James Samuel Coleman (born May 12, 1926 – died March 25, 1995) was an American sociologist, a pioneer in mathematical sociology. He conducted significant research in the sociology of education which strongly impacted American public policy. He was the author of the famous Coleman Report, which analyzed educational equality in American schools. Based on his recommendations, the system of busing black children into public schools located in white neighborhoods was implemented as an effort to eliminate racial segregation in education.
Coleman's later studies, however, warned that this method was failing due to "white flight" from areas into which students were bussed. Thus, Coleman's efforts, although well-intentioned and based on solid scientific research, were unable to bring about the social changes he anticipated.
James Samuel Coleman was born on May 12, 1926, in Bedford, Indiana, to James Fox and Maurine Lappin Coleman. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy (1944-1946).
After the war he attended Purdue University, from which he graduated in 1949. He initially enrolled to study chemistry, but became interested in sociology and continued his graduate studies at Columbia University. He earned his Ph.D. in 1955, working with the Bureau of Applied Social Research (1953-1955). There he came under the influence of Paul Lazarsfeld, the Austrian-born sociologist, whose research on mass media was world famous.
During 1955-1956, Coleman worked as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Science, Palo Alto, California, after which he started to teach at the University of Chicago. In 1957, Coleman and his colleagues started their work with a study of ten high schools in Illinois, the area of research which came to define Coleman’s career. Their report on academic and social aspects of schooling was published in 1961, under the name Social Climates in High Schools.
In 1959, Coleman joined the Department of Social Relations staff at Johns Hopkins University, first as an associate and then as a full time professor of sociology. There he began, together with Ernest Q. Campbell from Vanderbilt University, the work on equal educational opportunities in American schools that led to the publication of Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), which became known as the Coleman Report.
Coleman and his first wife, Lucille Richey, whom he had married in 1949 and with whom he had three sons (Thomas, John, and Stephen), divorced in 1973, after which he married his second wife, Zdzislawa Walaszek, with whom he had his fourth son, Daniel.
Coleman returned to the University of Chicago where he became study director at the National Opinion Research Center. He also served as an adviser for President Richard Nixon, with regard to government plans to eradicate racial segregation in schools. Coleman was rather critical of government, saying it wanted to act only superficially, whereas the real problem is much deeper and requires much more effort.
In 1975, Coleman published another report which analyzed the data from schools that implemented busing programs as a way of integrating black and white students. This report concluded that a considerable number of Caucasian families had moved their children out of schools which had a busing program. This created serious debate, with many sociologists criticizing Coleman’s work. Some even requested his expulsion from the American Sociological Association, although this request eventually failed.
In his later career, Coleman turned to writing. He published several works in which he compared the relative efficacy of public and private schools (High School Achievement, 1982; Public and Private High Schools, 1987). He also started to work on sociological theory, the work which culminated in his 1990 book, Foundations of Social Theory.
In 1989, Coleman founded the interdisciplinary journal, Rationality and Society, which discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the use of rational-choice theory in interpreting social phenomena. In 1991, he was elected the 83rd president of the American Sociological Association. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Among his numerous awards were the Paul Lazarsfeld Award for Research in 1983, the Educational Freedom Award in 1989, and the American Sociological Association Distinguished Publication Award in 1992.
Coleman died on March 25, 1995, at the University Hospital in Chicago. He was survived by his wife, Zdzislawa Walaszek, and his sons.
James Coleman conducted significant research in the area of the sociology of education, especially on equal opportunities in education. His Coleman Report, which was as influential as it was controversial, served as the base for numerous public policies in the area of education. His comparison of the effectiveness of public versus private schools stirred some serious debate in this area as well. In his later career, Coleman focused mainly on theory, working on mathematical sociology and rational-choice theory.
In the 1960s, Coleman and several other scholars were commissioned to write a report on educational equality in America. The study cost around $1.5 million and was one of the largest studies in history, with more than 600,000 students and 60,000 teachers in the sample. It encompassed black, Native, and Mexican American, poor white, Puerto Rican, and Asian students. The result was a massive report of over 700 pages, entitled Equality of Educational Opportunity (often simply called the Coleman Report).
The Report fueled debate about "school effects" that has continued long after its publication. Some of the controversial conclusions of the report were:
The Report was commonly misinterpreted as evidence, or an argument, that schools have little effect on student achievement. A better reading of the Coleman Report is that relative to student background and socioeconomic status, measured differences in school resources (per student spending) matter little in determining educational outcomes (Hanushek, 1998).
Another controversial finding of the Coleman Report was that, on average, black schools were funded on a nearly equal basis by the 1960s. This was probably due to the fact that many Southern states greatly raised their spending on black schools in the 1950s, in the hope of avoiding compliance with the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
This research also suggested that socially disadvantaged black students profited from schooling in racially-mixed classrooms. This was the catalyst for the implementation of the desegregation busing systems, ferrying black students to integrated schools. Following up on this, in 1975, Coleman published the results of further research; this time into the effects of school busing systems intended to bring lower-class black students into higher-class mixed race schools. His conclusion was that white parents moved their children out of such schools in large numbers; a phenomenon that came to be known as "white flight." His 1966 article had explained that black students would only benefit from integrated schooling if there was a majority of white students in the classroom; the mass busing system had failed.
Coleman spent a considerable amount of time in studying the relative efficacy of public and private elementary schools. His two books, High School Achievement: Public, Catholic and Private Schools Compared (1982) and Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities (1987) discussed this issue. He saw Catholic schools as the most effective model of schools in America, educating children from various backgrounds together. Catholic schools, according to Coleman, were more effective than public or nonreligious private schools, due to their emphasis on discipline and higher expectations of performance.
Coleman argued that one should not blame only the school system for the poor academic performance of minorities. It is parents and the breakdown of the family structure that carries the heaviest weight of such failure. He also criticized the practice of “course proliferation,” based on which students were allowed to select elective classes relevant to their study. He argued that this practice may work for excellent students, but not for marginal learners.
Coleman was a pioneer in the construction of mathematical models in sociology, especially through his book, Introduction to Mathematical Sociology (1964). He showed that random phenomena in the social world could be analyzed in such a way as to enable testing of the constructed model. Coleman employed mathematical principles drawn from economics, such as general equilibrium theory, to argue that a general social theory should begin with a concept of purposive action and, for analytical reasons, approximate such action by the use of rational-choice models. This argument provided the impetus for the emergence of a good deal of effort to link rational choice thinking to more traditional sociological concerns.
Related to this was his major treatise Foundations of Social Theory (1990) that made a major contribution to contemporary efforts to produce a more rigorous form of theorizing in sociology. He applied the rational-choice approach to social behavior, discussing how various influences such as social norms, peer pressure, and role models, are significant in determining social behavior.
Coleman's research on the schooling of minorities helped shape government policies on racial integration in American schools. Coleman strongly believed that racial segregation had to be eliminated, for it seriously undermined the equal opportunity of education, and represented an obstacle for improving the quality of education for disadvantaged children. The Coleman Report from 1966, helped launch the widespread system of busing students from different areas, with the goal of achieving racial balance in schools. In the mid-1970s, Coleman published his second report, in which he started to warn of the trend of "white flight," which was one of the negative consequences of the busing system. He realized that, although well-intended, the busing system was not working. Nevertheless, this system continued to be used throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and is still utilized in a modified form in some major U.S. cities.
Coleman was the type of scientist who believed that social science had a purpose not only to theorize, but to apply its findings into practice. His work thus influenced numerous social policies that improved social welfare in general.
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