The Coleman Continuum

Any serious conversation about school accountability must begin with clearly stating your beliefs about schools and schooling, particularly those related to public schools in the United States and what it is that you think that those schools can accomplish. I place beliefs about schools, schooling, and the role of public schools along what I have dubbed as The Coleman Continuum.

My Coleman Continuum gets its name from the 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, aka The Coleman Report, arguably one of the most influential studies in the history of public education in the United States. One of the many products of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the analyses presented in the report demonstrated the importance of non-school factors in contributing to inequality of educational opportunities and outcomes. After accounting for factors related to family socioeconomic status, it appeared that factors related to the quality of schooling did little to explain differences in educational outcomes.

One can quibble with that key finding or my restatement of it. One can question the effects of decision made in applying the stepwise methodology or prattle on about correlation not implying causation. All of that may have merit. The fact remains, however, that regardless of whether they have read, or even heard of, the 55-year-old report, a sizable portion of people in the United States, including policymakers, believe that public schools cannot overcome the savage inequalities (to misappropriate a phrase) that children face outside of school. This belief anchors one end of the continuum.

At the other end of the continuum are people, driven by the Civil Rights legislation that prompted the Coleman Report, who hold fast to the belief that public education is the great equalizer. They believe that the purpose, and responsibility, of public schools is to provide an environment that offsets and overcomes the conditions that exist beyond the schoolhouse door – by any means necessary (as long as we’re borrowing phrases). Schools nurture dreams, and as we all know, your dreams are your ticket out.

Those two views of public schools offer a stark contrast.


It is easy to imagine how the belief that schools can have no impact will lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and the so-called soft bigotry of lowered expectations. It is a little more difficult, and may take a little longer, to understand that the belief that schools can offset and overcome all inequalities inevitably must lead to the same soft bigotry of lowered expectations – if for no other reason than to resolve cognitive dissonance and maintain sanity.

What should be crystal clear, however, is that the school accountability systems designed by people at each end of the continuum would have to look very different from each other.

It should also be crystal clear that there will be significant problems if policymakers hold one set of beliefs, about what schools can accomplish but local educators hold the other.

School accountability systems designed by people on the far right (no pun intended) would look a lot like the original NCLB – perhaps without the 12-year ramp-up period and safe harbor provisions. Those systems would be based on the expectation that Title 1 could fund programs that would at least enable disadvantaged students to attain basic proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. School accountability systems designed by people on the far left, if they even bothered to design a school accountability system, would have lots of conditional comparisons, soft deadlines, and long-term goals that would be revisited and readjusted on a regular basis.

School accountability systems designed by people who would like to believe the statement of the right but are afraid that the statement on the left is true would look contain accountability requirements similar to those found in ESSA.

Which leads to another important point, please note that at the beginning of this post I said “any serious conversation about school accountability” which is something completely different from a conversation, serious or otherwise, about how to implement requirements imposed by somebody else’s beliefs about schools and school accountability. The distinction is not trivial, as it will likely have a significant impact on the design and ultimate success not only of your school accountability program, but your education reform effort, in general.

Most of our conversations about school accountability for the past 20 years have focused on meeting the requirements of federal laws such as NCLB and ESSA or executive decisions such as the Obama waivers. We have avoided serious conversations about what we really believe schools can and should be accountable for achieving. We have avoided serious and important conversations about the role of school districts and the larger community outside of the school in promoting and being held accountable for student achievement.

Some days, avoiding difficult conversations which appear to have no easy resolution may seem like a good option. We cannot, however, delay those conversations forever. My hope is that when we do have those conversations the result will not be that we simply reach a better understanding of what schools can and cannot be held accountable for under the current conditions. That would be disappointing. Rather, I hope that we determine what needs to be done inside and outside of schools to ensure equality of educational opportunities.

Only then can we set out to do what it takes to provide those opportunities – even if that means imagining solutions that have never been tried or may not yet exist.

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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