Comer To Obama: Look Beyond Test Scores

Melissa Bailey PhotoModern-day school reformers are focusing too much on standardized tests and too little on kids’ hearts and minds, a legendary Yale child psychologist said as he prepares to advise the president.

Dr. James P. Comer made the remarks in an interview this week in his office at the Yale Child Study Center. President Obama in January named Comer one of 15 appointees to a new President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

The commission is tasked with “improving educational outcomes for African Americans to ensure that all African Americans receive an education that prepares them for college, productive careers, and satisfying lives.”

Comer said he will stress to the committee the central importance of child development in helping disadvantaged minority kids succeed.

“The modern school reform movement that focuses on math and reading,” Comer said, “misses what schools are about. Schools are to prepare students to be successful in life.”

Comer, who’s 79, has spent his life examining how to help students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, succeed in school. He concluded that students can soar when schools explicitly help them with socio-emotional, psychological, ethical and linguistic development, not just cognitive skills. He came up with a groundbreaking method of child development called the Comer Method, which debuted in New Haven schools in the 1960s, then spread to over 1,000 schools in the U.S. and beyond.

In an interview, he outlined the personal experiences and professional discoveries he aims to take with him in his new position.

Comer grew up poor in East Chicago, Indiana. His mom, a domestic worker, had less than two years of formal education. His dad, a steel mill laborer, had about six. Despite their lack of formal education, he said, his parents offered their children “respect, caring, belonging,” the elements that helped them develop as human beings.

“We were taught the rules of life,” Comer said. His parents introduced him to new experiences. “We loved learning.”

As Comer grew older, he soared in school and began a path to become a general practice doctor. At the same time, he noticed something troubling: “my equally talented friends, and similar African American students, were not doing well in life.”

“My career goal was to find out why and change the limiting conditions so that such young people could have the same chance that I had,” Comer said.

After earning his medical degree, Comer searched for that answer at the University of Michigan, where he earned a public health master’s degree; and at Yale University School of Medicine, which he joined in 1964 as a psychiatry fellow.

Comer studied how children learn. He had insights into how young children and adolescents performed in school was tied to how they developed as “social” beings — dealing with their personal problems, interacting with other people. Urban low-income black children in particular, he determined, need support in “social development” to do better in school.

Comer joined the Yale Child Study Center in 1968. He began work on a project through which schools would “approximate the kind of supportive out-of-school experience that I received, and most mainstream students receive.”


He charted how parents and teachers need to work together to help them. He came up with six connected developmental “pathways” along which the school system needs to guide children. One element of the Comer Method is morning meetings (like the one at left in video, from a Davis Street School classroom in 2009), in which kids talk through their emotional and social concerns in a supportive group setting.

Comer’s School Development Program debuted in New Haven’s Baldwin, King and Brennan schools in the 1960s. The test schools, among the worst in the city in achievement, attendance and behavior, soared to third-place in achievement, and best in attendance, Comer said. Behavior problems disappeared.

The method went national and international, spreading to over 1,000 schools in over 50 school districts. Then it fell out of fashion.

Comer’s program was training nearly 2,000 educators across the country, in places like California, Detroit, Chicago, New Jersey and Florida, when Congress in 2002 passed the No Child Left Behind Act.

“No Child Left Behind, and its narrow focus on test scores, sharply reduced use of our developmental approach,” Comer said. “We had to stop the training.”

Now Comer’s group works directly with about 40 schools; some of the 1,000-plus it had trained in the past continue to use the method on their own.

In New Haven, the method has fallen into and out of favor. At Katherine Brennan School, for example, teachers who had fully bought into the method left the school, and the practices disappeared. Now an educator who fully supports the Comer Method, Gail DeBlasio, has taken over the school as principal; Comer said he is optimistic about the continuation of the Comer Method under her leadership.

Citywide, 22 schools are using a School Planning and Management Team, which is one component of Comer’s method. Another 10 have fully implemented the Comer Method, which includes a “student and staff support team” and a parent team, who make decisions by “no-fault problem solving” and consensus.

Comer attributed the Comer Method’s declining popularity not only to No Child Left Behind, but to a lack of knowledge among educators about how kids develop and grow. A 2010 survey found that 10 percent of schools of education did not require aspiring teachers to take a course in child development, he said. And of the schools that did, 65 percent offered those courses outside the education department.

“That is a problem,” Comer said, a sign of a disconnect between academic learning and “development.”

“Teachers are faced with behaviors every day that they need to be able to respond to,” he said. Often, kids respond to frustration, disappointment and loss “in ways that are viewed as bad.”

“Teachers lack the tools to understand what that behavior is about,” Comer said, so they resort to a system of “punishment and control.”

Teachers need to see those bad behaviors as an opportunity to help kids who are “underdeveloped,” Comer said. If they do that, kids will “see you as a helper rather than a controller,” and they will form a positive attachment to their teacher. Students will be more likely to feel motivated, to want to please the teacher, and to want to please themselves.

On the other hand, if you “turn a child off” through punishment and control, she will do poorly.

Comer said he is currently working on a new approach to train educators in how to support students’ development. The approach wouldn’t only train them after they’re already in the classroom. It would support teachers beforehand, guide which educators are chosen for the classroom, and support them through ongoing professional development.

Comer said his center is working with New Haven Public Schools to pilot this system-wide training program as soon as possible.

“Gimmicks” Ignore Findings

Meanwhile, he said, the national school reform movement has moved away from the key findings he has spent his life promoting. After No Child Left Behind (NCLB), teachers began to devote so much time to test prep that they cut morning meetings. The modern-day reforms promoted by the Obama administration have focused in large part on using test scores to measure teacher quality.

“That’s a mistake,” Comer said. The modern school reform movement exhibits “an absence of understanding of brain growth and maturation,” he said—of the social, emotional, moral, ethical and linguistic development of children.

The “gimmicks and tactics” of modern-day school reform “don’t go after the fundamental need” of children, he said.

A person’s “executive function,” the part of the brain that gives us self-control and helps us stick with a task to its completion, doesn’t fully develop until we reach our 20s, Comer said. That means schools need to focus on continual development from before birth to maturity.

“The school reformers have missed that entirely,” Comer said.

Obama’s new push for universal pre-K will be a great improvement, he said—but not if the pre-K programs focus simply on academics.

The current school accountability movement is too singularly focused on test scores, Comer said.

“The way they’ve set it up, it’s all cognitive,” he said: The focus is on information kids need to learn, not how they need to develop.

New movements, such as the Common Core State Standards, have the potential of pushing academic standards down to early childhood while ignoring kids’ social and emotional needs, he said. Or, he said, “they could do it all”—help children develop and learn.

He said schools should focus on two questions: “What do children need to know, and what kind of experiences do they need to be successful adults?”

Comer, who has served on numerous national panels, in 2006 chaired the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Roundtable on Child and Adolescent Development Research and Teacher Education.

He said he has met President Obama a few times: First when Obama was elected U.S. senator from Chicago, where Comer had been doing work in city schools; and two more times on Martha’s Vineyard, where they both vacation.

Comer said while Obama “came in very supportive of NCLB,” but has since shown an openness to a new mindset.

Comer said he sees “an awareness” among the reform movement “that what they’ve been doing isn’t working.” An awareness that the problem with public education is “not just bad teachers, not just unions.”

But “now they don’t know what to do,” he said. “They still have not focused on the centrality and the power of development.”


Tags: , , ,

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: NewHavenPublic on February 21, 2014  12:46pm

Thank you Melissa Bailey and Dr. Comer.

I hope Dr. Comer’s powerful rejection of the failed “test-and-punish” policies of the past 12 years does not fall on deaf ears.

Dr. Comer’s life work has set an aspirational bar far higher than any of the “reformers” with their high-stakes common core testing and smearing of professional teachers.  We do not build a better society with charter schools for the compliant children who do well on standardized tests.

Is New Haven truly willing to RE-form their schools? 

Will we acknowledge that the chosen BUSINESS approach is destroying our public schools and harming children?  Who gave Bill Gates the authority to decide New Haven school policy?

Will we stop beating on teachers and principals?  Will we trust them to do what the professional research says is best for our children?  Will we stop bribing them with “incentive funds” to get them to fall in line with “reform”?

Will we redouble our efforts to provide parents with living wage jobs?  Will we recognize that the racism and classism in CT continues to crush young lives?  Are we brave enough to fight the injustices our least fortunate suffer under in 2014?

Or will we let the reformers continue to inflict more untested, unsupported “transformational change” on our children? 

Education is not some faith-based hooey where we “raise standards”, give harder computer-based tests, and magically, kids “rise”.  It is extremely hard work that deserves genuine support from policymakers. 

That is NOT happening in New Haven right now.

Please do not hold your tongue, Dr. Comer.  It’s time.

posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on February 23, 2014  1:42am

This guy knows what he is talking about. Garth Harries needs to listen to him.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on February 23, 2014  4:17pm

The existence of Dr. Comer’s ideas in America makes it tragic that our Public School system is in such a state of disarray, especially for our most vulnerable children.

The presence of Dr. Comer in New Haven makes it a sin that we have not done better here.

posted by: MAZ on February 23, 2014  6:27pm

Great article about the limitations of “growth” set for our children. They need to be children, have childish reactions and learn from those experiences. Expecting students to sit in a room to read and write all day is flawed. Conversation is part of our curriculum but only if it is about the subject at hand. Why can’t we have time everyday for the students just to share what is exciting, interesting, or even frustrating. Input would come from the teacher and their peers. That kind of conversation would help all students to better understand each other. The better we understand each other the better we work together. The better we work together the better we learn. The learning would help test scores and relationships, the latter which is most important.

posted by: nhtaxpayer on February 23, 2014  10:18pm

New Haven taxpayers need to pay close attention to what Dr. Comer is saying.  He is a giant in the field of education and has years of experience successfully “Turning Schools Around”.  And yet, we continue to allow the lure of standardized tests and privatized charters to divert funds away from our public schools.  Strong public schools are the foundation of a healthy democracy.  This important work should not be handed over to Corporate America.

posted by: nhtaxpayer on February 23, 2014  10:27pm

Thank you Dr.Comer for speaking out against failed educational reforms and re-educating the public on the importance of developmentaly appropriate educational practices.  I have been dissapointed in the Independent’s one-side reporting of educational reform in New Haven.  I hope we continue to hear more from experts like Dr. Comer.

posted by: Teachergal on February 24, 2014  9:26am

Dr. Comer and his excellent team of trainers have offered training to NHPS teachers for years. Schools used to send teams of people from a pool of representative members of parents, teachers, and admin. the school I spent most of my career in tried hard to pursue comer ideals. We believed in his philosophy and wanted it to work. Unfortunately, I never truly realized the potential of what could have created a school community of people who wanted the common good. I could point fingers at those who resisted the Comer philosophy but why bother. It upsets me still to think that we have this wonderful resource, Comer, in our own backyard and we still have not gotten it right. The last NHschool I worked in supported a top down management style that was detrimental to teamwork. Judy my experience. Love to hear from teachers that are living the Comer dream in the face of school reform.

posted by: Walt on February 25, 2014  12:41pm

50 years ago when I was involved with area Black/White issues re employment and education,  Dr.  Comer was already being cited   as a national educational and Black leader   but was still almost a kid.

Now he is old and I am ancient.  but he is still an active leader worth citing