Dr. James P. Comer, Pioneer of Successful School Reform

“You know the purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.” ~Dr. James P. Comer

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It’s probably one of the best kept secrets of modern school reform, that the most successful teaching approaches observed in charter schools were actually developed decades ago, by University researchers collaborating in partnership with public school teachers.

One of the leading educational pioneers and innovators (rarely mentioned by the media), is African-American psychiatrist Dr. James P. Comer. His Child Development Program, started at Yale University in 1968, was one of the first school reform projects to successfully transform the culture and social dynamics of poor inner city public schools, dramatically raising test scores in the process.

For over 40 years, Dr. Comer’s program has shown that in order to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed academically, teachers first have to help students thrive socially and developmentally. This depends on educators collaborating with parents, truly caring about students and transforming the culture of a school community. It has nothing to do with national standards or testing- though test scores will also rise significantly. More on the history of Dr. Comer’s Project can be read here.

Over the last decade, deceptively similar success stories have been reported in the media, frequently described as the result of “new” innovations of the charter school movement. Charter schools are presented as a model developed by the business community that is somehow superior to what can be done by teachers working in public schools. This would be like saying that Microsoft Windows was an innovation created by Bill Gates, ignoring the fact that the design is based on the windows format first pioneered by Steve Jobs and Apple.

As I described elsewhere, successful learner-centered whole school innovations have been researched and developed over the course of many decades by Dr. Comer and other educational innovators not as a profit-making alternative to public schools, but as a way of transforming school communities and evolving more effective learner-centered teaching methods.

In 2014, President Obama appointed Dr. Comer to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Unfortunately, as Dr. Comer explains in this video, his program has not been doing very well in recent years. There has been a lack of funding from foundations, as well as difficulties with un-informed school superintendents who have dismantled successful schools because they don’t understand how and why Comer’s approach works so well.

When implemented properly, Dr. Comer’s developmental approach is superior to the model used by most charter schools, as it encourages teachers to collaborate with parents in order to address the roots of student behavior problems. Unlike charter schools (that typically label certain students as “bad, ” and then remove them) Comer’s public schools have implemented a whole child approach, valuing each and every member of the school community.

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Photo on the left: In 2004, Sen. Hilary Clinton presented Dr. Comer with the 7th Annual John P. McGovern Behavioral Science Award from the Smithsonian.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Comer for the PBS Making Schools Work program, by journalist Hendrick Smith:

Smith: You write about educating children holistically, educating the whole child. Help me to understand, what does it mean to educate the whole child?

Comer: You know the purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.

Our program focuses on the socially interactive aspects of development so that children learn how to manage themselves in a whole variety of situations, and become responsible for managing themselves in a constructive respectful way.

There is the psycho-emotional development: learning to handle their impulses, and to control your own behavior. To handle yourself, your emotions, your feelings. There is the ethical: learning what’s right, what’s wrong. And living by that.

There is the linguistic: to be able to express yourself in a whole variety of settings and to know what’s appropriate and to be able to receive and listen to others, and to be able to express yourself.

And then there is the intellectual cognitive. That’s the part that the traditional school focuses on primarily – the intellectual cognitive and the linguistic – and it ignores everything else. All of those other things, they are ignored.

That’s what people call bad. That’s what they experience as bad behavior because nobody pays attention to helping the children learn how to handle themselves appropriately. If a child does something that’s unacceptable in school, instead of screaming, yelling, scolding, punishing, you talk to the child about what’s going on and how to manage that. That is social interactive, psycho-emotional. Sometimes it’s ethical. All those pathways in the development of the child are being addressed.

Smith: You’re saying essentially that if you focus on curriculum and you focus on tests and performance you are missing a big chunk of the kid’s development.

Comer: Absolutely. You are missing a big chunk of the development if you focus only on curriculum, instruction, and assessment because there is much, much more to being successful in this world.

Think of it as an adult. What do we do every day. We have to go out in the world, interact with people, get along well with people. We have to elicit a positive response from the people around us in a whole variety of situations. Where do you learn to do that?

Some children if they’re lucky learn to do it at home, but you should learn to do it at school as well. But the school ignores that part of their growth and development. By focusing on social interactive, psycho-emotional, and moral-ethical you get improved linguistic expression and reception. And you get improved academic achievement. So you get to the whole spectrum of needs and demands that children will need to be able to function in society.

Related Reading:

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About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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7 Responses to Dr. James P. Comer, Pioneer of Successful School Reform

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