Schools and inequality: A multilevel analysis of coleman's equality of educational opportunity data

Geoffrey D. Borman, Maritza Dowling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

156 Scopus citations


Background/Context: The Equality of Educational Opportunity study is widely recognized as one of the most important studies on schooling ever performed. The findings from the report have shaped the field of education, national education policies, and wider public and scholarly opinion regarding the contributions of schools and schooling to equality and produdivity in the United States. Despite past reanalyses of the data and decades of research on the effects of schools as organizations, the report's fundamental finding-that a student's family background is far more important than school social composition and school resources for understanding student outcomes-still retains much of its currency. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Using the original Equality of Educational Opportunity data, this study replicated Coleman's statistical models but also applied a two-level hierarchical linear model (HLM) to measure the effects of school-level social composition, resources, teacher characteristics, and peer characteristics on ninth-grade students' verbal achievement. Research Design: HLM allows researchers to disentangle how schools and students' family backgrounds contribute to learning outcomes. The methodology offers a clearer interpretation of the relative effects of school characteristics, including racial/ethnic composition, and family background, including race/ethnicity and social class, on students' academic outcomes. Findings/Results: Our results suggest that schools do indeed matter, in that when one examines the outcomes across the national sample of schools, fully 40 % of the differences in achievement can be found between schools. Even after statistically taking into account students'family background, a large proportion of the variation among true school means is related to differences explained by school characteristics. Within-school inequalities in the achievement outcomes for African American and White students and students from families of higher and lower social class are explained in part by teachers' biases favoring middle-class students and by schools'greater reliance on curriculum differentiation through the use of academic and nonacademic tracking. Conclusions/Recommendations: Formal decomposition of the variance attributable to individual background and the social composition of the schools suggests that going to a high-poverty school or a highly segregated African American school has a profound effect on a student's achievement outcomes, above and beyond the effect of individual poverty or minority status. Specifically, both the racial/ethnic and social class composition of a student's school are 1 3/4 times more important than a student's individual race/ethnicity or social class for understanding educational outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1201-1246
Number of pages46
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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