Education as social capital: it takes a community

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A quality education is on everyone’s list of desired social capital. Since the inception of public education in this nation, the debate on what and how to teach our youth has continued unabated.

Because a free education is the cornerstone of a democratic society and because an educated citizenry is a critical ingredient in the social capital of any community, presidents, governors and mayors have joined in the demand for excellence in education. Attempts to improve education are evidenced by ubiquitous government mandates and by numerous local, state and national committees and taskforces. This involvement from afar is neither always desired nor productive.

In the early days of education, the entire community was actively involved. Fathers often cut and brought firewood to heat the school, teachers usually roomed with local families and school board members were close-knit neighbors. Parents realized that to keep the school operating, they must contribute to its success. They were deeply appreciative of the opportunity for their children to get an education and more than willing to do their part to sustain the idea of a free education for all children.

As the nation’s population grew, the close-knit school communities expanded and, in many cases, fragmented and segmented. With larger student populations and a world of increasing pressures and obligations came an inclination for parents and communities to relinquish responsibility for students’ education. Today we have a very different perception of education than those early parents who saw education more as a privilege than an entitlement.

Something inherently valuable was lost when communities became so large and our pace of life so frantic that it became common to pass off the responsibility of educating our youth. Parents expect schools to educate their children while community and business leaders ask for a better educational system. Schools are mired in meeting mandates and raising test scores. Classroom teachers may become so driven by these statutes that they concentrate heavily on raising test scores, producing students that Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, called “‘knowers’ not life-long learners.” Somewhere within this tension reside the physical, educational and social needs of our youth.

Failure to understand the implications of a school system poorly supported by the community has long-term detrimental effects. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2004 report shows that between 2003 and 2004 students from low-income families were approximately four times more likely to drop out of high school than were their peers from high-income families.

James P. Comer, M.D., founder and chairman of the Yale School Development Program, has developed a model for encouraging community involvement in educating the whole child. Dr. Comer describes six developmental pathways: physical, cognitive, psychological, language, social and ethical.

Physical development takes into account more than the basic physical structure of the child. Physical well-being involves health, hunger, appropriate attire and a host of other privileges afforded some children, but not others.

Cognitive development is the growth from memorization and rote recall to higher-level thinking. If these abilities are nurtured, students will acquire the capacity to solve problems, reflect on ideas and analyze information.

Psychological development will only be attained when students are able to move from focusing on their physical needs to feeling confident they can succeed in school and in life.

Language development requires exposure to a variety of peoples, ideas, stories and concepts.

Social development occurs in homes, communities and in school. Students not allowed to freely interact will not develop constructive social skills.

Ethical development comes when students accept a degree of responsibility for the welfare of their local and global communities. Young people who have developed fully along the five pathways can distinguish between desirable and undesirable behavior and understand ethical principals.

It takes an entire community, working creatively and efficiently, to enable students to embrace and achieve a higher level of learning, leading to a happy and productive life. It costs less money and effort to produce an educated citizenry than it does to suffer the consequences of an uneducated, unproductive society.

On March 9, 2007, James Comer, M.D., founder of the Yale School Development Program, will be the speaker at the first Fresno Pacific University Education Forum. For more information, call 559-453-3643 or visit

Jo Ellen Priest Misakian is interim dean of the Fresno Pacific University School of Education.

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