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Grawemeyer education recipient says school cultures must change to address child development needs

April 18th, 2007

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James Comer

Teachers and school administrators must learn to apply childhood development concepts to get the most out of underdeveloped students, James Comer, winner of the 2007 Grawemeyer Award in Education, told a group at the University of Louisville Tuesday.

Comer, Maurice Falk professor of child psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, said schools focus too much on curricular assessments instead of creating supportive environments that promote children’s mental and social development.

A child’s social network — family, neighbors, church members and others in the community — provide the supportive environment for children early in their development, Comer said.

“All children come into the world underdeveloped,” he said. “Development takes place when caretakers offer a supportive and nurturing environment that encourages children to manage feelings; interact properly with others; and develop hopes, aspirations and dreams.”

School is supposed to continue supporting students to encourage further development, but teachers are not prepared to deal with underdeveloped students, Comer said.

“The traditional teaching model encourages teachers to follow what I call the ‘best brain approach’ — children who are the brightest will learn, while everyone else won’t,” he said. “Schools must find ways to help underdeveloped students learn while continuing to help developed students grow.”

Comer said that although he grew up poor, his family encouraged learning and instilled in him an attitude of achievement. He recalled when a teacher chastised three of his friends, who had above-average ability but did not receive similar support at home, for not completing an assignment.

“My friends did not have the support at home to know how to thrive in school, but my teacher only offered rejection, which further discouraged them,” he said. “They never recovered from that.”

That situation drove Comer to develop a program nearly 40 years ago that encourages schools to create atmospheres that enable children to adopt positive behavioral attitudes and learn how to be contributing members of society.

His School Development Program requires teachers, parents, administrators and others to work together to create a comprehensive school plan, encourage staff development programs and assess and modify actions on an ongoing basis.

These groups must follow a no-fault policy to “focus on solving the problem without assigning blame for the problem,” Comer said. “When this is followed, collaborating and making decisions by consensus become much easier.”

When Comer selected the two lowest-achieving schools in Chicago to test his program, he met a lot of resistance from teachers, administrators and parents, making progress slow. It took seven years before there was any measurable academic gain, but scores improved dramatically after that. The schools now stand tied for third and fourth in achievement levels and have the best attendance and lowest number of discipline problems of Chicago schools.

More than 600 low-performing U.S. school’s have adopted Comer’s approach, and the level of student achievement has gone up at most of them.

“By creating a nurturing environment, that has created a culture where learning has improved at all levels,” Comer said.

Comer called for education colleges to teach education students child and adolescent development techniques and reach out to teachers in the field to provide guidance to change the way teachers and schools operate.

“Teachers and administrators need help in applying child and adolescent development in practice, but they have not been trained that way,” he said. “Colleges of education can help fill that void.”

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