This diary will explore Comer's work, and especially, employ his arguments and insights to argue that America's current educational priorities are short-sighted, careless and a massive waste of time, energy and capital.
The basic thrust of Comer's educational program, and he has been operating it in two schools in New Haven since the late 1960s, is that education is as much about child development as it is imparting academic skills and knowledge.
I believe Comer would say child development is a more important overall goal than mastery of facts and figures and dates. In this, he cites "the public good" from the pre-amble of the Constitution, which was the basic argument used to establish public education. Schools, he says, first and foremost, should "promote democracy and the general welfare." Before you dismiss this as a kind of warm and fuzzy "hugs" curriculum which conservatives love to deride and dismiss, you need to understand the personal, historical and medical foundations of Comer's thinking.
First, on a personal level, Comer was struck as by the stark realities that he encountered as a young black person in East Chicago, Indiana in the 1940s. He internalized the truth that "intelligence" was not the determining factor as to who made it in the world and who did not. Specifically, several of Comer's friends--bright, articulate, mathematical--were waylaid by personal or family problems and ended up on the streets, in jail or dead at a young age. They made poor personal decisions or were defeated by the social forces acting against them.
This realization informed Comer about one of the guiding principals in his educational philosophy: Success in our society, and particularly in education, is not merely a question of "intelligence and will", as is so often assumed by educational experts and social critics. Rather, it is a question of nurturing developmental pathways, steering children along important routes of ethical, social, physical, psychological, linguistic and cognitive development, so that they are able to act responsibly and choose thoughtfully throughout their lives.
Comer was exposed to such pathways as part of his developmental process: his family, and mother in particular, brought them to him strong on a daily basis. These larger frames help young people develop their wholeness, a capability for handling complex choices and adult roles in society.
Second, Comer provides incisive historical analysis about the fate of American communities. He points out how prior to 1950, America's communities, whether white or of color, tended to be self-reinforcing: that is, there was a true "village" of stable relationships linking children with the wider world, including ministers, teachers, doctors, neighbors, aunts, uncles, coaches, etc. American society was less mobile, much more rooted in a milieu which tended to develop youngsters along the multiple pathways listed above. Comer makes it clear, as most of us here know, that the stability in America's communities has come undone.
Somewhere between the changing nature of our economy, high divorce rates and the breakdown of families, the elevation of suburb and automobile, narcissistic messages from mass culture, rising levels of abuse, addiction and crime--somewhere in the whole unruly onset of modern urban America, we have lost the crucial foundation upon which children have historically depended.
What that means is that now, more than ever, schools have a crucial developmental role to play in helping produce whole, ethical, connected human beings who can function in a modern, complex, democratic society.
Third, Comer, as a medical doctor, has great insight and experience in medical issues involving brain development, survival strategies and aggression in young children. He shows, rather convincingly, that without the kind of love, attention, support, medical care, nutrition and physical activity which is required in young people, we cannot expect them to excel academically. In fact, we can't even expect them to be able to sit still, listen or engage without first attending to their immediate developmental needs.
A crude but effective analogy is to that of caring for plants. The differences which accrue slowly over time between those well cared for and equipped with essentials versus those lacking in light, water, nutrients--even love, is unavoidably obvious. A recent study cited by Comer shows that by the age of three, children of college professors were exposed to 30 million more words than were those of poor, non-mainstream families. They also received six times more encouragement than prohibitions, which was exactly the opposite for children on the other end.
After reading his book, one comes away believing that there is no more ridiculous notion than that of expecting every child, especially those unable to move beyond poverty, inadequate care, poor nutrition or a lack of medical attention, to triumph over standardized exams as if they were mere inconveniences to future income and upward mobility.
Without adequate development, children have a greatly diminished chance of succeeding in a highly competitive, demanding, complex arena. They literally will not have the brain neurons to attack tasks, not to mention the empathic, emotional and ethical principals with which to navigate life's temptations and pratfalls. Moreover, children inevitably focus on and model their caregivers, which, in too many cases today, is a prescription for disaster.
Comer's most devastating chapter, The Price We Pay, describes how our lack of investment in educating for development costs us as a society. Please understand what he is saying here: We would be far better off investing money in effective child development and education at the front end, than paying out the nose once things have turned sour. He estimates that for every dollar we invest at the front end in children, we save $10 in government assistance and services at the back.
He lists some of the on-going costs to taxpayers of our current approach: Incarceration, at all-time highs, $35,000.00 a year for each of our two million inmates; mental health, $12 billion for youth and adolescent treatment in 2002; physical health, $726 billion spent on health care in 2003; unemployment, college attendees 50% more likely than drop-outs to find employment after a layoff; welfare, $25.5 billion in 2001; domestic violence, cost an estimated $67 billion annually in services, lost wages and treatment; child abuse and neglect, an additional $70 billion a year.
So, what is the solution?
The Comer method is a concerted effort to engage every child, parent, teacher, administrator and community member around the task of successful child development. It involves various strategies at different levels of the education delivery system. In practice, it means that parents are respected, and also, expected to participate in school deliberations and council meetings, as well as have regular contact with teachers. It means that the school day and program are designed to further personal development, from nutrition to physical activity to community involvement. It means that teachers and staff direct their energy toward understanding developmental deficiencies behind student misbehavior, not simply rushing in to punish and ostracize over misdeeds. It means energizing the entire community around the goals of the school as defined within that community.
And it means continually monitoring, adjusting, retraining and inspiring the staff that work with children. We expect a lot of our teachers in this country, and we will not get it from most of them unless we remember that their essential humanity--their skill, compassion and wisdom--is what makes them effective. Teachers, every study shows this, have the single greatest impact on a child's learning experience. If we lift them up, through dynamic in-service training, professional recognition, humane scheduling and policies, we will be much better off than battering them for low test scores, which, in the end, is reflective of our society's unwillingness to invest in youth.
In short, as Henry Louis Gates says in the Foreward to Leave No Child Behind, successful child development and successful education depend upon the same thing: "relationships, relationships, relationships". It used to be that such meaningful and powerful relationships were embedded in a community and children were exposed to them with little effort or fanfare. That is no longer the case. And what Comer, and others, are telling us, is that we need to build schools to be true community centers, where parents, educators, community members and our youth, all have an important role, where adequate nutrition, medical attention and a sensitive appreciation for the life-potential of each student is the governing ethos.
Failing that, and given the historical ravages that have gripped our communities over the last 40 years, the outlook for the future of public education and for our youth is dismal at best. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson realized instinctively that where education goes, so goes our democracy--not to mention, in the 21st century, our economy and our standard-of-living.
As an educator of 17 years, and a considered thinker about this (my own book Becoming Mr. Henry will released on September 1st), I come away from Comer's Leave No Child Behind sickened by the half-assed, deliberately fraudulent approach espoused by NCLB. Its goal: to eliminate any race or class based differences in test scores over the entirety of American society by 2014.
To think that school teachers, with no further training or inspiration, and in most cases with inadequate resources and facilities, alone, can undo the historical disadvantages that have accrued in our demonstrably unequal and unfair society over more than 200 years is absolute bullshit. For politicians and journalists to focus solely on test numbers, sketchy, dubious, inherently inaccurate numbers at that, as if this represents the quality of our system and communities--when absolutely no effort has gone into the kind of developmental process that a medical doctor proves is necessary to do the job, leaves me without words in outrage.
We are not even close to being able to do this job. Mainly, because we don't even know what it's about!
And how can anyone, any reasonable human being, actually believe in No Child Left Behind, while being shown that tens of millions of youngsters have no access to health care, nutrition on par with the third world, homes that are broken, abusive and unsafe, and not a single positive relationship with an adult in which to take refuge?
It's happening all around us. Every. Single. Day.
And testing kids ad nauseum has not helped. A. Single. One. Of. Them.
I do not know enough about Comer schools to say that this is a magic bullet, the one panacea that, at long last, will actually be effective. I have never been to a Comer school. But after reading his book, I believe his is a comprehensive approach, one that treats students and teachers as whole human beings and attempts to structure schools to serve their needs in a dynamic, sensible, caring way.
The best argument for treating education as a development task, a la Comer, is not just that our students will be better for it, nor that we as a society will be, nor that our economy and communities will be better off. Though I believe these all are true. The best political argument is not even that it will save a whole hell of a lot of human suffering. (Though that is true, too.) What sells this idea is that investing intelligently in child development today, right now, through our schools as Comer suggests, will save us billions and billions and billions for as far as long as our well-developed children are alive.
Now that's an argument even Republicans can love.