The Comer Method Turns 50

Markeshia Ricks PhotoIn a ballroom packed with acolytes who have taken the school-based model for child development that bears his name and spread the gospel from New Haven to the rest of the world, Dr. James Comer could see the fruits of five decades of labor.

But he still had a question: Why isn’t it being used more?

Comer was the guest of honor Monday night as more than 300 people gathered at the Omni Hotel Monday to celebrate his life’s work turning half a century old. He posed his question to let people know that he expects them to do more than celebrate.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Yale Child Study Center’s Comer School Development Program, which helps schools address children’s social and emotional needs, the challenges they bring into the classroom from outside school.  Comer said that he expected his devotees to try to answer his question and to think about next steps. In addition to Monday night’s celebratory dinner, an all-day symposium entitled “Why Are We Still Waiting? The School Development Program: Looking Back, Looking Forward” will be held Tuesday.

During the dinner educators and child advocates from Connecticut and around the country made it a point to stop Comer to pay homage to his work and to take pictures with the legendary child development thought leader. And they listened intently when he gave them their charge.

“We’re looking back, we’re looking at the present, and we’re looking forward into the future at what needs to be done to give all children the opportunity to be successful in school and in life,” Comer said.

For, in fact, that is what started it all for Comer.

In 1968 he was just 34 years old. Though he wasn’t a trained educator he went on to pioneer an education model that centered on children’s social and emotional needs and prioritized creating a school culture that supports those needs rather than just focusing on improving their test scores. That work started out in two of the lowest performing schools at the time in New Haven; it is now used to varying degrees throughout the city’s public schools.

Today, the “Comer Model” also is used in more than 1,000 schools across the nation and globally. In fact, the Comer model made it all the way to the White House under President Barack Obama.

(Read more about that here. Click here to read about how New Haven revived and updated the method; click on the video to watch it in action at a New Haven school.)

Comer, who is trained in psychiatry and now 84 years old, said he didn’t know anything about education then but he knew about children. And he was struck by how people charged with the important task of educating children and ultimately helping them be successful in life had no background or training in child development.

He wanted to change that. That goal is what still motivates him five decades later.

“We believe, we know, we’ve experienced that it can be done,” he said of creating an environment where the lowest performing students can achieve. “A lot of people know that it can be done. And so the question is: Why isn’t it being done and what actions can be taken to ensure that all children have the developmental experiences they all need?”

One of Comer’s devotees, Timothy Shriver, had an idea for the next 50 years: Comerize the world. Make social and emotional development central in the upbringing of the next generation of citizens.

Shriver (who began his career doing Comer work at Hillhouse High School)  made the case Monday that, now more than ever, the United States needs people who have had the advantages of the kind of social and emotional skills that are the hallmark of the Comer Method. The country needs people who know how to form healthy relationships and solve problems. He said only then can the country solve what he noted Comer defined in his book Beyond Black and White as “an American problem.”

“He writes that it is the pernicious quality in this country, despite all of its strengths, continually creating structures that marginalize children and make it difficult for families to grow up whole and healthy,” Shriver said. “And he points out ... that the problems you see in communities that have been marginalized excessively by racism or discrimination are the same problems that exist in the rest of the culture. It’s just a matter of time. And aren’t we seeing that today?”

Shriver said what Comer stands for isn’t partisan. It’s something that all people can support regardless of their political affiliation and it is one of the ways to bridge the divide and “create a common language.”

In addition to giving Comer a proclamation from the City of New Haven declaring Tuesday “Comer School Development Program Day,” Mayor Toni Harp announced Monday night that Comer’s work will further be cemented in the Elm City with a star etched into city sidewalk.

“Your work beginning in just a couple of schools has informed and transformed the accepted approach and standard practices now used district-wide here in New Haven and in more than 1,000 schools across the nation,” Harp said. “Your ambition on behalf of each child that you work with and his or her aspirations put New Haven at the cutting edge of child development and public education, and how one interacts with the other.

“You’ve made New Haven proud these past 50 years,” she added.

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posted by: robn on October 23, 2018  8:08am

Honest question…besides this methodology being adopted in many places, how do we know it’s effective? Can anyone statistically show that the New Haven School System has had more success over the past few decades?

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on October 23, 2018  11:54am

Well, first off, if your primary focus is to support the emotional needs of your children do not send them to school to be socialized.  Under ordinary circumstances, nothing is more traumatic to children than having them separated from their parents to become indoctrinated as world citizens before they have even recognized the all-encompassing primacy of the family over that of any society. Secondly, how does one at the same time promote diversity while trying to homogenize its citizens by creating an ideologically based common language? Sounds ironically like a predetermined type of nationalism to me. It is always better for a society to realize that it exists for the family and not the other way around.

posted by: markcbm on October 23, 2018  12:40pm

Hi Robn,

Great question. The Comer method isn’t widely loved, and over the years it has been jettisoned in a number of districts.  I know that Elizabeth, NJ, a district not dissimilar to New Haven, ditched the Comer method in the 2000s and saw student outcomes improve, with levels of achievement that exceed New Haven’s. That no mention was made of sound research with positive findings regarding the method may indicate something.

While 1,000 schools are said to follow the Comer method, there are approximately 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.  That New Haven schools like Hillhouse would be held up as policy paragons while student outcomes in those schools are abysmal causes in me cognitive dissonance.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on October 24, 2018  9:21am

It is not infrequent that I read the negative comments here related to African-American people or their causes by the first two responders to this article.  Their not so subtle racist remarks are tiresome, as they are commonly presenting expert sounding opines in areas where they are anything but experts. 

To determine the effectiveness and usefulness of the Comer Method (or any method for that matter) based on the apparent wisdom of the American public school system, which consistently under-educates its pupils - hence the “basket of deplorables” who consistently believe the lies, and support the unconstitutional “understand” of the present occupant of the White House - represents an intelligence that is far from credible to make such assertions or even to ponder the complexities of the multi-faceted issues involved here.

I am sure there will soon be other issues or Black people represented here that the two of you will have an opportunity to pounce upon with your excoriating remarks and attitudes. I am also quite confident that you will be just as misguided then as you are now. 

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee

posted by: robn on October 24, 2018  2:08pm

STRL,

With the school system consuming 40% of our budget and not generating laudable results, its surprising to see congratulations for a core methodology that doesn’t seem to be working. I was curious and asked an reasonable question.

posted by: Chris Willems on October 24, 2018  7:07pm

Robn, here is the evidence of impact page at the school development program https://medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/communitypartnerships/comer/evidence.aspx

This recent report from the Aspen Institute also highlights the value of Dr. Comer’s contributions to child development and the crucial importance of creating school environments which support healthy child development.  https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2018/05/Aspen-Institute_Framing-Doc_Call-to-Action.pdf

I look forward to reading Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond’s “With the Whole Child in Mind” about the Comer SDP, published this month.  The author is among the most respected education researchers in the country.  For your information, here is the page of supporting references: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/119028/chapters/References.aspx.

The Comer School Development Program has been exceptionally valuable to me as a New Haven Public School teacher, especially in the past 7 years when I have had opportunities to employ many of their practices in my classroom and in our school planning and management team, as well as our student and staff support team.

I find this comment section to be an uncomfortable space.  I am more than happy to connect with you in an alternate setting to contrast my experiences as a K-12 student in NHPS in the 1970’s and 1980’s (with little evident Comer influence to me…) to how the extensive work with the SDP practices have positively impacted our work with children.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

posted by: robn on October 24, 2018  8:13pm

CW,

No need to point me to a long list of academic appreciations. I’m asking a much simpler question. Is there any statistical evidence that this methodology has significantly improved New Haven education?  Like, for instance, better academic results,  graduation rates from both high school and college, as opposed to similar systems with different methods?

posted by: The keeper of the stars on October 24, 2018  11:27pm

Dr.Comer,
Thank you for providing us with the most exceptional work concerning the social/emotional development of children I have ever encountered in my 60 years—your work has transformed lives and systems across the globe and will continue to do so—I know you are not concerned with accolades—only results—to the posters here—we can not measure the results in New Haven because we do not use the Comer Model and haven’t for years, for if we did the benefits would be more than apparent—so why don’t we use his methods anymore? just a question—Tommy Burns

posted by: Chris Willems on October 25, 2018  3:31am

Robn,

“No need to point me to a long list of academic appreciations.”

Ouch.

I do not know you.  My reply was a good-faith effort to provide supporting data.

Building positive relationships is one of the most important learnings I take from Dr. Comer and the forward-thinking work of the School Development Program.  In schools, this takes the form of informed discussions built on trust, consensus decision making, and many other school redesign features.

The edu-political landscape of the last 40 years has not been kind to the types of structural school improvements the SDP has designed.  In New Haven, some of us, in some places, have been fortunate to eke out space to begin to drive our schools with the distributive-leadership model via the School Planning Management Team.  We have gotten some support in some places to build (but generally not sustain) Student Staff Support Teams. 

I offer that we have used some parts of Dr. Comer’s work, in some places, for some time.  So with this, I don’t believe we can point to their work for our success, or in addressing our challenges.  NHPS drop-out rates have fallen.  High school graduation rates have continually risen.  College enrollment is also rising while the cost of college rises exponentially faster than inflation.  In my conversations with NHPS graduates, college cost is a major reason for stepping away.

We have a powerful, logical and evidence-based body of work to support designing schools to support children and school communities.  These strategies help keep children and staff engaged in our very challenging work.  Given our history of losing children and staff from our schools, this is very important attribute of their program.

I don’t know of any excellent schools that don’t feature building positive relationships across many dimensions of child development.  (How we define “excellent” is crucial.)

And, before responding, please think about our relationship.  We already have harm to repair.

posted by: robn on October 25, 2018  7:44am

CHRIS,

I think you’re being over sensitive because I have no malintent. You pointed me towards a bibliography of 100’s (maybe 1000s?) of pages of academic journals and I think its unreasonable that you think I’ll read through all of these looking for New Haven outcomes. Its the job of a journalist, not a reader or a commenter, to at least question, and hopefully prove out the premise of a story in a concise legible manner.

posted by: robn on October 25, 2018  7:50am

TBURNS,

Mayor Harp said of the Comer Model, “standard practices now used district-wide here in New Haven and in more than 1,000 schools across the nation”...

You wrote, “we do not use the Comer Model and haven’t for years”

Now I’m really confused; Is the Comer Model standard practice in NHV or not?

posted by: markcbm on October 25, 2018  10:41am

More info:

From Mr. Willems’s link:

“While the SDP was initiated in New Haven, its use has waxed and waned; and elements have been implemented with varying degrees of fidelity in most schools.”
https://medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/communitypartnerships/comer/newhaven.aspx

From the Center for American Progress (left-leaning):

School Development Program
James Comer, a Yale psychiatrist, developed one of the earliest of the comprehensive
reform models, the School Development Program (SDP; Comer, Haynes, Joyner, & Ben-Avie, 1996). The focus of SDP is on the whole child. Rather than focusing on specified curricula and instructional methods, SDP concentrates on building a sense of common purpose among school staff, parents, and community, working through a set of teams in each school that develop, carry out, and monitor reforms tailored to the needs of each school. A School Planning and Management team develops an overall plan, and Mental Health and Parent teams focus on issues beyond the classroom.

Borman et al. (2003) listed SDP as one of three CSR programs with “strongest evidence
of effectiveness,” even though the nine experimental-control studies that met their criteria
produced a mean effect size of only +0.05. However, a set of three remarkable third-party
evaluations provide better evidence of the program’s impact. One, a randomized evaluation in Prince George’s County, MD, found poor implementation and no achievement effects (Cook et al., 1999), but a partially randomized study in Chicago (Cook, Murphy, & Hunt, 2000) and a matched study in Detroit (Millsap, Chase, Obeidallah, Perez-Smith, & Brigham, 2000) found small but positive impacts on achievement.

https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/kf/Slavin 3 17 FINAL.pdf

The U.S. Dept of Ed has yet to approve the Comer Method as an evidence-based whole school reform model:
https://www2.ed.gov/programs/sif/sigevidencebased/index.html

posted by: markcbm on October 25, 2018  10:54am

To be clear, I respect Dr. Comer and his appreciation of the social and emotional development needs of children, especially in places like New Haven.

However, I don’t think it is currently the most effective approach to school design, even for schools like New Haven’s. Our society and system of education have changed over the last 50 years, and what may have worked well fifty years ago may not still be the best choice.

Also, I don’t know if Ms. Ricks was repeating info from the event, but according to Mr. Willems’ link, the Comer Method is NOT currently used in 1000 schools across the U.S.  Rather, over the previous 50 years it has been implemented in 1000 schools across the U.S.:

“Since its inception fifty years ago, the model has been implemented in over a thousand schools in more than fifty school districts across the country. “
https://medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/communitypartnerships/comer/newhaven.aspx

I’d be curious to know how many schools still use the model, with what degree of fidelity, and how student outcomes compare with comparable schools….

posted by: tmctague on October 26, 2018  1:49pm

This is an older article, but I felt compelled to chime with my specific experience with the Comer model at Career High School. 

There are Comer committees that teachers are allowed to join: Culture and Climate Team (I’m a member, goal is to improve culture for students and staff), Accreditation Review Team (prepares for re-accreditation), Activities (plans & organized whole-school activities), Student, Staff Support Team (discusses strategies to support students referred to the team), Capstone (plans and revises the senior Capstone project, a state requirement), Advisory (plans and activities discussed and created), Educational Leadership Team (discusses grading, evaluates new course proposals), and other committees are created as needs arise.  These committees provide teachers with an opportunity to provide their input, and I certainly appreciate the opportunity.

In addition to the Comer Committees, our School Planning and Management Team features Dr. Fay Brown from Comer School Development Program, where she acts as a mostly hands-off facilitator.  Because of her, we’ve invited parents and students to this important team, and the SPMT itself is a result of Comer. 

I don’t know how many schools use Comer committees, but mine does and I’d feel a lot less involved in my school without them. 

There are likely some schools in NHPS that don’t use Comer-related strategies, but I can confidently say that they’d be better off if they did. 

If you willfully refuse to read the research, and obstusely fail to understand its positive effects, then I think you should spend time reading about systemic racism, its intersection with poverty, and how students are impacted. 

I would expect more commenters to ask: why aren’t all forty-something New Haven schools implementing the Comer model to the best of their ability?  Instead, I see people taking shots at a profoundly impressive person, his program, and his life’s work of helping schools support their students.

posted by: robn on October 26, 2018  3:42pm

TMCTAGUE,

...asking for concise facts…not taking shots.

posted by: Sabrina-in-NewHaven on October 26, 2018  5:15pm

I recently submitted a policy critique asking the same question. Why don’t schools use methods to address emotional and social issues in addition to the academics? The answer is short and simple: money. It’s costs money to have social workers available to support a community of students. Even being a guidance counselor is overwhelming. In districts that are more affluent, students have the resources to receive the help they need so they don’t usually have to suffer the stigma. In poorer areas, much deserved emotional support just does not exist. What does exist is money for juvenile facilities. Privately owned. Judges will gladly fill them up. Some have gone to jail.

For those students lucky enough to attend a charter school will receive more support but those schools experience more teacher burn out because they are expected to work longer hours (and that’s not counting the hours they spend outside of the classroom on prep like their peers). Elm City Schools and Amistad are great examples of students being taught in a community setting. The curriculums hold the students to higher standards. My nephew is currently reading books in 8th grade that I did not have to until college. I went to private school so that is not to say that I was not exposed to great literature but I am impressed at the discussions teachers are willing to engage their students at these schools.

Unless the federal government mandates it, or state legislature decides to support efforts across all districts (and there is funding to do it), the support of children as a whole person and not just a student will not prevail. Schools will still continue to pump out people who can not write, will not understand nuances in voice/mood. Won’t be able to navigate higher education. Schools need to be stronger than the communities they serve.

posted by: richardguidone on October 27, 2018  1:27pm

As to why it is not used as much even in the city from which Dr. Comer did his initial work, is that there is poor follow-up and buy-in from staff. By that I mean that over the years teachers come and go in NH, as elsewhere, and there is little introduction to programs after the fact for new staff. Other longer term staff who may have seen many initiatives come and go over time, are less than enthusiastic to embrace yet another one. Results are difficult to see overnight with such programs, and many teachers want immediate results when dealing with difficult populations. None of this takes away from the worth of the Comer program when implemented correctly.