Feature

After the Supreme Court handed down its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, advocates envisioned a future in which education would equally empower all students to succeed. But despite some strides, the promise of their vision is largely unrealized, said Yale University psychiatrist James Comer, MD, at the 2004 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Biennial Convention.

Even today, he said, many schools have chronic performance problems and remain largely segregated.

The reason? Desegregation planners--and many of today's educators--never took into account children's and adults' developmental needs, Comer argued.

"While it was good social policy, it was not good educational policy," he said of the landmark court decision. "The implementation was flawed and fragmented and ignored what children need to be successful."

Specifically, he said, educators lacked the educational and developmental tools to address the ill effects of slavery on both white and black children. Since teachers were taught to focus on curriculum and assessment, they failed to help children get to know and respect each other. Moreover, teachers' often low expectations for black children caused them to feel unvalued and then to underachieve--a trend Comer witnessed first-hand as an elementary school student in the 1940s.

After his school's integration, he watched his three best friends go on a "down course," he said, not because they were less bright, but because they didn't have anyone to encourage them. For example, he recalled a class contest to read the most books out of the library. Comer won the contest, but his friends didn't read a single book.

"The difference was in the quality of the developmental experience," he said, explaining that his parents' drive to have well-educated children was somewhat unique in an African-American community where many families were understandably still intimidated by largely white institutions--such as the public library.

"The staff of the school, if they were prepared, could have helped these children to make the connections," he said. But unfortunately, desegregation planners didn't take child development into account, he noted.

Comer said his upbringing was the driving factor behind his development of the Comer Process--a school-based program he developed in 1968 that centers on the idea that healthy child development is key to both academic and life success. The program recruits parents, students, administrators and teachers to serve on teams that develop a comprehensive school plan, facilitate communication and encourage parents' involvement. To create a school environment primed for students' healthy development, the teams work under three guidelines, he said:

  • No fault--focusing on problem-solving rather than placing blame.

  • Consensus decision-making--building agreement through dialogue about what is good for children and adolescents.

  • Collaboration--working together with the principal and other teams.

When implemented fully, the program has turned struggling schools into shining stars, he said. For example, he said, 42 percent of students in an Asheville, N.C., school were proficient on standardized tests six years ago before implementing Comer's program. Today, however, 97 percent meet standardized-test proficiency standards, and whites and African Americans perform at the same level, unlike before.

It's evidence, said Comer, that the key to school success today is the same as it was for him 50 years ago--for adults to look at themselves not just as teachers, parents or administrators, but also as child developers.