top of page

Our Education Myth

Originally Published: Grand News

We share a myth that clouds our understanding of the reasons for educational failure.

In 1990, the National Center on Education and the Economy published “America’s Choice: high skills or low wages!” and noted “more than any other country in the world, the United States believes that natural ability, rather than effort, explains achievement. The tragedy is that we communicate to millions of students every year, especially to low-income and minority students that we do not believe that they have what it takes to learn. They then live up to our expectations, despite the evidence that they can meet very high performance standards under the right conditions.”

In 1996, Laurence Steinberg reported on a very extensive study in his book “Beyond the Classroom” and noted, “When we discuss students and their performance in school, we speak in the language of ability. Instead, we should be speaking in the language of engagement.” The success of the Amistad Academy Charter Middle School in Fair Haven is evidence for these points.”

Dr. James P. Comer

James P. Comer, MD (pictured right) was the keynote speaker in February at the “Hardwired to Connect” Non-profit Forum sponsored by the Graustein Memorial Fund at the Friends Meeting House on East Grand Avenue. The topic was the title of a study sponsored by the YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American Values.

The study concluded: “Human beings are hardwired to form relationships, early nurture powerfully affects brain development, nurture can neutralize genetic vulnerabilities, the biologically-based need for nurture continues through adolescence, human begins are biologically primed to seek moral and spiritual meaning and nurturing relationships, and nurturing relationships and a spiritual connection to the transcendent significantly improve physical and emotional health.”

Dr. Comer was a member of the Commission on Children at Risk that prepared this report, and it resonates strongly with the findings in his new book, “Leave No Child Behind” where he concludes, “when children are developing well, they learn well.”

“The resistance to a developmental perspective is rooted in the most powerful and widespread of many myths that school learning is a product of genetically determined intelligence and will only.”

The now famous “Comer Process” evolved out of Dr. Comer’s experiences in two New Haven schools beginning in 1968, “We used the management team that we had initially put in place simply to survive to create other structures that enabled staff and parents to begin to work together, experience small successes, and gradually acquire mutual respect and trust.”

Dr. Comer reached another defining moment, “The schools had been functioning well for two or three years, and the students were able, motivated, and learning. There were many indications that the students were as able and motivated as middle-income children. The staff was able and motivated. Parents were engaged and supportive. Why were the test scores not going up?”

“Our students did not receive the kind of supervised pre-school and out-of-school experiences needed to promote learning in schools,” Dr. Comer realized, and further reflected. “It appears that marginalization – not poverty – locks students and families and the people who interact with them in a powerful grip of hopelessness and powerlessness. Students, parents, and staff view themselves as ‘the bottom of the barrel.’ This leads to apathy, apprehension, and underperformance, withdrawal or harmful acting-out behavior, or all of the above.”

A grant to initiate a Social Skills Curriculum was received by Dr. Comer, and “units were developed in the four areas of activity where we had agreed the children would need exposure in order to gain academic knowledge and skills required for life tasks – politics and government, business and economics, health and nutrition, and spiritual and leisure time or expressive activities – the arts, athletics, others.”

“By creating conditions that allowed parents, staff and students not only to participate in but to sponsor a mainstream activity, the grip of hopelessness and powerlessness was weakened.”

When Dr. Comer started, the schools he worked in were at the bottom in achievement test scores. He was overjoyed when “the test scores began to rise.”

“In the eighth year, the schools were tied for third and fourth highest levels of achievement in the city. They had the best attendance record in the city, and they had no serious behavior problems.”

Dr. Comer was unable to obtain continuing funding for his Social Skills Curriculum, “By the time enough schools were successfully implementing the basic model (the School Development Program – SDP), in the late 1980s, I was the only one left on our staff who had experienced the power and excitement of the Social Skills Curriculum.”

There was a powerful reason the idea remained dear to Dr. Comer because he believes, “Improved test scores alone will not be enough to prepare students from marginalized backgrounds to have a chance to be reasonably successful in life. Such young people need a level of development and related life-management skills that are gained through meaningful interactions with meaningful caretakers from birth through maturity.”

In my own career, I have had a somewhat parallel experience to Dr. Comer’s from 1968 to 1970 and again in 1996-97 with a process I call “NeighborTeams, NeighborGrants.” This is a social skills system that generates “social capital” at the block level. Dr. Comer notes that “(James S.) Coleman’s work suggested that schools could not do much to help poor children because they lacked the social capital they should have acquired at home and in their communities.”

I believe there is a better chance of replenishing social capital/skills in the venue of the neighborhood and households for both children and adults than in attempting to reform the institution of the schools to undertake this as a primary responsibility. All that is needed is a fresh approach to recruiting the resources required to support community building and child development. The Grand News Neighbor Paper is a first step in this direction!

Originally Published: Grand News, March 2005

(Pictured left: Giving “it” more thought.)

bottom of page