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Equality of Educational Opportunity: A Video Interview With Jim McPartland

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Just before the Fourth of July weekend in 1966, the U.S. Office of Education quietly released a report that would shake the beliefs upon which many educators and social reformers had staked their work. The landmark report "Equality of Educational Opportunity" dramatically changed the debate on how schools, families, and communities affect student learning.

In the decades since, what came to be known as the Coleman report has been one of the most influential and hotly debated education studies in American history, notably identifying families, not just schools, as key drivers of student achievement.

American schooling reached a milestone last year when white students, for the first time, made up fewer than half of all children enrolled in public schools. In a new Education Week Q&A video, Johns Hopkins University researcher and co-author of the study James McPartland talks about some key findings that ring true in today's schools as researchers continue to study how family background contributes to disparities in student achievement.

Educators today across the board stress the role of mindset and motivation in achievement, but the Coleman report looked at those same topics 50 years ago, when minority students at the time felt that their efforts in school were more futile, McPartland said.

"For black kids, having a good school was essential—you don't really have a fallback, you don't have a family to fill in the gaps," McPartland, executive director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins, said. "You have support, but not the educational background, so investing in schools for disadvantaged and low-income and minority students really is likely to pay off more often than not."

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, launched a few years after the Coleman report, provides a window into both steady progress and persistent achievement gaps among young people nationwide. For example, while black 9-year-olds in 2012 performed significantly better in reading and math than their 1975 counterparts, they still have not caught up to the average performance of white 9-year-olds in 1975.

The study set up a longstanding debate about how much schools can do in the face of poverty and socioeconomic stratification. Although it did provide insight on teachers' backgrounds, education, and racial attitudes, one area of regret that McPartland emphasized is that the report lacked much insight into differences in teacher practices. Today, we know that teacher experience and academic aptitude seem to matter, while things like master's degrees have a less-consistent relationship to good teaching

"There was very little on instruction ... how do you teach reading comprehension, how do you teach math problem-solving, all the nitty-gritty of how you engage kids' minds and energies in a classroom," said McPartland.


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