What should schools be about?

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Schools are caught up in the drive for higher test scores. The federal and state governments are threatening lose of funds or take over to push for changes. In response, elementary schools in Fresno Unified School District are moving toward using the same materials, in the same way, on the same day, and high schools are offering special CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam) classes to help students pass the tests. This obsession with test scores is yielding modest gains, at best. The combination of low test scores, high drop-out rates, high student migration rates and conflict between board members and administrators suggests FUSD is a district with difficult challenges.

On March 9, 2007, Dr. James Comer, creator of the School Development Program at Yale University, called for a new kind of school environment that supports child and adolescent development. FUSD superintendent Michael Hanson, five board members, and over 100 administrators listened with other educators, community workers and politicians at Fresno Pacific University. This development involves growth in the six developmental pathways—physical, social-interactive, psychological-emotional, ethical, linguistic and cognitive-intellectual—but most schools focus only on the linguistic and cognitive pathways. Schools need to stop seeing children as the sum of their parts and focus on the whole child. Districts need to stop tinkering and create school environments that help all children develop fully and gain the skills needed in school and life.

Does Comer go far enough?

The answer depends on the purpose of public schools. During the early years of our republic, children went to private school, had a private tutor or learned at home. These approaches worked because the population was fairly homogenous—mostly from the British Isles—with a common language and set of values. However, increased immigration changed this and led many to conclude there was a need for an institution to Americanize children. Horace Mann started public schools to assimilate children into mainstream society. These common schools promoted a common set of values through a common language used to teach a common curriculum—basic skills and American history. The structure, rules and expectations of the school also conveyed these values. Success in school was dependent on children learning both hidden and taught curriculum.

The purpose of public schools has changed very little over the past 170 years. Children from diverse backgrounds come together in the giant melting pot. Public schools still convey mainstream values through expectations, rules, structure and curriculum. It isn’t enough for students to graduate with basic and advanced skills. Society expects students to be committed to capitalism and democracy, to hard work and honesty, to the American Dream. Public schools are supposed to prepare students to become productive citizens capable of participating and contributing to the maintenance of American society.

Comer does not challenge this purpose. Instead, he has created a program that helps assimilate more children into mainstream society. Not only do students need to develop competence in basic and advanced skills, they need to “identify and internalize the values of school,” which mirror the values of mainstream society. Conformity is the rule. Students need to fit in or are left behind. Schools need to provide the necessary support to help children outside the mainstream to assimilate into the mainstream. As Comer said, “all children need protection and sustained support to develop and prepare for successful participation in the life of their societies.”

Does Comer go far enough?

No. Comer’s approach follows in the footsteps of the Booker T. Washington, who believed African-Americans needed to demonstrate their worth through their competence. Change comes slowly. As competence is demonstrated, each succeeding generation will become a more integrated part of mainstream society and society will become more just. The abolition of slavery, women’s rights, civil rights were gained as competent people critiqued the society of their day and worked for change.

Comer’s idea of helping all students to develop competence is the starting point. It can serve as a solid foundation, but the goal of public education should not stop at the assimilation of more children into the middle-class mainstream. Our communities and nation face many challenges such as discrimination, health care and pollution. New challenges will emerge. We need competent young people to meet these challenges and offer ways to move us toward a more just society. We need schools that develop skills-based competencies and critical thinking skills that enable students to become agents of change. Comer is a good place to start, not finish.

Scott Key is a professor in the School of Education at Fresno Pacific University. Before coming to FPU, he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.

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