Federal Opinion

An Open Letter to the Next President

By James P. Comer — January 15, 2008 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One year from this coming week, the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States will take place in Washington. The following essay anticipates that event, and offers a perspective that may resonate in the unfolding presidential campaign.

Dear Madam or Mr. President:

Over the coming year, you will be laying out your positions on major issues relevant to the nation’s needs and our collective future. I am writing to argue that none of these is more important than the education of our young. And no area is more in need of reconceptualization—a problem-solving reformulation—than education.


It is the most important issue because family, workforce, and economic well-being, national defense, domestic tranquility, and the maintenance and improvement of our democracy are all interrelated and all tied to the quality of our system(s) of education. It must be reconceptualized because traditional education is based on a wrong notion: a belief that academic-learning capacities are almost exclusively an outcome of genetically determined intelligence. And despite significant evidence to the contrary, there is still a pervasive assumption that such intelligence is largely responsible for school subject-matter mastery and eventual life success. These conceptual foundation blocks have contributed heavily to a school focus on curriculum, teaching, and assessment, and to related educator preparation, practice, and policy approaches and processes that, though inadequate, are complex and deeply entrenched, hence difficult to change.

Evidence from modern social, psychological, educational, and biological science indicates that the expression of individual intelligence is a product of the quality of interactions, from birth to maturity, between an individual and his or her environment. Early attachment and bonding, together with these multiple environmental interactions, enable caretakers to promote, or to limit, brain development and functioning, as well as to shape social-interactive, psycho-emotional, moral-ethical, linguistic, and cognitive-intellectual competencies. Because these developmental competencies are inextricably linked to academic achievement, young people who receive reasonably supportive interactions in reasonably good environments have the best chance of being successful in school and in life.

But many children do not have these favorable developmental circumstances. As a result, many are underprepared for school. Until 30 years ago, this was not a significant problem because most could work in the agricultural and industrial economies of the day with little education and meet all of their adult tasks and responsibilities. Today, however, the underdeveloped child must remain in school and attempt to acquire a college education or the equivalent.

Students who are most marginalized from the economic and social mainstream are denied, in disproportionate numbers, the opportunity to be successful.

School people, thinking and acting from traditional beliefs and structures, are rarely prepared to create a school culture and a system of relationship experiences that can overcome the ill effects of underdevelopment and give such students a good chance for school and life success. Students from the families, family networks, and schools that are most marginalized from the economic and social mainstream are denied, in disproportionate numbers, the opportunity to be successful.

The limited early success of such students and their teachers, and reactions to it, are the root causes of low-performing schools and the attendant demoralization, community dissatisfaction, and teacher turnover. This situation also fuels the emergence and disappearance of one quick fix after another. Without successful developmental experiences, students who could have been successful eventually contribute heavily to our school dropout rates and a list of health, behavior, safety, and other social and economic problems.

There is abundant direct and indirect evidence that students from all backgrounds can thrive in environments designed to promote their development. Given the compelling case for the developmental impact of constructive interactions between young people and the adults around them, and the fact that many school people are not adequately prepared to provide these interactions, the obvious place to begin a program aimed at effecting school improvement is in the preparation and support of future and practicing educators.

Forty years ago, the Yale Child Study Center began to apply the principles of child and adolescent development to all aspects of students’ lives in two inner-city elementary schools in New Haven, Conn. These were schools known to have the lowest levels of achievement and the most difficult behavior challenges in the city. We helped their staff members identify nine program elements that generated most of the problems, and then developed nine activities and guidelines designed to help them create a positive school culture. That positive culture, in turn, made possible interactions among students, staff members, and parents that promoted greater levels of development, new modes of behavior, and increased learning.

Eventually, impressive academic and behavior gains were made, and we at the center began disseminating the model, which we called the School Development Program, to a growing list of schools that now totals more than 1,000. The patterns of success and failure in these schools, and the challenges of sustainability and scale, point to structural problems of schooling more than people problems. Yet we tend to blame the people.

The obvious place to begin a program aimed at effecting school improvement is in the preparation and support of future and practicing educators.

In general, we found that schools and systems achieved success in line with their buy-in to the program and their application of child and adolescent development principles to all aspects of schooling. It is our impression that many practitioners cannot “buy in” because they are being asked to do in practice something no one prepared them to do in preservice or in-service activities. The most common complaint we hear from teachers and administrators in our training academies is that they should have been provided in their preparation programs the knowledge and skills needed to create school cultures that promote student development. This would have made promoting development a part of their professional identity, a part of what it means to be an educator.

Preparatory programs must empower preservice and practicing educators to see themselves in this role and to perform this important function for their students. No other intervention in education can be as effective for this workforce, and no area requires more attention to appropriate preparation. Yet many knowledgeable people are convinced that preparatory institutions cannot and will not change to accommodate this new emphasis. They can, and they must.

This is where your leadership over the next four to eight years, Madam or Mr. President, could help our education system become the best in the world. Recognizing that education is primarily a state responsibility, you should work first with the governors, their chief state school officers, departments of education, and other policy and practice leaders to do the following:

See Also

What should the candidates be talking about when it comes to public schools? Join the discussion.

1. Reconceptualize the task of the school in our society and the methods that we should use in fulfilling it, based on the best current knowledge about how young people develop and learn.

2. Develop funding arrangements that reward preparatory institutions that enable their graduates to apply principles of child and adolescent development to teaching and learning in the classroom.

3. Create teams of proven experts who can provide support for the changes needed to preparatory programs and school systems.

4. Enable higher education institutions and school districts to work together more successfully, rather than maintaining their own “silos” of experience and influence.

5. Begin this effort with a program that is open to all, but weighted toward communities that demonstrate a commitment to helping students develop in a way that promotes not only their academic achievement, but also their preparation for meeting adult tasks and responsibilities. Do not create a massive federal and/or state(s) program. And don’t promise a quick fix.

There is precedent for using a systemic-change approach based on good theory and scientific evidence. At the turn of the 20th century, Congress created the agricultural Cooperative Extension System to put science-based help on the ground for farmers, and to overcome the resistance to new methods fueled by tradition and policy. America eventually became the breadbasket of the world.

American education, too, can be an example for the world—a model for preparing all young people to participate in the economic life of the country, become successful family and community members, and help protect and promote peace and democracy.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as An Open Letter to the Next President


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Miguel Cardona Came in as a Teacher Champion. Has COVID Muted His Message?
The education secretary is taking heat from some who say his advocacy is overshadowed by Biden's push to keep schools open.
11 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks to students at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y. on April 22, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks to students at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y., last April.
Mark Lennihan/AP
Federal Citing Educator and Parent Anxieties, Senators Press Biden Officials on Omicron Response
Lawmakers expressed concern about schools' lack of access to masks and coronavirus tests, as well as disruptions to in-person learning.
5 min read
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, testify before a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, testify at a Senate hearing about the federal response to COVID-19.
Greg Nash/Pool via AP
Federal Miguel Cardona Should Help Schools Push Parents to Store Guns Safely, Lawmakers Say
More than 100 members of Congress say a recent shooting at a Michigan high school underscores the need for Education Department action.
3 min read
Three Oakland County Sheriff's deputies survey the grounds outside of the residence of parents of the Oxford High School shooter on Dec. 3, 2021, in Oxford, Mich.
Three Oakland County Sheriff's deputies survey the grounds outside of the Crumbley residence while seeking James and Jennifer Crumbley, parents of Oxford High School shooter Ethan Crumbley, on Dec. 3, 2021, in Oxford, Mich.
Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP
Federal In Reversal, Feds Seek to Revive DeVos-Era Questions About Sexual Misconduct by Educators
The Education Department's decision follows backlash from former education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other conservatives.
4 min read
Illustration of individual carrying binary data on his back to put back into the organized background of 1s and 0s.
iStock/Getty Images Plus