Obama taps Yale psychologist for national education panel
New Haven — Modern-day school reformers focus too much on standardized tests and too little on kids’ hearts and minds, a legendary Yale child psychologist said as he prepares to advise the president.
Dr. James P. Comer made the remarks in an interview this week in his office at the Yale Child Study Center. President Obama in January named Comer one of 15 appointees to a new President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
The commission is tasked with “improving educational outcomes for African Americans to ensure that all African Americans receive an education that prepares them for college, productive careers, and satisfying lives.”
Comer said he will stress to the committee the central importance of child development in helping disadvantaged minority kids succeed.
“The modern school reform movement that focuses on math and reading,” Comer said, “misses what schools are about. Schools are to prepare students to be successful in life.”
Comer, who’s 79, has spent his life examining how to help students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, succeed in school. He concluded that students can soar when schools explicitly help them with socio-emotional, psychological, ethical and linguistic development, not just cognitive skills. He came up with a groundbreaking method of child development called the Comer Method, which debuted in New Haven schools in the 1960s, then spread to over 1,000 schools in the U.S. and beyond.
In an interview, he outlined the personal experiences and professional discoveries he aims to take with him in his new position.
Comer grew up poor in East Chicago, Indiana. His mom, a domestic worker, had less than two years of formal education. His dad, a steel mill laborer, had about six. Despite their lack of formal education, he said, his parents offered their children “respect, caring, belonging,” the elements that helped them develop as human beings.
“We were taught the rules of life,” Comer said. His parents introduced him to new experiences. “We loved learning.”
As Comer grew older, he soared in school and began a path to become a general practice doctor. At the same time, he noticed something troubling: “my equally talented friends, and similar African American students, were not doing well in life.”
“My career goal was to find out why and change the limiting conditions so that such young people could have the same chance that I had,” Comer said.
After earning his medical degree, Comer searched for that answer at the University of Michigan, where he earned a public health master’s degree; and at Yale University School of Medicine, which he joined in 1964 as a psychiatry fellow.
Comer studied how children learn. He had insights into how young children and adolescents performed in school, and how that was tied to how they developed as “social” beings — dealing with their personal problems, interacting with other people. Urban low-income black children in particular, he determined, need support in “social development” to do better in school.
Comer joined the Yale Child Study Center in 1968. He began work on a project through which schools would “approximate the kind of supportive out-of-school experience that I received, and most mainstream students receive.”
He charted how parents and teachers need to work together to help them. He came up with six connected developmental “pathways” along which the school system needs to guide children. One element of the Comer Method is morning meetings, in which kids talk through their emotional and social concerns in a supportive group setting.
Comer’s School Development Program debuted in New Haven’s Baldwin, King and Brennan schools in the 1960s. The test schools, among the worst in the city in achievement, attendance and behavior, soared to third-place in achievement, and best in attendance, Comer said. Behavior problems disappeared.
The method went national and international, spreading to over 1,000 schools in over 50 school districts. Then it fell out of fashion.
Comer’s program was training nearly 2,000 educators across the country, in places like California, Detroit, Chicago, New Jersey and Florida, when Congress in 2002 passed the No Child Left Behind Act.
“No Child Left Behind, and its narrow focus on test scores, sharply reduced use of our developmental approach,” Comer said. “We had to stop the training.”
Now Comer’s group works directly with about 40 schools; some of the 1,000-plus it had trained in the past continue to use the method on their own.
In New Haven, the method has fallen into and out of favor. At Katherine Brennan School, for example, teachers who had fully bought into the method left the school, and the practices disappeared. Now an educator who fully supports the Comer Method, Gail DeBlasio, has taken over the school as principal; Comer said he is optimistic about the continuation of the Comer Method under her leadership.
Twenty-two schools in New Haven are using a School Planning and Management Team, which is one component of Comer’s method. Another 10 have fully implemented the Comer Method, which includes a “student and staff support team” and a parent team, who make decisions by “no-fault problem solving” and consensus.
Comer attributed the Comer Method’s declining popularity not only to No Child Left Behind, but to a lack of knowledge among educators about how kids develop and grow. A 2010 survey found that 10 percent of schools of education did not require aspiring teachers to take a course in child development, he said. And of the schools that did, 65 percent offered those courses outside the education department.
“That is a problem,” Comer said, a sign of a disconnect between academic learning and “development.”
“Teachers are faced with behaviors every day that they need to be able to respond to,” he said. Often, kids respond to frustration, disappointment and loss “in ways that are viewed as bad.”
“Teachers lack the tools to understand what that behavior is about,” Comer said, so they resort to a system of “punishment and control.”
Teachers need to see those bad behaviors as an opportunity to help kids who are “underdeveloped,” Comer said. If they do that, kids will “see you as a helper rather than a controller,” and they will form a positive attachment to their teacher. Students will be more likely to feel motivated, to want to please the teacher, and to want to please themselves.
On the other hand, if you “turn a child off” through punishment and control, she will do poorly.
Comer said he is currently working on a new approach to train educators in how to support students’ development. The approach wouldn’t only train them after they’re already in the classroom. It would support teachers beforehand, guide which educators are chosen for the classroom, and support them through ongoing professional development.
Comer said his center is working with New Haven Public Schools to pilot this system-wide training program as soon as possible.
“Gimmicks” Ignore Findings
Meanwhile, he said, the national school reform movement has moved away from the key findings he has spent his life promoting. After No Child Left Behind (NCLB), teachers began to devote so much time to test prep that they cut morning meetings. The modern-day reforms promoted by the Obama administration have focused in large part on using test scores to measure teacher quality.
“That’s a mistake,” Comer said. The modern school reform movement exhibits “an absence of understanding of brain growth and maturation,” he said — of the social, emotional, moral, ethical and linguistic development of children.
The “gimmicks and tactics” of modern-day school reform “don’t go after the fundamental need” of children, he said.
A person’s “executive function,” the part of the brain that gives us self-control and helps us stick with a task to its completion, doesn’t fully develop until we reach our 20s, Comer said. That means schools need to focus on continual development from before birth to maturity.
“The school reformers have missed that entirely,” Comer said.
Obama’s new push for universal pre-K will be a great improvement, he said — but not if the pre-K programs focus simply on academics.
The current school accountability movement is too singularly focused on test scores, Comer said.
“The way they’ve set it up, it’s all cognitive,” he said: The focus is on information kids need to learn, not how they need to develop.
New movements, such as the Common Core State Standards, have the potential of pushing academic standards down to early childhood while ignoring kids’ social and emotional needs, he said. Or, he said, “they could do it all” — help children develop and learn.
He said schools should focus on two questions: “What do children need to know, and what kind of experiences do they need to be successful adults?”
Comer, who has served on numerous national panels, in 2006 chaired the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Roundtable on Child and Adolescent Development Research and Teacher Education.
He said he has met President Obama a few times: First when Obama was elected U.S. senator from Chicago, where Comer had been doing work in city schools; and two more times on Martha’s Vineyard, where they both vacation.
Comer said while Obama “came in very supportive of NCLB,” but has since shown an openness to a new mindset.
Comer said he sees “an awareness” among the reform movement “that what they’ve been doing isn’t working.” An awareness that the problem with public education is “not just bad teachers, not just unions.”
But “now they don’t know what to do,” he said. “They still have not focused on the centrality and the power of development.”
This story first appeared in the New Haven Independent.
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