The University Record, January 31, 1994

Comer: Failure to help all children succeed will lead to national decline, repressive measures that affect all

By John Woodford
Executive Editor, Michigan Today

“We have to make it possible for all our kids to succeed,” Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer told a large audience in the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Failure to do so, he predicted, will lead inevitably to national decline by the turn of the century, and widescale repressive measures affecting all Americans.

Comer based his talk, “Maggie’s American Dream: Parents and Mental Health,” on his mother’s vow that all of her children would become well-educated. Despite her and her husband’s origins in poverty and their limited formal education, she saw her children earn a total of 13 higher-education degrees.

Comer, who also is associate dean of the Yale Medical School, became interested in “why so many bright kids” in New Haven’s predominantly Black public schools “didn’t develop academically.”

He recalled that his three best friends in grade school were “as bright and able as anyone in my family or school,” but did not pursue higher education and later succumbed to alcoholism, crime and drug abuse. “No society can sustain that kind of loss of bright young people on a sustained basis and survive. The only difference between me and them was what went on in our home. Our parents gave us instruction on how to be successful.”

Comer decided to see whether the rules of conduct his mother and father instilled in their children could work in an economically disadvantaged public school despite the fact that social, economic and cultural stresses on all families, let alone poor ones, “make it harder to raise our children today than ever before.”

“In the 1865–1900 period,” he said, “we were an agricultural society. Then from 1900 to 1945 a moderate level of education was needed to have a useful role in society. From 1945 to 1980, people needed a high level of education to be assured a role in society. After 1980, even with a high level of education, you can find yourself vulnerable, and unsure of gaining a role in society.”

This process took place over three generations of American society, but African Americans and some other groups were unable to enter into it in significant numbers. “In the critical period from 1945 to 1980, when people needed a high level of education to be sure of gainful employment, from eight to 20 times more money was spent to educate a white child than a Black child. This experience decreased Black economic and political power. Blacks were undereducated and therefore were first to fall off the social ladder, except for those who got into the mainstream before 1980, who have fared relatively well.”

To help children who lacked nurturing experiences at home, Comer in 1968 took a team into two elementary schools in New Haven that were 99 percent Black and ranked next to last in academic performance in the district’s 33 schools. The 4th graders tested 19 months behind the norm. But by 1979 they were at grade level, and by 1984 they were scoring a year above grade level and had the best attendance rate of any district school.

They did it by replacing the traditional administrative structure with a management team of faculty, administrators and parents. “Involving parents helped us create a community within the school since there was no sense of community in the neighborhood. This connected kids with powerful adults.”

The schools followed three guidelines:

  • “No-fault, that is no finger-pointing of blame at anyone for any problem;

  • “Decision by consensus rather than vote; and

  • “No paralysis—neither a principal nor a student could just do nothing in response to any problem that was identified.

    “We provided a culture, a climate and relationships in which parents and teachers could give students the kind of information I received from my parents. Children pick it up if you don’t like them. We provided them with important and supportive persons in their lives.”

    But “Maggie’s dream, our dream, is in trouble,” Comer concluded. “We must examine our lives and look at and think about the anger we may feel, and then use it to make a difference for all our children in all our families.

    “We can’t be a successful and wealthy nation if we don’t make coalitions, and through those coalitions, change the policies and programs of the larger society that affect families, particularly the African American families that have been under stress for so long. You can’t drop a baton in a race and expect to win it. If you drop it and run on too far, then run back to pick it up, you aren’t likely to win that race.”

    Comer’s presentation was sponsored by the Medical School; schools of Dentistry, Nursing and Public Health; U-M Hospitals; College of Pharmacy; and the Office of the Vice Provost for Medical Affairs.