Waiting for a Miracle: Schools Are Not the Problemby James P. Comer
It is the thesis of this provocative book that the deteriorating state of America's public school system is actually a reflection of the problems in our culture and society. In Waiting For A Miracle, James P. Comer M.D., Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center and the author of Maggie's American Dream, and co-author of Raising Black Children, outlines the cause of these afflictions and presents an inspiring paradigm for a new way of thinking and acting with regard to children and family. At the root of the problem, he states, is a social failure to make a commitment to families, and to community and child development. Using many examples from his personal experience of growing up poor, and from more than thirty years of community involvement, Comer argues that schools can be the most important instrument of change in a society. He spells out how private, public and non-profit sectors can collaborate to enable children, families, and communities to survive and thrive.
As a leader of the School Development Program, Comer (Child Psychiatry/Yale Univ.; Maggie's American Dream, 1988, etc.) has done much to better the plight of underprivileged students (especially black children) in our public schools. With his help, the SDP has effectively raised student morale, encouraged community spirit, and standardized test scores in some of the nation's poorest regions. Unfortunately, Comer's theoretical analysis of America's educational system isn't nearly as successful as his practice. Comer identifies two "myths" that he blames for most of the problems: First, "we believe that the life outcome of an individual is the result almost entirely of genetically determined intelligence and will"; second, "whites have been successful, and Blacks have not." Comer doesn't persuade us that these myths are at the root of the trouble, and in fact, it's highly debatable that they are even widely held. He then tries to "prove" his points with anecdotal evidence and poorly defined statistics. In the end, Comer's main prescription for change, while basically sound, is hardly groundbreaking. He believes that a child's education begins at home and in the community, and that schools can only accomplish so much without the support of these two networks.
Comer offers many success stories to make his pointhis own story, as both a student and a professional, is the running theme throughout the bookbut ultimately this falls short as a study of the problem, as a guide to improving it, and even as the thinly masked autobiography it actually is.
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I have been more fortunate than most Americans. My experience as an African-American has been an expression of what America could be. And that is why I want to discuss how it still can become what it set out to be, the Good Society.
I am from a working-class family. On one side I am a generation removed from extreme poverty and abuse, with grandparents probably born into slavery. On the other side I had great-grandparents whose slave experience was less disorganizing, and a grandfather who was a small farmer and church minister.
My choice of child psychiatry as a career stemmed originally from my curiosity about why equally talented (sometimes more talented) black friends did not achieve their potential. In time, my work led to an effort to do something to improve the chances of such young people.
In many ways my life has been a journey from the margins of society toward the center. What I have been told along the way by various people has often been different from what I have observed and what I know will and will not work. So, throughout this book, I will use as a frame of reference my own life experience. This experience in general, and my work in schools in particular, has brought me to doubt that many institutional policies and programs being used and proposed to address our growing social problemscommunity and family deterioration, educational underachievement, ethnic and racial tensions, vandalism and violencewill succeed.
After several years as director of Yale's School Development Program, I with my colleagues learned how tosignificantly improve two schools, and then many more. But as we analyzed our work, troublesome questions began to arise. Why did some improve dramatically, some modestly, and some not at all? Why is it so difficult and why does it take so long to improve schools? And most important, why are there so many schools in trouble?
All along we have observed that most schoolteachers and administrators want to succeed. Most parents certainly want their children to succeed. And most students are able and struggling to succeed in all the ways available to young people. What, then, is the problem?
The question calls to mind an apocryphal story.
Two men in a boat rescued a child drowning in a river. As they rowed on, they saw three, then four, and finally a riverful of drowning children. As the man at the oars started for the shore, the other asked him where he was going: there were still so many children to be rescued. The reply was, "I'm going to find out who is throwing these children in the water, and stop them!"
No single person can "stop them"put an end to institutional and individual problems. But it is important to point out that the state of our schools is not the problem itself, but a reflection of the condition of the larger society. It gradually became clear to me what the problem is.
In our culture we believe that the life outcome of an individual is due almost entirely to genetically determined intelligence and will. This central belief both flows from and contributes to the individualism that is so much a part of the American character. (The belief, not coincidentally, is fundamental to our "trickle-down" economic system, according to which, the brightest and the best create and manage economic enterprises and others fit into the system as they are able.) We deny or downplay all other determinants: child development, access to opportunity networkeducational, economic, political, socialand chance, particularly inheritance and the natural connections stemming from where you are born on the social scale.
I call this belief our First Myth.
The many roots of American individualism have been described, often, as both our major strength and our major weakness. The tension that sets individual effort and rights and interests against the common good is probably necessary and even usefulwhen in balance, and when all individuals have reasonable access to the same opportunities. But a serious imbalance or limited access, for whatever reasons, creates problems.
The notion that intelligence and will alone determine outcomes implies that everyone has similar opportunities and faces similar obstacles. It suggests that the cream rises to the top through superior intellect and exertion, and that is good for society. For their efforts, the best and brightest deserve all they can get. This creates a winner/loser rather than a win-win mentality. The focus on competition allows individualism to run amokto be carried to extremes that endanger the common good.
Competition is a highly regarded American value. It is a product of the impulse for survival. But the winner/loser mind-set creates a need to find and attack "losers." The loser deserves disdain and exclusion. Gone is any emphasis on caring and on using individual talents to promote the common good. Gone is any recognition that human beings function best in caring societiesin win-win situations.
The universal human task is to find personal adequacy and meaning in life. These are found most often through pride in work, in care for self and/or family, and in being a valued and contributing citizen of a societya winner. Some people, for a variety of reasons both personal and situational, are unable to achieve this. Yet the myth holds that they have brought all their problems on themselves.
Those who do not succeed at life's tasks often seek adequacy and meaning through behaviors that are troublesome to the society and the individualthat contribute to problems ranging from poor family functioning to undereducation, dependency, crime, and violence. Also, the fear of being a loser can evoke the immature but very powerful human urge to scapegoat others less able to defend themselves.
The effectiveness of this tactic should not be underestimated. Scapegoating is a primitive but natural response to threat and insecurity. A simple example from my own life illustrates this. As a student in graduate school at the University of Michigan with a 3 1/2-year-old son, a newborn daughter, and a wife who had just given birth, I was under stress. One evening I snapped at my son unfairly. He was hurt. Without saying a word, he moved slowly the long way around the room until he reached the crib of his new sister. Then he reached in and hit her.
Because this kind of hurtful reaction is natural, a society must be structured to enable people to deal with insecurity in more mature ways. To minimize scapegoating and to promote the general well-being, a society must make it possible for most people to be successful most of the time. But for many reasonssize, wealth, and particularly the fact that we are a nation of immigrantsAmerica has always resorted to scapegoating. Throughout our history, the latest immigrant group was blamed for any and all problems. The descendants of African slaves have been particularly vulnerable. This caste group would become for the nation what the "problem child" is to a family that is not functioning wella permanent scapegoat. A common refrain in clinical practice is "There's nothing wrong with us, it's him."
This brings us to what I call the Second Myththat whites have been successful, and blacks have not.
How is this explained in the face of contradictory evidence? Certainly a large factor has been the First Myththat able individuals will rise by their own effort. And many whites maintain the myth through their identification with more highly successful whites and through their denial of significant black success.
There have been changes since World War II. A 1996 National Opinion Research Center report indicated that only 7 percent of Americans born after 1945 attribute lower average socioeconomic attainment among blacks to lesser intelligence, compared to 26 percent among those born before. But a sobering 47 percent attributed the disparity to a lack of motivation.
Implicit in this belief is the idea that everyone has had the same chance. This is clearly not true, yet it provides justification for limiting efforts to promote educational and economic opportunities. Racial abuse, even demonization, serves selfish political and economic purposes and encourages continued scapegoating. And blacks are the proxy for all vulnerable groups.
The front cover of the August 12, 1996, issue of The New Republic pictured a black woman smoking a cigarette, looking aimlessly into space, with a baby in her lap sucking on a bottle. Blazoned above were the words DAY OF RECKONING, and the story title below read "Sign the Welfare Bill Now." While the articles inside were balanced and thoughtful, the impact of the cover was much more powerful. It is flagrant scapegoating, for it blames people whom many already view as "bad" for the outcomes of past and present bad policies.
Opportunists have managed to convince the average American that "those people" are breaking the bank. In fact, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Supplemental Security Income, and food stampsprograms for the most dependentall together amount to 3.4 percent of the federal budget. And most of the recipients are not black, but it is easier to scapegoat them if the public thinks they are. The typical child on AFDC is white and lives in the rural South, Appalachia, or poor areas of major cities. Medicare, Social Security, and other middle-class benefits are actually much more costly than these programs.
The intelligence-determines-outcome myth, with attendant ramifications that are often played out without conscious awareness, permeates all our institutionseconomic, political, educationaland affects the way we interact with each other. It affects our attitudes about health care, child care, housing, recreation, and all the other things needed to promote child and youth development and expression and adequate family functioning.
Alas, it is often expressed most sharply and hurtfully in schools.
On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I told my hostsa teacher and three administratorsabout an incident in an American school: When a teacher brought her dog to school prior to the opening of the year, a colleague playfully commented, "I see you brought us another student," to which the dog owner replied, "Oh, no! This is a smart dog, not like our kids."
The Danish teacher, who had been sitting in a relaxed position, bolted erect and said sharply, "She should not be a teacher!" She added that in Denmark some teachers perform poorly but that she had never heard anyone make a remark like that about students in her many years in the profession. But when I recount the incident to American educators, there is little surprise or shock, even if they are distressed. Most have heard the dummy-loser attitude expressed time and again.
In this case the offending teacher was white and her school was predominantly black. But in a recent New York Times article about moving her family to the exurbs of upstate New York, Francine Prose describes how a teacher there sprinkled a little water on the "slow" students while watering the classroom plants. She called this practice "watering the vegetables."
It would be easy to label these teachers "bad." And surely anything that hurts the development of students is bad pedagogical practice. But such teachers are products of a pervasive cultural belief. From their own childhood experiences through their professional preparation to our almost fanatical preoccupation with the highest test scores in school they absorb the message that will and intelligence determine success.
In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman wrote, "One of psychology's open secrets is the relative inability of grades, IQ, or SAT scores, despite their popular mystique, to predict unerringly who will succeed in life.... There are widespread exceptions to the rule that IQ predicts successmany (or more) exceptions than cases that fit the rule. At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces." Yale psychologist Robert J. Sternberg and University of Connecticut psychologist Joseph S. Renzulli point to a threshold level of intelligence needed for life success but indicate the importance of factors such as creativity, task commitment, and positive reinforcement as determinants also. I would add good social skills, good health, access to opportunity, and good luck.
As long as most people could work without a high level of education, we got away with the argument that the cream rises to the top. But child care health care, and community renewal programs are needed to enable most families without education and skills to function well. When our failure to provide such support began to result in social problems ranging from welfare dependency to crime, we blamed and scapegoated the most vulnerable people rather than developing policies and practices needed to adjust to changes created by technological advances.
Now employment requires a higher level of education, so an understanding we have downplayedthat through good development most people can perform wellneeds to permeate our institutions. For the common good, society needs to systematically promote adequate development. Blaming vulnerable groups only interferes with our ability to identify and overcome or limit system-level problems that are affecting all groups.
For example, the one-parent family incidence among blacks that Daniel Patrick Moynihan courageously pointed out as a problem about twenty-five years ago is now the rate among whites. The proportion of white one-parent families increased from 10 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in 1994. The Trends report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that the percentage of births to unmarried white teens rose by 284 percent between 1970 and 1992. In 1970 the rate of black unmarried teen births was three times that of whites. In 1992 it was only one and a third times that of whites.
Substance abuse, once thought prevalent mainly in black communities, is now high in all communities. Youth Indicators (1993) noted that in 1992, 88 percent of high school seniors acknowledged using alcohol, 62 percent cigarettes, and 33 percent marijuana. Because blacks make up only 12 percent of the population, these drugs must be in widespread use in the white community.
The arrest rate for violent crimes by white teens under the age of eighteen rose by 300 percent from 1970 to 1992, while the rate for nonwhites rose only 22.5 percent during the same period. And the homicide rate among white males fifteen to nineteen years old almost tripled in those years.
When social problems began to increase sharply in white suburbs and rural areas in the 1970s, it should have been clear that we had underlying structural and/or systemic problems. But it wasn't until the 1990s that policymakers and even social scientists began to give significant attention to these issues. Even now many insist that the problems are individual, unrelated to economic and social structures and processes.
To survive and thrive as a democracy, a society-must attend to three areas.
* It must develop a sound and growing economy that permits the participation of all of its citizens.
* It must maintain sound community and family functioning so that critical tasks, particularly child rearing, can be well performed.
* It must have a culture that values both and facilitates the critical interaction between the two.
And do we need to attend to these three areas simultaneously? Yes; they are linked.
* When the economy works, heads of households can earn the resources to promote adequate family functioning.
* When families function well, children are more likely to grow up prepared for success in school, as citizensand at work.
A serious and sustained imbalance of power and lack of attention to any of these critical areas can lead to big problems. Our society gives lip service to the critical relationship between individual development and opportunity, but does not promote such development widely enough to meet today's requirements. Traditional schooling and the imparting of social skills are both needed, as are the employment opportunities, health care, and child care that help families to make their children ready for school. Unfortunately, we tend to leave these necessities to economic chance.
The fact that individual development is directly related to the quality of community and family functioning is only now being recognized, and even now by too few. Our societal problems, based on wrongheaded cultural beliefs, have indeed been self-inflicted.
Nonetheless, the United States has probably come closer to creating the Good Society than any society of its complexity in the history of the worlddespite its huge size, its growing population, and its complicated history of immigration and migration and slavery. Our country is still a place where you can start with nothing and build a fortune. It is still a place where you can worship as you please, speak your mind about what you think is right, even write a book about what you think is wrong.
Even with our great diversity, the United States is still a place where the democratic ideal remains alive. Indeed, we have endured two centuries of turbulence and struggleagainst slavery and for suffragetimes of economic upheavals and divisive wars, and remained strong in our ideals and institutions. America is an idea that has come close enough to its, proclaimed promise to tease us into believing that, with just a little more effort, maybe we can get it right. But it is getting late in the day.
The beginning of the twenty-first century is going to be an important psychological watershed. Nations in which large numbers of people are in great trouble are going to go on a downhill course, slowly at first, perhaps, but then rapidly as an increasing percentage of each generation fails to make the grade. Nations that reach the twenty-first century with most of their people functioning well most of the time are going to thrive.
The First and Second Myths identified above stand firmly in our way. They prevent us from overcoming the ill effects of race-based past policies and practices. They prevent us from creating a system of schooling that is based on what we know about how children develop and learn. They prevent us from promoting the kind of community and family functioning that will enable most families to successfully carry out their critical tasks most of the time, now and in a future that will bring great changes and, probably, less work as we now know it.
Without significant change in our culture, neither schools nor any other institutions can solve our problems. Expecting schools to do so is like "waiting for a miracle." But we can change our beliefs and behaviors and begin to effectively address our problems.
We can't begin to make the degree of change that is needed, however, without dismantling our paralyzing myths. The myths affect even our tools of understanding. For example, accepting test scores as reliable measures of student ability, prominent researchers once argued that changing the schools couldn't make a difference. They concluded that what the students brought with themtheir inherent ability and their early experiences at homewere all that counted. But subsequent studies have shown beyond any doubt that schools can and do make a difference. The social environment of schools can promote student development and effort and improve academic achievement.
The old research reminds me of the comment of a student who was so fed up with social-science thinking that he dropped out of graduate school. He asked, "Why is it that they look at the dying flower and ask what is wrong with it? Why don't they ask whether it has had enough sunlight and water, whether the roots have taken and the nutrition is adequate?" Because we believe it is all in the genes, we don't think enough about how societal factors and forces interact to make desirable outcomes possible.
The pervasiveness of our major myths has suggested the organization of this book in three sections: Perspectives, Winners and Losers, and Win-Win. As my argument goes against the cultural grain, I devote the first section, Perspectives, to grounding. In the second section I explore the myths built into our cultural foundation. In the third section I examine three problem areas we must address, and I propose processes we can put in motion that will allow each American to help prepare us all to meet the challenges of this age, and the new age bearing down on us.
In the first section I ask the reader to walk in my shoes, to see what I have seen, to experience what I have experienced. I do this by describing aspects of my own growing-up experience. I want you to meet my family and my friends, the people in my church and neighborhood and school. I want you to feel the support and opposition I experienced in the world beyond my family, and the critical role my family played. I want you to see how my experience was both comparable to and different from that of other young people of the same ability and economic level.
I want you to walk with me into schools where young people were not doing well. I want you to hear how lessons learned from my experience brought about improved outcomes where many said it couldn't be done.
Equally, I want you to feel the resistance to efforts to improve the outcomes of many more that was expressed by institutions and individuals from the schoolhouse to the White House of the 1970s.
Because of my experience I know that outcomes are determined by more than intelligence and will. From my perspective, winners and losers are made, not born, and there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Yet the critical role of political, economic, and social structures in individual performance is largely ignored. Therefore in the second section of this book I explore our First and Second myths, looking at the way development and performance of the individual is affected by powerful structures and conditions in the networks around them.
I also show how the African-American experience differs from that of other groups in the ways that count the mostcultural discontinuity, inadequate opportunity for family and community development, and exclusion from the economic mainstream over time. The way the black experience is different contributes to the myth of inate inferiority and to greater vulnerability of the group to economic and social problems. I show how rapid changes in the economy over the last fifty years have been particularly harmful, and I discuss how this vulnerability hurts the country as much as the black community.
The problem here is that African-Americans are not a separate countrynot even the left arm of a right-handed Uncle Sam. The group is more like 12 percent of the nation's heart muscle. And when that much of our heart muscle is in trouble, we're at serious risk of a national heart attack.
In the third section, I will discuss how we can individually and collectively begin to bring about needed adjustments. First, the nation must find ways to decrease the scapegoating of African-Americansand all other groupsso that we can focus our attention on the problems and opportunities that face us. Second, we must create a system of schooling that can help us solve societal and cultural problems rather than simply reflect them. Finally, we must find a way to promote a win-win culturecompetitive but caring and enabling of allthe Good Society.
Our policies and practices are often labeled conservative or liberal. And we wallow in the debate of public versus private. These dichotomies are not helpful. What we do should flow from empirical evidence of what works, as well as from what is ethical and moral. And successful human systems, because of human nature, require constant efforts to maintain the delicate balance among economic, cultural, and community and family forces. This requires public and private interaction and cooperationand an effort to promote participation and inclusion for all.
Fortunately, structures and practices that are already in place, or have been beneficially used previously, can be modified or used as models to address today's needs. We already spend a great deal of money on social programs; unfortunately, too little is spent to prevent problems in the first place. Our task is to change the cultural mind-set in all our institutions from "those who can, will" to "all can."
Although the school is a reflection of the problem, with adjustments it can become a significant part of the solution. There are studies that show that scientifically based structural changesorganized and managed, and working differently at every leveland not education gimmicks can make public schools effective. And this in turn can foster the broader national change that we need as we face the challenges of the twenty-first century.
A colleague has pointed out that if deep-seated beliefs and related dynamics are the problem, and cultural change is the key to solving it, we are in a tight spot. Culture change is difficult and slow. There can be no "magic bullet," no quick fix.
Yet I am optimistic. With effective mobilization, significant cultural change has already taken place in our country in a reasonable period of time. And as I will show, mechanisms can be put in place to begin to solve our problems, to crease a good and caring society capable of adjusting in a future that will be changing ever faster.
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