June 15, 2016

In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most

Fifty years after the release of  “Equality of Educational Opportunity”—widely known as the Coleman Report—much of what James Coleman and his colleagues reported holds up well to scrutiny. It is, in fact, remarkable to read through the 700-plus pages and see how little has changed about what the empirical evidence says matters. The report’s conclusions about the importance of teacher quality, in particular, have stood the test of time, which is noteworthy, given that today’s studies of the impacts of teachers use more-sophisticated statistical methods and employ far better data. Moreover, many of the Coleman findings foretold debates over school and teacher policy that continue to rage today.

What the Report Didn’t Say

The Coleman Report focused on differences in schooling resources available to white and minority students and on the degree of racial segregation in America’s public schools. It was also the first major, large-scale study to try to document the influence of schooling resources on student achievement, and how the influence of schooling resources compares to the influence of student background and socioeconomic status. This comparison resulted in the oft-cited finding that “schools don’t matter.” Interestingly, that quote does not appear in the Coleman Report, yet it is widely interpreted as a central conclusion. The actual text is far more nuanced, suggesting that

schools are remarkably similar in the way they relate to the achievement of their pupils when the socioeconomic background of students is taken into account.… When these factors are statistically controlled…it appears that differences between schools account for only a small fraction of differences in pupil achievement.

The phrases “small fraction” and “between schools” are important. The finding that differences between schools only explain a small fraction of the variation in student achievement does not suggest that...

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