shows that year in and year out, usually the same schools that were on top the previous year are on top again the following year. Same goes for the ones at the bottom.

    But there is one thing that I am keenly interested in and that nobody is discussing on any of the educational websites and blogs. Many years ago there was a man named Tony Alvarado. He has a controversial story, I know, and maybe that is why he is persona non grata. He was the superintendent of school district 4 (largely East Harlem), before becoming the first Hispanic school Chancellor in NYC from 1984 to 1985. From 1987 to 1998 he again took the position of superintendent, this time in school district 2 in Manhattan. How is it that this man and his team of administrators and educators were able to take D2 from the second worst school district in the city to the second best within a decade? How is it that the elementary and middle schools in D2 outshine most other school districts in Manhattan and beyond to this day (of course there are great individual schools in other districts)? Why does D2 have so much depth in good quality schools and such seemingly great homogeneity as a district?

    Instead of spending gazillions on new technology and whatever else, instead of demonizing a whole occupational group, why does nobody acknowledge that Tony Alvarado and many smart and dedicated members of his team were able to transform D2 with such lasting, positive effects? Shouldn’t we just try to do what they did 25years ago? I wonder what would happen?

    • Terry says:


      Diane Ravitch dedicates one chapter to Alvarado and district two (chapter three – the transformation of district 2) in her book, The Death and Life in the Great American School System. He definitely was a committed and inspiring leader and he focused heavily on team building and reading, but she points out how the demographics changed dramatically from 1988 to 1998.

      The white population doubled, Asians remained the same, half the proportion of African American students and a smaller share of Hispanic as compared to the city’s school as a whole. District 2 had become 65% white and Asian and 35% African American and Hispanic. At the same time enrollment in NYC public schools was close to the reverse. It is laid out on page 44 and 45 and there was still a significant achievement gap. So the gains in scores couldn’t be singularly due to pedagogical reforms.

      However, it seems from her description he work very hard to respect teachers, build teams and keep the focus on teaching and learning. It appears the demographics shift helped, too.

      Hope this helps…maybe you can get a copy of her book at the library.

      • Stefan Koster says:

        Thank you for your response, Terry. I appreciate it.

        If a dramatic demographic change occurred back then, it must have reversed itself over the last couple of years. Yet D2 elementary and middle schools, as a whole, continue to dramatically outperform most other school districts in NYC.

        Apart from individual school report cards, NYSED also releases annual district report cards. The most recent one for D2 can be found here:
        Today’s D2 demographics are very different from what you are quoting. In 2010-11 D2 had an overall K to 12 public school population of 60,000. 21% were White, 36% were Hispanic, 19% were African American and 23% were Asian. You quoted a combined White and Asian population of 65% for 1998. In 2010-11 that combined number is 44%. Of the overall D2 student population 55% are eligible for free lunch and 7% for reduced-price lunch.

        The publicly available data that I have easy access to only allows me to go back to the 2003-04 school year (this data set can be found in the 2005-06 district report card). Back then, D2 had a public K to 12 school population of 57,000. Of those, 19% were White, 36% were Hispanic, 22% were African American and 22% were Asian. 55% were eligible for free lunch and 8% for reduced-price lunch.

        Any variance in percentages from 2003 to 2010 is small and the percentage of Hispanic students in D2 is consistent: it’s 36% in 2003 and 36% in 2010. The combined White and Asian population never comes close to the quoted 65%.

        So I’m back to square one. Either the NYSED data is false – which I doubt, or there never was such a substantial demographic change in D2 as we are told. And if demographic changes in populations cannot be used as the main driver to explain the dramatic, powerful and, most important, long-lasting positive change in the overall performance levels of D2, what then?

        I’ve looked at this from several angles. I always come back to the people that spearheaded this long-lasting change: Alvarado and his team of administrators and educators. How did they do it and can it be replicated today?

      • Terry says:

        I would get the book. The next chapter is how Alvarado teamed up with someone else to help San Diego, but the other person’s style was very combative and it was a failure.

        I am not as optimistic about NYDOE data as you are…they seem to spin and cherry pick their stats.
        I don’t trust Bloomberg, Walcott, Sternberg or anyone at Tweed.

        Alvarado must have been a great educational leader. We need more like him nowadays. It appears he respected teachers. That does not exist anymore. I wonder what he does now?

      • Ed says:

        Demographic changes probably played a role in the improvement but definitely wasn’t the entire driver of change. Richard Elmore and Deanna Burney at Harvard wrote a case study analysis of Alvarado’s strategy in District 2 that you can probably find if you google their names. As Terry mentioned, Alvarado and his team worked relentlessly to organize the district to drive and support teacher improvement. He appointed principals who were instructional leaders, strategically employed high quality instructional coaches, and built trust with the union leadership such that he was able to remove underperforming teachers if they failed to improve after receiving lots of support. Every single decision they made focused on how to improve instruction (first on literacy instruction) in all classrooms. He built really strong structures for teacher and school learning. That said, as Terry mentioned, he was not able to replicate this success in San Diego. I really think the stars were aligned in NYC District 2 that allowed him to successfully implement his strategy and some of the key conditions were not in place in SD. And in many ways I wonder whether his strategy could be successfully implemented in a post NCLB context. He really played a “long game” not worrying about short term test results. He stuck to his strategy and it paid off in NYC. But the pressure these days for fast results might make it difficult to play such a game. Stefan, you ask why these schools continue to perform well. I suspect it’s because Alvarado really created a culture of continuous improvement and structures that supported this. He drove a type of literacy instruction that permeated schools and became the way of doing things. Doing this was extremely hard and took years, but once it took root, it continued to have a certain momentum. This is the problem with our current ed reform debates. Everyone is impatient for change and looking for silver bullets, so we never stick with a strategy long enough to see if it works. But change is no linear and there are tipping points. It may take a long time for efforts to show evidence of success, but once you break through you may end up in a different state where improvement takes off. You see this with individual kids, too. For a long period you may see little improvement in their understanding and performance and suddenly something clicks and off they go. Hope this helps you understand D2. One more point. In D4, Alvarado pioneered a decentralized approach to fostering unique schools and parental choice. Debbie Meier created Central Park East in District 4. He had some success, but schools were still uneven. It wasn’t until he moved to D2 and tried something new that he drove large scale change that increased the odds that every child had a good school to attend. This suggests some limitations to the whole school choice strategy.

      • Stefan Koster says:

        Thank you, Ed. I appreciate your insights. Many details are new to me. But it leaves me with a number of questions and thoughts. If Alvarado’s long term approach to changing D2 showed great results, why was this concept not replicated in other NYC school districts back then? He left in 1998 for San Diego and this is 7 years before Mayor Bloomberg took office for the first time.

        Nonetheless I think you clearly point out what the various elements of success were:
        • a capacity to work collaboratively with the union leadership
        • centralized district organization
        • the appointment of principals and coaches well versed in instructional leadership
        • strong focus on teacher improvement with support mechanisms in place
        • the replacement of individual teachers that were either unwilling or incapable of change
        • focus on literacy instruction
        • long-term approach to seeing this structural educational change through

        This is probably not everything, but I think it covers some of the cornerstones of the roadmap to change Alvarado and his team used from ’89 to ‘98.

        Now look at today. We seem light years removed from the above mindset. A messianic educational reform movement has taken hold. These reformers have had just as much time to implement change, but they have little to nothing to show for it – certainly not what Alvarado and his team were able to achieve long term. Now D2 is even targeted for more charter schools and, for the life of me, I can’t figure out the justification for these types of reform schools in this particular district that is so successful across the board.

        Many parents, unless they live in D2, probably don’t even know how good that particular school district is in comparison to others. 65% of all 4th graders are proficient in ELA and almost 11% exceed what is expected of them. The Math numbers are even more impressive as 29% of fourth grade students are proficient and an astonishing 57% score as L4’s. And these impressive district-wide results are repeated annually.

        Wow, traditional public education does work!

        There are a number of politicians out there right now vying for your vote to become the next mayor of NYC. At every public event and at every hearing they should answer questions related to their thoughts and ideas on educational policies. It would be very interesting to ask them over and over why this great city, with its great teachers is not replicating what has so successfully been implemented in D2.

        As a parent, I and many others wonder, why we looked at all these unproven ideas if the blueprint for a successful educational system in NYC is and has been right in front of us for the last 20 years?

      • Pre-Service Teacher says:

        Thank you for a wonderful post. It is unsettling to me that no one wants to acknowledge poverty in the conversation about education and yet it is absolutely obvious that one’s family income and family educational background predicts one’s academic achievement. I recently read this fantastic study and thought I would share:

        Click to access SAN11-01.pdf

        Thinking that schools can save every single child in poor neighborhoods is just as ridiculous and unattainable as NCLB mandating 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2013. We don’t use this as an excuse, it is simply a reality. America likes to do things big and reformers will continue their strategy of swinging for home runs. And to continue the analogy, the reformers will then attempt to hit bigger and further home runs that they will eventually start taking steroids to compete. ie. cheat. And we all know how that ends..

  6. Mavor says:

    All the reformers are in the position to blame their failures on others. Instead of blaming the students they blame the teachers.

  7. Midcareer Teacher says:

    Gary, thank you so much for all your research, writing, and support for excellent teaching! I’m a full-time teacher (at a school similar to yours) growing increasingly annoyed with the current ed “reform” movement. I’ve decided to go back to school and get a PhD (while teaching full-time, because I LOVE teaching). Your voice is so needed and so appreciated. I know how hard it is to research, write, and stay current while trying to manage a classroom. We should require Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada and the rest of the them to teach full time while promoting their “policies.” Anyway, I just want to thank you for your work.

  8. A.S.Neill says:

    Very thoughtful piece with much I agree with. I wonder whether Joel Klein has actually every read James Coleman. Probably not, nor I suspect most of our “reform” ed gurus. But poverty, while probably still the single most predictive variable concerning ed outcomes, certainly doesn’t explain it all. I teach HS math at the opposite end from Stuyvesant where all the kids are from poor families. About 50% are able to follow and learn a Regents curriculum, but 50% don’t. I’ve spent years thinking why that 50% don’t and certainly trying different teaching strategies.There is probably no single answer. It sounds facile, but from my observation, a large percentage genuinely can’t understand HS math, but temperament and habit have a lot to do with it also. My HS has an extraordinarily large Spec Ed pop (naturally we’re a “dumping” ground), but even here, with stable temperaments and habits, half of SP students make progress. Charter schools success with poverty background kids are not a random sample, though that is what they wish to the public to believe. I know because I’ve had kids “advised” out of Jeff Canada’s Children Zone’s school, and know they don’t get the transfers in from Riker’s Island or Dist. 75 schools that I teach. Also reading footnotes of studies of the Gates small school initiatives indicates extraordinarily high transfer out rates, confirms personal experience. What to do? The pre-K studies are one of the few studies that consistently show success here. But it is very long term and expensive. Obama pledged to expand Head Start to full eligibility participation for two years, but in fact has not done so under Arne Duncan. By the time they reach HS, half my kids are 1-3 years behind in math, but of course, we are blamed for not correcting that accumulated deficit. My solution would be to have the 50% who are unable to do HS work academically or temperamentally (after given a chance in 9th grade), take a half day of academics, with the other half spent as apprentices or interns at work sites. In my understanding, pretty much every country that beats the U.S. in math scores, follows this ed structure. But since neither pre-K nor apprentice-internships are on the policy agenda at this point, I am not optimistic that education is going to improve any time soon.

  9. Anne says:

    Very well said! I think the baseball analogy is actually being a bit too generous, however. Attempting to hit a home run may not be the best strategy, but at least you’re trying to hit the ball. Displacing teaching with testing is like showing up at a baseball game with a pencil instead of a bat – you’re playing the wrong game altogether – and you’re never going to win.

  10. Terry says:

    A must read for all:

    In contrast to such “success,” the TFA insurgency has failed to dent educational inequality. This comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest grasp of the tight correlation between economic and educational inequality: TFA does nothing to address the former while spinning its wheels on the latter. In her writings, nowhere does Kopp reflect upon the patent ridiculousness of her expectation that loads of cash donated by corporations that exploit inequalities across the world—such as Union Carbide and Mobil, two of TFA’s earliest contributors—will help her solve some of the gravest injustices endemic to American society. Kopp shows some awareness of the absurdities of her own experiences—including a “fundraising schedule [that] shuttled me between two strikingly different economic spheres: our undersourced classrooms and the plush world of American philanthropy”—but she fails to grasp that this very gap is what makes her stated goal of equality unachievable. In short, Kopp, like education reformers more generally, is an innocent when it comes to political economy. She spouts platitudes about justice for American children, but rarely pauses to ask whether rapidly growing inequality might be a barrier to such justice. She celebrates twenty years of reform movement success, but never tempers such self-congratulatory narcissism with unpleasant questions about why those who have no interest in disrupting the American class structure—such as Bill Gates and the heirs to Sam Walton’s fortunes, by far the most generous education reform philanthropists—are so keen to support the TFA insurgency. Kopp is a parody of the liberal do-gooder.

  11. Alan says:

    Dear Gary,

    You wrote another good article, and as a teacher for 13 years, I agree with every point. Unfortunately the “reformers” have no interest in actually improving schools or helping those in poverty. They just want to privatize public education and make a profit. That is why they always say it is for the kids, when in fact it isn’t. They never ask actual teachers what would improve schools because that is not their goal. Logical arguments or discussions will not change their mind. Many of these people believe that anything for the common good is bad. They don’t want public anything, and this is their philosophy. Both parties seem determined to destroy public schools, and I don’t know how this will be stopped. I am actually surprised that you are able to blog your thoughts with no repercussions. Most of us around the country would get fired for doing what you are doing. Good luck!

  12. Pre-Service Teacher says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post. It is unsettling to me that no one wants to acknowledge poverty in the conversation about education and yet it is absolutely obvious that one’s family income and family educational background predicts one’s academic achievement. I recently read this fantastic study and thought I would share:

    Click to access SAN11-01.pdf

    Thinking that schools can save every single child in poor neighborhoods is just as ridiculous and unattainable as NCLB mandating 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2013. We don’t use this as an excuse, it is simply a reality. America likes to do things big and reformers will continue their strategy of swinging for home runs. And to continue the analogy, the reformers will then attempt to hit bigger and further home runs that they will eventually start taking steroids to compete. ie. cheat. And we all know how that ends..

  13. Stuart Buck says:

    The discussion about the Coleman Report is completely wrong. Variance decomposition is NOT the same as figuring out what is of causal importance. Not at all. See and for a statistics professor’s view,

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