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Bottling Common Sense

James Comer has created successful schools by replicating the effects of strong parenting and vibrant communities

James Comer has created successful schools by replicating the effects of strong parenting and vibrant communities


JAMES COMER HAS BEEN ONE OF THE GIANTS OF SCHOOL reform for the past several decades, but he has never forgotten his three friends from East Chicago, Indiana. Like him, they were born in the mid-1930s to African-American parents who worked as steel mill laborers and domestics.

Comer earned degrees at Indiana University, the College of Medicine at Howard University and the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and then went on to become the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center.

His friends, however, met very different fates. One succumbed to alcoholism, another spent part of his life in prison, and a third died in a mental institution. Comer, a Teachers College trustee, has been haunted his entire adult life by a simple question: Why them and not me?

Comer has one answer: His parents created a family life conducive to learning. That insight forms the subtext to his 10 books, hundreds of articles, and widely hailed Comer School Development Program.

“In the evenings after work, my mother and father would take us out to Lake Michigan,” Comer says. “They would play with my brothers, sisters and me in the park. At dinner we’d hash out ideas and problems that had come up during the day. And for a snack, we’d have my mother’s home-made malted milk and popcorn. I didn’t know it then, but every activity my parents carried out with us had an educational motive.”

Or, as Comer wrote in Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can’t Solve Our Problems—and How We Can, “All of these experiences, particularly the informally supervised debates, provided us with the stuff that academic success is made of: confidence, interaction skills, thinking and articulation, attacking and defending arguments, analyzing and solving problems, cultural literacy and more.”

COMER ALWAYS FELT THAT HIS PARENTS, HUGH AND MAGGIE, provided a strong measure of what Maggie called common sense. But in the 1960s, when he trained in public health at the University of Michigan, studied adult psychiatry at Yale and took an assignment at the National Institute of Mental Health, Comer increasingly came to understand that “good childhood experiences,” including a caring family, regular churchgoing, basketball games and even trips to the circus, “are the foundation for good learning and good development.”  Feeling that psychiatry was looking at the individual in a social vacuum, he wondered if it was possible to “bottle” the family habits that had prepared him to excel in school and apply them in his work.  He sought to “put my experiences together and begin to understand…why institutions and structures were contributing to student underachievement and then measuring it rather than promoting success.”

In 1967, while working at NIMH, Comer became convinced that the research in his field was focused on collecting the wrong kind of data and that a very different approach might demonstrate which social and cultural factors could have a positive influence on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The deciding factor was a study at NIMH that sought to examine five American cities that had been rocked by riots and five cities—the control group—that hadn’t been. But before the study even began, the second set of cities experienced riots too. Comer recognized that the study’s methodology was inadequate: The researchers had come up with a constant that couldn’t be counted on, so the results would have no practical applications in the classroom. More broadly, as he saw it, the idea of quantifying social reality, popular in scientific circles at the time, was itself flawed. Such an approach rarely, if ever, accounted for powerful yet intangible behavioral influences, such as culture, history and group experiences, because they were difficult to quantify. Researchers were trusting mathematical models, theories and hypotheses to describe social reality, yet it was the social and behavioral intangibles that could shape the course of an individual’s life.

At the invitation of Albert Solnit, then the director of the Yale Child Study Center, Comer returned to Yale to direct a school intervention program. He had not yet concluded that school was the de facto intersection point of cognitive activity, group and individual history, culture, nutrition—indeed, nearly every factor that goes into the construction of a complete human being. All he knew was that the prevailing quantitative approach to social structures, including schools, would yield no useful study results. With peer support, he developed an “exploratory demonstration model” to study two underperforming elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut. His goal was ambitious: Change the climate and culture at the schools so adults could provide students with experiences that would motivate them to learn—and then implement the program in schools across the country.

The joint project between the Yale Child Study Center and the New Haven public school system was hardly smooth sailing. Comer’s intervention model depended on the diagnostic and treatment approach used in medicine. “The knowledge and skills gained from life experience and professional training informed our diagnostic efforts and treatment/intervention approaches,” he wrote in an essay titled “From There to Here.” “The ‘patient’ was the dysfunctional system(s)—including classroom and building practices, policy makers and practice leaders at every level.”

The thorny issue of quantitative results, though, would not go away. In the third year of the five-year project, a reporter observed one of the schools for a week and recognized that the students were thriving. He couldn’t write a story, though, because he could not say how the improvement had come about. Oddly, the funding organization that evaluated the joint project arrived at another conclusion. It said the students needed one-on-one psychiatric care and withdrew its financial support.

And yet Comer’s greatest achievement grew out of this sidelined project. Many of the structural components that he and his colleagues enacted in their demonstration model ultimately became the nine core elements of the School Development Program (SDP), a teacher-parent-community collaboration that fosters the educational and overall development of children.

SDP IDENTIFIES THREE GROUPS, OR “MECHANISMS,” THAT serve as the infrastructure for each participating Comer school: a parent team, a school planning and management team (usually led by the principal) and a student and staff support team, originally called the mental health team. All of these teams have one overriding purpose: to promote desirable child development and behavior. The teams also embrace three guiding principles: consensus (so there are no winners and losers), collaboration among all stakeholders and a no-fault attitude to prevent divisive finger-pointing.

At the center of the SDP process is the comprehensive school plan, a mix of academic curricula and activities that build social skills, such as book fairs, fashion shows, field trips, fund-raising projects and potluck suppers. There is also a staff development plan whereby teachers can acquire new skills and an assessment and modification function that gives schools the flexibility to change course as needed. All of it, Comer says, grew organically out of a process in which all the players were working and thinking together.

To date, more than 1,000 U.S. schools in 82 school districts in 26 states have used the School Development Plan. (The model has also been adopted in Ireland, South Africa, Trinidad and England.) All of these schools have had to confront the myriad social challenges that arise from low family income, recent immigration, language barriers and an urban environment. Yet many of these schools report stunning results after five years. As related in The Kids Got Smarter: Case Studies of Successful Comer Schools, at one urban school where students and parents speak 17 different languages and dialects, student test scores have risen steadily since the school adopted SDP. For three consecutive years, scores in every area of the Abbreviated Stanford Achievement Test showed gains. At another Comer method school, one that stands adjacent to a neighborhood marked by heavy drug dealing, low-income housing and abandoned buildings, the discovery of lead contamination on the school’s playground created a surprisingly productive partnership between the school and the state’s public health department. Indeed, the school gained a reputation as an advocate for community health.  

Not every Comer school is a success story. By his own accounting, about one-third of SDP schools have improved dramatically, one-third have improved modestly and about one-third have not improved. Many factors contribute to a complete lack of improvement, he says. The most notable is lack of buy-in by players in different parts of the school ecosystem.

In one case, for example, an SDP school went from being the lowest-achieving school in its district to the highest. But the superintendent insisted that the results had come about through cheating. “With great media fanfare and under central-office management, the students had to take the state test over again,” Comer wrote in “From There to Here.” “When the students did even better the second time, there was almost no media coverage.” The superintendent ended up removing the principal and several other school staff, and the school, Comer wrote, “was plunged back to its underperforming status within a year.”

Today Comer stands by his ideas but says he ought to have been more politically savvy. “I probably made a mistake in thinking that the evidence would speak for itself,” he says. “I believed that successful outcomes would have an impact that would force people to change. It would have been time well spent if I had developed a group of powerful contacts that could advocate for us at the legislative level.”

Comer’s peers, meanwhile, locate him in the pantheon of education reformers. “I have often thought that James Comer and John Dollard, who wrote Psychotherapy and Learning, should have gotten together at Yale,” wrote Edmund Gordon, Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at TC, in response to an emailed query for this story. “Dollard sought to make the conceptual connection between psychotherapy and human learning, while Comer demonstrated the practical connection between school learning and mental health, i.e., psychosocial well-being. History will note that the fields of pedagogy, psychiatry and psychology owe an enormous debt to these two giants. It was my good fortune to have held hands with both.”

Perhaps Comer’s most important impact has stemmed from his insistence that educators and researchers rely on concrete, usable data, from the initial school visits assessing the challenges that students, teachers and parents face to the final analysis of SDP results. In a world where funding allocations and student-teacher ratios increasingly depend on hard evidence of success, it turns out that data-driven processes are often the only quantifiable research that will win support to turn around ailing schools.

When they do, perhaps the descendants of James Comer’s old East Chicago friends will have the chance to become what their fathers could not.   

Published Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011


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