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Standards Opinion

Our Mission

It Takes More Than Tests to Prepare the Young for Success in Life
By James P. Comer — January 03, 2006 8 min read
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The movement for standards-based education has had a powerful impact on policy and practice. But it has done little to address the primary mission of schools—the preparation of the young for success in childhood, adolescence, and adult life. To function adequately across the life span, children and youths need formative experiences that aid their growth and development along the physical, social-interactive, social-emotional, moral-ethical, linguistic, and cognitive pathways. Indeed, academic learning is not an isolated capacity, but an aspect of development. The two are inextricably linked and mutually facilitative.

Through the developmental process, children must gain the capacities to regulate and control their aggressive energies and emotions, express themselves in constructive ways, manage life tasks, negotiate and solve problems, get along well with others, and more. Students who are developing well overall are more likely to perform well academically. Most students who are underperforming in school are in fact underdeveloped.

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The standards movement focuses primarily on teaching subject matter, on achievement outcomes as measured by test scores, and on accountability sanctions; it does not stress development. So the attention of the entire education enterprise—preparatory institutions, practitioners, students, parents, and policymakers—has been riveted on academic-achievement outcomes, not on developmental issues. Thus, despite a large body of research showing the connection between development, learning, and desirable behavior, supporting development continues to receive inadequate attention, in the preparation of educators as well as in education practice.

Because of the rigid way the accountability component is being applied in most places, many teachers and administrators who understand the importance of child and youth development to academic achievement believe they do not have the time to do anything other than prepare their students to take tests. As a consequence, most teachers and administrators, preservice as well as in-service, are not being adequately equipped—or even allowed—to create school cultures that can support student development, effective teaching, and learning.

Life success in this complex age requires a high level of development. So almost all students are adversely affected by this situation. But the students who come from families and primary social networks unable to provide them with adequate developmental experiences are hurt the most. Most of them do not do well. And student, staff, and often parental responses to failure—from acting out, to increased control-and-punishment efforts, to withdrawal and apathy—produce difficult relationship environments and underachieving schools. In time, this leads to dropping out of school.

These dynamics are not being adequately considered. Failing schools are attributed to inadequate effort or ability among the adults involved, rather than to the fact that most educators are being asked to do what they were not prepared to do. Accountability measures that label, punish, and even reward do not address the challenge of student and staff underdevelopment. Moving underdeveloped students into higher-test-score schools, without adequately preparing the schools’ staffs to promote development, usually does not help those in greatest need. When large numbers of low-performing students are involved, previously high-performing schools perform less well.

It is important to hold schools responsible for the outcomes of all students. But it is unfair to do so without preparing school people to create a culture that would make high achievement and preparation for adult tasks possible. Significant efforts to improve the preparation of teachers and administrators are now under way. But most contain the same flaw as traditional preparation: Child and adolescent development is underemphasized or marginal. Developmental principles are rarely used to guide curriculum, instruction, and assessment content and strategies; school organization and management; or staff and student interactions.

My life experience and work in schools over the past 36 years, and that of others, suggest that all students, and particularly underdeveloped students, could benefit greatly from a standards-based movement guided by child- and youth-development principles. This is true for school staff members and parents as well. In 1968—before the standards movement—our Yale Child Study Center’s School Development Program began working in the two lowest-achieving elementary schools in New Haven, Conn. These schools had the worst student and staff attendance rates, and serious behavior problems. The school reform literature was thin then, so our five-member team had to rely heavily on our own backgrounds and our professional knowledge and skills in social and behavioral science.

Academic learning is not an isolated capacity, but an aspect of development. The two are inextricably linked and mutually facilitative.

I am from a well-functioning, but low education- and income-level family. Early on, I realized that I and my four siblings thrived in school because our parents provided us with a pre- and out-of-school developmental experience that prepared us for school. This was not the case for my three best friends, who began school with me. Unprepared for school, though intelligent, they did not do well and went on a downhill course in school, and eventually in life—alcoholism, mental illness with premature death, and a long jail term, respectively.

These background conditions, and my child- and youth-development and public-health knowledge and experiences, led me to a theory of school improvement which held that the creation of a culture that supported development in school could lead to improved student development, teaching, learning, and behavior, in school and in life. Through collaborative work with staff members and parents, we created a school-based change process for these two New Haven schools. A governance and management team made up of all the school stakeholders used principles of child and adolescent development in all aspects of school life to create a climate, or culture, that promoted student development.

Improved teaching, learning, and behavior followed. The schools eventually moved from 32nd and 33rd of 33 schools in the city to the third- and fourth-highest levels on nationally standardized achievement tests. The students and staff had the best attendance records in the city, and the schools had no serious behavior problems. In fact, these schools were the only two that made no referrals for high-cost residential treatment.

Over the past 25 years, the School Development Program model has been used in more than 1,000 schools nationwide. To improve and sustain the model, we eventually worked systemically with five districts. In the past five years, all of these districts have achieved significant academic, social, and behavioral improvement. The school with the highest poverty level, in Asheville, N.C., experienced an increase in poverty over the course of the intervention, yet its performance on the state test continued to rise—from 41 percent and 43 percent of the 3rd grade students being proficient in reading and mathematics in 1999, to 94 percent and 97 percent in 2004. One hundred percent of the 5th graders were proficient in both subjects in 2004. What’s more, the black-white achievement gap was closed by 5th grade.

Recently, I visited another school in the program’s North and South Carolina network. My trip was on the day after school had closed for students, and I was struck by the energy, joy, and excitement among administrators and teachers who ordinarily would have been worn out by the demands of working with underdeveloped students. The intentional focus on promoting student development had quickly brought both the students and the school to a level at which staff members as well as students could enjoy social-emotional and academic learning.

It is important to hold schools responsible for the outcomes of all students.

Two practices, from among many, were powerful examples at the school of how support for development can take place, and how that can create conditions that promote growth.

In the 1st grade, students were seated around tables for four. Each student had a weeklong, rotating task and title: facilitator, timekeeper, and so on. The teacher and other adults helped them learn to carry out their social and academic responsibilities as citizens of the classroom community—to grow along the developmental pathways. Because shyness and lack of confidence are often a problem among underdeveloped children, teachers also used imitation microphones in class, with the students expected, when called upon, to “stand and deliver.” By the end of the year, some children had to be reminded that it was appropriate to limit their comments in order to give others a chance to speak. Such approaches, adjusted for developmental level, can be effective at all grade levels.

I received as a gift a picture album of the school’s past-year activities. The joyful appearance of the students as they engaged in exciting academic work mirrored the pleasure of the staff members I met. Of interest, perhaps, is the fact that the students were almost all African-American and the staff was 90 percent white. It is a fact suggesting that school culture, more than race or class, is of critical importance.

This fits with what is known about student learning. Students—prekindergarten through 12th grade—are probably motivated to learn, and take responsibility for their own learning, in caring, confidence-building environments. But this can’t take place if school staff members and parents are not prepared to create such environments or cultures.

Enabling participants in the entire education enterprise to help create such environments—and relying less on rigid control and sanctions—would help the standards movement begin to adequately prepare many more students to be successful in school and in life. It would probably reduce the kind of behavioral problems that hurt and limited my childhood friends; the kind of attitudes and problems that hurt our societal, economic, and social well-being.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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