It's time to get teachers off the defeated and defensive track and create a radical new culture in schools - one that reflects the supportive sense of community of simpler times and encourages children to embrace their intellectual potential, according to venerable education reformer James P. Comer, M.D.
The internationally-known child psychiatrist and Maurice Falk Professor at Yale University's Child Study Center and School of Medicine spoke to hundreds of Penn and city attendees Oct. 29 in the inaugural Constance E. Clayton lecture, sponsored by the Graduate School of Education.
Comer, author of "Maggie's American Dream" and the recently re-issued "School Power," spoke of his latest work, "Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can't Solve Our Problems and How We Can."
The success of most children in America's school system, Comer said, depends on their genes, intelligence and will. The schools take no responsibility for the development of children's - especially poorer children's - intellectual potential.
"Until we change that cultural belief, to think that schools can change is waiting for a miracle," Comer said. To illustrate, Comer recounted heartfelt personal experiences of his own and of close childhood friends who did not succeed in the educational system. What distinguished his experience from his friends' was a mother who valued education, as well as the support system offered by a nurturing church community.
"We caught values in our ways and habits," Comer said. "They were not taught. The entire community was locked in a conspiracy to ensure that we learned and developed."
Comer stressed the need for basic change in education. First, address children's problems with new approaches via art and athletics; change the structures that create negative conditions and poor leadership; and change cultural beliefs, such as ones that make it acceptable for poor kids not to do well, Comer said.
"The only solution is education." Comer said. "It takes time, but we must press on. We cannot have the haves and the have-nots drift farther apart."
Originally published on November 12, 1998