Coleman proposed that schools should replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education.

It wouldn’t be easy, he predicted: schools would need “considerable inventiveness” to come up with the right vehicles for competition. But they already had a few good models, including math and debate competitions, as well as drama and music contests. He noted that the RAND Corporation and MIT had already established “political gaming” contests with great success.

In the early 1960s, Coleman developed six games and tested them in Baltimore schools. Teachers, he would later write, “came to share our enthusiasm for this reconstruction of the learning environment.” But he admitted that his vision was “not realized,” even though a handful of fellow researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere piloted academic games with great success.

Actually, Coleman was deep into his work on games when he got the call to pursue the wide-ranging examination of school conditions and achievement that would eventually become “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” or EEO, more popularly known as the Coleman Report. He later recalled that he saw working on the massive EEO survey as “a detour in my research direction,” though he understood its importance.

The report’s results, released in 1966, popularized the idea that a student’s home life and family background mattered more than what happened at school.

Most significantly, Coleman asserted that disadvantaged black students would do better academically if they attended schools in which the majority of their classmates were white.