Schools Need to Focus on Child Development in Order To Succeed, Says Nationally Recognized Yale Expert on Learning

Focusing on how children learn and develop rather than on the delivery of information is critical in making schools successful, says James Comer, M.D., the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center.

Focusing on how children learn and develop rather than on the delivery of information is critical in making schools successful, says James Comer, M.D., the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center.

“We are now rushing in doing all kinds of things, offering all kinds of things, to improve schools - from vouchers to charters to the 10 Commandments on the wall,” Comer said. “It sounds like the 20th Century medicine man with no proof that any of that works.”

Comer, architect of the 32-year-old Yale Child Study Center School Development Program, said organizing schools to support the development of children yields good behavioral and academic outcomes.

“The model that suggests that teaching and learning is no more than pouring information down the heads of children, when learning is relational and developmental, does not work. It grew out of the industrial age,” he said. “The business model now comes as a reform effort with the establishment of goals and standards. That’s needed and may make for more efficiency, but it does not meet the needs of children and actually harms children who are underdeveloped as they enter school.”

Comer said the old model worked when the economy required that only 20 percent of the population be educated. “The old model of teaching is that a teacher teaches and the kids with the best brains are expected to get it and the others are not,” he said. “If they didn’t do well, they could go to the farm or the factory and be okay.”

Today, he said, 90 percent or more of the population needs to be educated to work in a much more technological age. “We don’t know how to educate the new 70 percent,” he said. “Some know the conditions needed. Few know how to create them in a school.”

Comer said numerous studies show what is needed: clear goals, high expectations and standards; community support; a respectful and orderly environment; students actively engaged in appropriate learning tasks; teacher competence; teachers and staff members genuinely caring about each student and demanding students’ best efforts; frequent assessment of student achievement, with feedback; public rewards and incentives for student achievement; and administrators possessing the skills and courage to demand and help create all of the conditions listed. The School Development Program provides the framework for bringing these conditions about.

Comer said the Merritt School where President Bush launched his educational reform program in Washington, D.C., is based on the Yale development program. One third of the Golden Apple Award-winning schools in Detroit use the Yale model. One of the schools, the Samuel Gompers Elementary School with 97 student poverty, has been using the Yale program for six years.

“The neighborhood is a disaster; the school is a pearl,” Comer said. “The students are lively, spontaneous, and engaged in their work at appropriate times, and quiet but attentive when they are supposed to be.”

Comer said 80 percent of the Samuel Gompers students passed the 1999 fourth-grade Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) test in reading and science, and 100 percent passed in mathematics. In the year 2000, the students achieved the highest MEAP test scores among elementary schools in their size category in the state.

“The Yale program provided the conceptual and operational framework, child development-centered training for staff and parents, and very limited field support,” he said. “The staff, parents and students did the work.”

He said the nation is at a critical juncture in regards to school reform.

“We’re making decisions right now that will cost money and we can lock money into the wrong direction or the right direction,” Comer said. “Whatever we do, it is going to greatly affect the nation for 20 to 30 years, far beyond the term of any president. A miracle quick fix is not possible.”

“If we could today begin to mount programs to connect what we know about how children develop and learn to practice and policy, we could be well on our way to better functioning systems of education in five years, and to good ones in ten. But if we continue to be guided by tradition, ideology and power, we will reach a point of no return in which too many young people are undereducated, misbehaving, and gradually undermining our economy and democracy.”

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