Leave No Child Behind Preparing Today's Youth for Tomorrow's World
By JAMES P. COMER
Yale University Press Copyright © 2004 James P. Comer
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-300-10391-5
Chapter One Right Church, Wrong Pew
At the Zion Baptist Church of my youth it was not rare for the "sisters" to have visions. One Sunday afternoon before the Baptist Young People's Training Union meeting, when I was about eight or nine years old, Mrs. Johnson told me that she had had a vision about me. She saw me as a little minister (I was very small) traveling all over the country to spread the gospel. She was delighted. That was not my vision of my future, but I responded with respectful appreciation of her revelation.
After thirty-five years of work in schools-hundreds of trips, speeches, and articles later-I am forced to revisit her prophecy. When I travel to speak about how schools can change to promote development and learning, I think, "Mrs. Johnson was in the right church, but the wrong pew." I am a preventive child psychiatrist, not a minister. One definition of "gospel" in the Britannica dictionary is: Any doctrine concerning human welfare which is considered of great importance. Desirable child rearing, development, behavior, and learning could qualify.
Our modern knowledge about child rearing, development, and learning ismore than a doctrine. It is based on a vast body of scientific findings. Because of this, and my own life experience and work, I argue that changes in public school education over the last decade are moving in the right direction (right church)-toward standards, high expectation for all, accountability. But the almost exclusive focus on curriculum, instruction, and high-stakes accountability based on test scores alone is the wrong pew.
The direction to the right pew in education-like the real estate mantra of location, location, location-is relationships, relationships, relationships. Good relationships among and between the people in the institutions that influence the quality of child life, largely home and school, make good child and adolescent rearing and development possible. Good relationships make student, adult, and organizational development possible, which, in turn, makes a strong academic focus possible. Indeed, development and learning are inextricably linked. Both are needed to adequately prepare young people to be successful in school and in modern life.
The right church and right pew scenario would be the creation of a very large educator workforce that is capable of creating a relationship context in all schools, which would enable all children to both develop well and learn well. In such a context or culture, high expectations and accountability can come from within the learners and the teachers. Students would meet high standards. And staff, parents, and students would hold themselves accountable.
Educators, policymakers, and business leaders agree that these are the outcomes they seek. But they generally use the models of their respective disciplines in trying to understand and overcome the obstacles to achieving them. Thus, reform approaches over the last quarter century or more have generally been based on principles and practices in business and manufacturing, and in the biological and the physical sciences, and are of limited value in primary and secondary education, sometimes even harmful.
Even principles of social and behavioral science, which are important relative to relationships, when applied in education relate primarily to individuals rather than to systems. But the education enterprise-schools; districts; staff preparatory institutions; local, state, and federal government; business; and others who influence policy-is made up of highly interactive systems, both internal and external. Their operations create multiple, changing variables, many of them intangible but very powerful, that can affect each other in limiting and harmful ways when not well managed. The way these systems interact must be taken into account as much as or even more than individual or group (teachers, students, parents) behavior.
Our traditional model of teaching and learning, while drawn from ancient practices, was reinforced by the success of manufacturing at about the time universal public education was being established. As a result, many, if not most, practitioners and the public think of academic learning as a mechanical process governed solely by genetically determined intelligence and individual will. The assumption is that those with the best brains or "machines" will get it and others will not. Pouring in or tacking on information, as one would attach a part to an inanimate machine, was not illogical in a manufacturing age with often compliant students who had limited opportunities to gain information from other sources.
Even so, many students, for many reasons, sometimes because they were animate and reactive, did not succeed under the mechanical approach. Today even fewer will sit and take in what they often consider to be irrelevant information when there are so many exciting opportunities for learning outside of school. Also, we send a double and confusing message. We praise children for being active learners and expressive people outside of school yet expect them to be docile learners inside.
In the past, those who did not do well in school could leave and still earn a living that would enable them to take care of adult tasks and responsibilities. Many young people, if not most, will not be able to do so today or in the future.
Most recent school reform approaches have not been very helpful. Some, as noted above, were based on principles drawn from business, often tinged with political ideology, and were not really applicable to public schools. In the early 1990s there was much talk about competition and choice. Public schools were viewed as inefficient government bureaucracies. Many argued that private and public schools of choice, such as charter schools, could do a better job for less. Some believed that such schools would be particularly valuable for poor, often minority children in dysfunctional public schools. It was believed that success in these schools would help all schools improve. The findings are mixed and sobering. There is no evidence that choice and competition can routinely and widely improve our system of public education. Traditional schools with similar students probably produce similar good outcomes.
Some notions about school improvement are drawn from business and our justice system, mixed injudiciously. These perspectives have given us merit pay and high-stakes accountability or "reward and punishment" to solve education problems. Both are supposed to promote motivation. Whereas educators want, need, and deserve salaries that will allow them to live in dignity, or in the style of others who provide essential services, no practitioners enter the profession to become rich. The reward educators seek most is to help young people develop, learn, and be successful in life. Much teacher frustration, dissatisfaction, and even some acting-out behavior is due to the fact that our system(s) of education do not support them in doing so.
If they do not succeed under difficult circumstances, they are punished in the name of accountability. We point them out, write them up in the local newspaper, stigmatize them, run for public office on their backs, and send them away in embarrassment and shame. Some will cheat to survive. Many who could be successful become dissatisfied and leave the profession. One of the unintended consequences of teachers and administrators who, in frustration, change careers is that it discourages interested and able young people from entering the profession. I have heard many educators say that they would never encourage relatives or friends to go into education.
While there is some recognition of the need to help schools and staff under stress, little to no financial support has been made available to do so at the state or federal levels. Even if funds were made available, the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to help is rarely in place at the local or state level.
Efforts to reduce school and class size are a movement in the right direction, but such efforts often miss the point. Putting a warm body in a classroom with fewer students rather than making certain that educators are capable of promoting good relationships, development, and learning reflects the mechanical and infrastructure mentalities that are all too prevalent.
A young teacher insisted that she would be able to control the sixteen children in her third-grade classroom if the administration would put up a partition to cut her room in half.
The size of the room was not the problem, nor was the number of students. The teacher had been a top student in college, but she did not know how to create a climate for learning in her classroom. Although small class size can help, there is evidence that a good relationship climate and good instruction are more important. How to establish such a climate is an important teacher competency.
Even evaluation and research in education are adversely affected by the use of models that are not sufficiently applicable. Evaluation tools in education are designed to be as rigorous as those used in the physical and biomedical sciences. Measurability is characteristic of "hard data." But because such factors as beliefs, feelings, attitudes, climate, trust, and values are powerful determinants of human behavior-but difficult to measure, particularly in complex interactive systems-the assessment methods used in the physical and biological sciences are less useful in school settings.
Also, traditional research models often provide numerical outcome markers without context and process explanations. Thus, outcome measurements can reflect dysfunctional conditions in and outside of schools as much as or more than the curriculum or program, or the performance of students or teachers being assessed. Without observation and description of the complex interactions taking place, it is often impossible to know what the numbers mean or how to use the information to bring about useful change. Many believe that the use of "hard data" is more scientific. But using such data in instances where skillful clinical observation is more helpful is comparable to attempting to place a round ball through a square hole. Hard data and clinical observation should be complementary. Because of our overreliance on numerical indicators, we can miss or greatly undervalue the importance and great power of teaching and learning precursors or facilitating conditions.
Furthermore, the troublesome achievement numbers that have caught the nation's attention are largely from schools in communities that are dysfunctional for a variety of economic and resultant social and psychological reasons. American students in more affluent communities are now achieving as well as the highest academic achievers in the world. But there is evidence that children from difficult economic and social environments can also perform at much higher levels. To help students in greatest need, and schools and parents working with them, we must understand the way economic and social stress factors create dysfunctional institutions and interfere with preparation, motivation, and learning.
In schools where a sense of community can be created, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds, students, staff, and parents can be engaged in a process of continuous growth and learning-learning communities. Such communities can lead to improved student development and academic achievement, as well as to improved staff and parent performance. But the relentless focus on low test scores alone and promises of quick, easy, and inexpensive fixes make it difficult to adequately focus on how such communities can be created school by school and district by district across the nation.
The inappropriate models and emphases now used to shape education practice, evaluation and policies, and the mentalities and behaviors they generate are themselves a big part of our education crisis. There are more useful ways to understand the needs and obstacles and to shape education policy and practice.
The mission of public health is to prevent problem health conditions and to promote effective functioning, both human and environmental. Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related events or states in the human population. Ecology is the study of human populations and their interactions within their physical and cultural environments. These are better but rarely used models for helping us understand how people perform in such powerful interactive institutions as schools. And yet these disciplines are almost foreign notions in the education enterprise-an enterprise whose mission it is to promote desirable functioning. A preventive and interactive perspective is more useful in designing and sustaining systems that work for students, parents, staff, and the society.
What is the public health connection? The purpose of the public school is greater than preparing students to achieve high test scores. The purpose is to prepare students to be successful in school and in life. Life success requires skills that will enable individuals to be good family and group members, learners and problem solvers, workers, and citizens of their respective communities. When most people can function in these ways, open, democratic societies can be promoted and sustained.
Indeed, then, one purpose of public education is to promote the common good. In fact, federal involvement in education was rationalized under the "common good" clause in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. There was and still is a presumption that education will help prevent problem behaviors and create conditions that will promote our democracy and general welfare.
An education that promotes good development can enhance a student's chance of avoiding problem behaviors of all kinds-drug and alcohol abuse, violence, vandalism, bullying, early sex and teen pregnancy, dependency, and criminal behaviors. These are public health issues. Thus schools, in preparing students for a successful adult life, should be intentionally involved in the promotion of positive mental health. To do so, an understanding of how to turn normal but potentially harmful human responses into growth-producing responses is needed. A preventive mental health approach, an aspect of public health, is needed in all aspects of schooling.
The failure of schools to support families in preparing their children for adult life is costly in human and financial terms, particularly for those living under social and economic stress. Such families become marginalized, and this makes it difficult for them to carry out tasks required for mainstream participation. The concept of "mainstream" here is more than socioeconomic status. It is a reference to constructive attitudes, values, and ways of living-work, family life or relationships, child rearing, citizenship contributions-that are held by most of the people and contribute to the well-being of a society.
Our society is paying a high cost for the control, containment, and support of adults who, if they had been helped in school, and in the home and community, could have been productive, contributing citizens. The inability to function, manage families, and rear children well in one generation very often leads to the same inability in subsequent generations. Increasingly repressive controls will be needed to manage the growing number of young people who are not being adequately prepared for mainstream adult life. This will weaken our ability to remain an economically competitive, open, democratic society.
A focus on higher test scores alone cannot produce the outcomes we want and need for our children or our nation. But good child and youth rearing and development can do so, and they can simultaneously produce good test scores.
Excerpted from Leave No Child Behind by JAMES P. COMER Copyright © 2004 by James P. Comer. Excerpted by permission.
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