Forty-five years after Dr. James P. Comer launched the School Development Program at the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center, the famed psychiatrist continues to speak authoritatively about the nation’s schools and K-12 education reform. At an age when many of his peers have retired to the sidelines, the 78-year-old remains a towering figure who is widely sought for his ideas and insights.
Known principally for the School Development Program (SDP), Comer continues to push for education reform that puts children’s social and emotional development at the center of practices and philosophy for improving schools. With SDP taking root initially in the New Haven, Conn., city schools, the program grew to train thousands of teachers and administrators from around the nation by the 1990s. The SDP training efforts reached a peak in the late 1990s when “whole” or comprehensive school reform movement programs enjoyed notable support from foundations and the federal government.
However, with the advent of the No Child Left Behind federal legislation and its emphasis on high-stakes testing in the early 2000s, school districts retreated from the whole school reform programs and focused their energies on prepping students for standardized tests that measure yearly progress in reading, writing and math.
In recent years, Comer has been hard at work presenting child development ideas and practices to education schools and national education organizations, such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). He sees a resurgence of interest in SDP’s ideas and practices, or what some call the Comer Process, and a willingness to instill them into teacher education and preparation programs.
“We’re experiencing a revival,” says Comer, who is the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center. “There’s more interest in our work now within the last two years” than ever since the 2002 enactment of the No Child Left Behind federal legislation, he adds.
Hugh Price, the former president and CEO of the National Urban League and a longtime Comer friend, says it was quite evident in 2006 and 2007 when he co-chaired the Association for Curriculum Development’s Commission on the Whole Child that Comer’s child development ideas proved compelling as ever.
“[Comer’s] been at this for so long and his role has been so seminal …,” says Price. “He was there when you think about the concept of developing the whole child, the importance of social and emotional development, the linkage between academic and social development.”
The Comer Vision
A speaker in high demand and a prolific writer, Comer anticipated the nation’s rapid demographic changes and the pressing need to develop high-quality elementary and secondary schools. His work has earned him 48 honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the John Hope Franklin Award from Diverse.
Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, a former Rockefeller Foundation senior program officer who helped steer funding to the SDP in the 1990s, says that understanding Comer’s stature and longevity in the education field means recognizing that he developed and implemented ideas that were ahead of their time.
“[Comer] was at least 20 years ahead of his time,” says Ucelli-Kashyap, who is now the assistant to the president for educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers.
“We talk really freely now about things like ‘social and emotional learning.’ We even call it SEL. … We talk about and have learned about how important community and family engagement are as ways to improve schools. … These are things that Dr. Comer was doing in a very systematic way for years,” she explains.
Dr. Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, worked in the Clinton administration in the U.S. Education Department and recalled the SDP qualifying for federal funding. He said that, while the Comer SDP was one of several programs to emerge from the comprehensive school reform movement that began in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s, it clearly stood out from the others by originating at a medical school. Unlike many research universities, Yale does not maintain an education school or college.
“What distinguished [the SDP] from other initiatives and was the point of departure for Comer is that he’s a physician and psychiatrist,” explains McGuire, “and so he comes to the question of education from a child development point of view.”
Early Life and Career
As the author of 10 books, anyone who has read Comer knows well that he draws heavily from his and his family’s history to bring clarity to his ideas. Born September 25, 1934, in East Chicago, Ind., Comer grew up in a nurturing yet financially poor family. He earned an A.B. degree from Indiana University and has included poignant stories about the challenging racial climate at Indiana in his writings.
Comer went on to earn his M.D. from the Howard University College of Medicine in 1960, and a master’s of public health degree from the University of Michigan in 1964. After completing his M.P.H., Comer trained at the Yale School of Medicine in psychiatry.
In 1968, amid a time of simmering social and racial turmoil in the U.S., Comer launched the SDP in two New Haven elementary schools. To develop environments optimized for learning in inner-city schools, an emphasis was put on collaboration among parents, teachers and the surrounding community to help improve the lives of young students. Comer said that he had noticed during the first several years of his work that educators had little child and adolescent development knowledge.
The SDP goals were aimed at creating school environments where children feel secure, valued and comfortable. With children developing positive emotional bonds with school staff and parents and having a positive attitude toward the school program, academic learning could be accomplished, Comer reasons.
“All of [the SDP practices] supported the maturation of the brain. Children are born with underdeveloped brains and what happens is that children from well-functioning, well-educated families, or just families that understand that children need interaction as my family did, develop well because of the quality of the interactions” they have with others, Comer says.
Back to the Future
The shift from comprehensive school reform to the accountability model brought on by the No Child Left Behind legislation has meant a new reality for how the Comer SDP has been operating. Once school districts no longer could afford to send staff members to New Haven, SDP adjusted by sending its staff to districts to conduct on-site training. Comer estimated that, at the height of SDP demand in the 1990s, as many as 2,000 people traveled annually to New Haven for training.
“We’re in the middle of what’s come to be called the standards-based systemic reform era ….,” says McGuire, “and that created a huge challenge for the vast majority of these school-based improvement models, including SDP.”
The Comer SDP has shifted its focus more heavily toward schools of education and national education organizations. Comer says that partnerships with education schools originally “began in the 1990s as an effort to infuse [child and adolescent] knowledge into education from pre-service to teacher practice.”
Those efforts have continued over the past decade and have been reinforced by Comer’s participation on national commissions that have recommended the adoption of child and adolescent development practices by teacher preparation programs and teacher education instruction. After serving on a NCATE-sponsored commission in 2010, the group “issued a report pointing out that teachers were not prepared to support development and that if we wanted to improve academic learning, if we wanted to close the gaps, then teachers and administrators had to have better preparation in knowing how to create cultures that could support development,” Comer noted.
“Our argument is that when children are developing well they will learn well …,” he added. “And that puts development central in education.”