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The Place of Education

A Response to Can Working Families Ever Win?

James P. Comer

8 Jody Heymann addresses a challenge facing America that is as important as "Homeland Security," but is less apparent and draws much less attention. The more subtle nature of the problem certainly makes it as dangerous. As she points out, the fabric and future of American society is threatened by the prospect that a growing number of Americans are not able to experience the American Dream.

The belief that if one works hard and plays by the rules, one will have a reasonable chance of succeeding as a child and an adult (the American Dream) is a central organizing and motivating force in our society. This, and a growing respect for founding ideals and the rule of law has moved our society from acts of genocide and slavery, as well as the oppression of immigrants, women, and children, to the point of becoming the most powerful force for humane living in the world, perhaps in the history of the world. But changes in the nature of the economy have weakened the family in a way that makes it difficult for too many to rear their children well. If we do not reverse these tendencies, our quality of life will decline—slowly at first, and then precipitously, as many more in generation after generation are excluded from the dream.1

Throughout human history, children have grown up in close proximity to their families and a primary social network of friends, kin and communal organizations (the village) in which they felt a sense of belonging. Children and parents were able to form powerful emotional attachments and bonds.2

Living conditions were often poor, but one head of family, without an education, could usually provide a reasonable living for his or her dependents; and the other could usually provide home and community support for child and youth development.

Children were able to identify with, imitate and internalize the attitudes, values, and ways of their parents and other members of their network. The adults in the network were able to help them grow along the critical developmental pathways (socio-interactive, psycho-emotional, ethical, linguistic, cognitive-intellectual). In these powerful relationship settings, most children were able to establish habits, beliefs, and behaviors that enabled them to become successful as youngsters and as adults, and this promoted desirable social functioning.

But the relentless, 150-year march from an agricultural economy through an industrial to a science- and technology-based economy has not only pulled both parents into the workforce, it has also removed "the village" that once helped parents rear their children.3

Despite the speed and magnitude of this change, the needs of children remain the same as in antiquity—they require protection and support for development. Importantly, they now need a higher level of development in order to get the level of education required to be able to function well in this complex age. The sad fact, however, is that the developmental support many currently receive would be inadequate in any society.

Because of modern communication technologies, children receive an enormous amount of information. For the first time in the history of the world, information goes directly to children without a chance for censor or censure on the part of responsible adults. There are too few people available to help young people examine the information and to encourage an appropriate response. Because of high mobility, many of the adults in their lives—teachers, police, doctors, and other service providers—are essentially strangers. And again, often the only parent or both parents are in the workforce and busy. All of this creates burdensome and disorganizing levels of stress, which is a major cause of divorce and the creation of single-parent families. For these and other reasons, many parents are not able to provide their families with the quality and level of care necessary for adequate development today.

Our society has been slow to recognize the effects of change and the range of services needed to reduce the stress on families and to make it possible for them to rear their children well in today's world. Instead, we blame families for not adequately performing their child rearing tasks. Family and child advocates call for more and better child care options for working parents and better education for children. Both are very much needed, but not sufficient. Moreover, traditional education cannot do the job of parenting. And fragmented social services, without a context of meaningful relationships, can't provide children with the experiences that will enable them to become successful as youngsters and as adults.

Traditional education has put the cart before the horse. It focuses on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology first, and child and youth development second, if at all. Many of our school problems stem from the fact that many of our children are underdeveloped and therefore unprepared for academic learning. Most school staff are not prepared to help them grow. This leads to staff and student underachievement and failure. Generally, school systems have not taken responsibility for the earliest years of childhood, now shown to be very important in providing the platform for later learning.

Nonetheless, the school is the only institution in our society positioned to reduce family stress and to provide the essential elements of the traditional "village." All children go to school. The mission is highly positive. There are more adults available in schools who can offer children positive growth-producing interaction than anyplace else. Also, the school can provide a context in which other service providers—health, recreation, and community organizations (arts, athletics, other opportunities for positive self-expression)—can engage with young people in a coordinated, purposeful, and sustained way.

Brought together to support social development and maturity, the programs of a range of service providers could be designed to help students acquire the critical capacities once provided almost exclusively in family networks. But to do so, our education system needs a perspective oriented to child and youth development from birth through sixteen years of schooling. This will require changes in the theory and practice of public education, in graduate schools of education, and among policy and opinion makers. All must understand how to put the horse before the cart: development before curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology. When educators take on the role of helping young people grow and function rather than merely trying to transmit information, student resistance and struggle will diminish.

In 1968, our Yale Child Study Center School Development Program went into two inner-city elementary schools in New Haven. The students were almost all black and from families under severe economic and social stress. They were thirty-second and thirty-third in academic achievement, and had the worst attendance and behavior in the city. By applying the principles of the behavioral and social sciences to every aspect of the school program, we helped parents and staff recreate "the village" in school in a way that actively encouraged student development. Good teaching and learning became possible. The students eventually achieved the third and fourth highest ranks in academic achievement (putting the school on par with those in wealthier neighborhoods), and produced the best attendance record in the city, with no serious behavior problems.4

This approach is still being replicated, and where the implementation is sound the outcomes are good. In 2000, a similar school in Detroit, using the SDP focus on development, achieved the highest scores in Michigan on state-wide tests for fourth graders.5

But the experiences they received that helped them grow and prepared them for life are probably more important. We are now working with school districts, schools of education, policy and opinion leaders. It is our hope that these efforts will ignite a national movement to put the focus in schools on development, and thus prepare students for the challenges of modern life.

In short, rapid scientific and technological change weakened the vital infrastructure for development, teaching and learning, and preparation for life. But with policies and programs geared to restore the essential elements of this infrastructure, we may be able to recreate the social fabric of the "village," and offer a generation of children a real chance at realizing the American dream. <


James P. Comer
is Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center. He founded the Center's School Development Program in 1968.

Return to the forum on Caregiving, with Jody Heymann and respondents.

Notes

1 James P. Comer, Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can't Solve Our Problems and How We Can (New York: Dutton, 1997).

2 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995).

3 Harold G. Vatter, The Drive to Industrial Maturity: The U.S. Economy, 1860–1914 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975); Harold G. Vatter and John F. Walker, eds., History of the U.S. Economy Since World War II (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996); David C. Mowery and Nathan Rosenberg, Paths of Innovation: Technological Change in 20th-century America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

4 James P. Comer, School Power: Implications of an Intervention Project (New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1980).

5 James P. Comer, "Schools that Develop Children," The American Prospect, 23 April 2001.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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