The Coleman Report would change American schooling forever, providing the theoretical basis for court-ordered busing plans, which gave rise to widespread, unintended “white flight” to suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. In a follow-up study nearly a decade after the release of EEO, Coleman concluded that busing had become an empty exercise.
Even as school systems redrew their boundaries, fired black teachers and principals, and tore up foundational enrollment structures to comply with desegregation orders, they largely ignored Coleman’s earlier research on motivation and academic achievement, which found that competition “has a magic ability to create a strong group goal.”
Looking back 25 years later, Coleman himself would note that the Coleman Report’s focus on administrative issues had largely ignored what he had long considered key: the necessity of talking to students about the social systems of schools and how they actually felt, day to day, going to school. As a result, he concluded, the report “may have missed the most important differences between the school environments in which black and white children found themselves.” Had his seminal work focused on both the administrative problems and the social systems of school, Coleman later wrote, “our knowledge of how to overcome problems of racial segregation would be far more advanced than it is.” The result, he said, might have been more sturdily integrated schools without the racial backlash.
The irony of Coleman’s earlier findings is that, more than a half century later, students are, to no one’s surprise, still “person-oriented,” focusing more closely on their peers than on nearly anything adults ask them to consider. And schools still routinely use sports, games, social clubs, and band competitions, among other devices, to get students excited about coming to school.