Schooling U.S. Children Seen on Priority Level with Defense: Educator Seeks Child-Development Focus, Teacher Screening

By Innerst, Carol | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 5, 1997 | Go to article overview

Schooling U.S. Children Seen on Priority Level with Defense: Educator Seeks Child-Development Focus, Teacher Screening


Innerst, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


One of the nation's foremost black education reformers wishes the government would prepare for education in the same way it prepares for war.

"Education is your national offense, especially when tied to the economy, in the same way the military is your national defense," argues Dr. James P. Comer, associate dean of the Yale School of Medicine and professor of child psychiatry at Yale Child Study Center.

"You can't leave it up to chance that some schools and some children will make it and others won't," he says. "The government needs to make certain everybody gets a high quality education."

It is government's responsibility to make sure all public schools have staff prepared to do the job, he says, through its licensure of teachers and institutions.

"The same way they closed medical schools that were inferior, the government ought to close all schools of education that are inferior. If that creates a shortage (of teachers), that's good. It means they will need to recruit and prepare good people to teach," he says. "Some people should teach, and some should sell used cars. Schools of education shouldn't take everybody. They should counsel some people out of teaching and into another career before they hurt students."

This is a routine practice in college-level arts programs and is much needed in teacher education programs, he says. If teacher candidates don't "have it," they should be told, and above all schools of education "shouldn't take people who don't like children," he says.

"They've got to select the right people, then give them the experience they need to do the job. We ask teachers to do what we never trained them to do. Many schools of education offer one reading course, yet what teachers do in the first three years of schooling is mostly socialization and reading. Twenty-five percent of teachers never had a child-development course."

"Schools of education ought to be called schools of child development and education," Dr. Comer says. "When you focus on child development, everything else you do in school can make sense from that base. Whoever started large high schools didn't know child development. Whoever talks about having children go from class to class in second grade doesn't understand child development."

Dr. Comer is intrigued by a Danish school model that features a single class teacher for children ages 7 to 16, but concedes that aspects of what works in a highly centralized and homogeneous school system wouldn't necessarily work with America's decentralized system and diverse school populations.

Instead, he favors creating an "education extension service" to implement reforms. It would be patterned after the Agricultural Extension Service - a federal, regional and state program established in the early part of this century to provide a range of services to local farmers.

Most public schools are in a "major educational crisis," including those whose students appear to be doing reasonably well but in fact are "overentertained and underchallenged," he says.

Children across the socio-economic spectrum are "not prepared to live in an open, democratic society and protect it" and should also be considered in an educational crisis. But to Dr. Comer, the most troubling group in crisis consists of "bright children from low-income backgrounds who are underdeveloped because of their family life and who go to schools where staff is underprepared to meet their needs."

It is this group that Dr. Comer's 30-year-old School Development Program primarily addresses. The program, now in 650 schools in 28 states including Maryland, strives to create a family-like environment within schools to compensate for the lack of developmental experiences of many disadvantaged urban children prior to starting school. …

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