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15th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 15, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

John P. Comer is a medical doctor, a child psychiatrist who has had enormous influence over public policy in education during the past 35 years. His new book, “Leave No Child Behind” (Yale University Press, 327 pages, $28), is an admitted effort to claim the Bush administration’s slogan for a very different vision for our children. 

    Dr. Comer sees schools as basically social service agencies. His book presents a beautiful vision of schools that counsel students through their emotional traumas and help parents become worthy citizens. “Leave No Child Behind” is a description of Dr. Comer’s methods and comprehensively reviews his work, at least as it regards the elementary school grades (even the seemingly always-positive Dr. Comer is hesitant to discuss the middle and upper grades, the real test for progressive education ideologues — he promises that discussion in a future volume). 
    Dr.Comer has worked with hundreds of schools over the years, including many located right here in New York City. His major supporter among top New York educators has been Dr. Lester Young (yes, he is the son of the jazz saxophonist), who will retire from the school system next month. 

    Mr.Young, as the senior executive of the Department of Education’s Office of Youth Development and School-Community Services,tried diligently to instill Dr. Comer’s methods and philosophy into the school system.The result was a disastrous breakdown of the school safety and discipline system earlier this year.While it may not be fair to blame Mr. Young’s premature departure on Dr. Comer and his ideas, they 
did contribute to what became the first major disaster of the mayoral stewardship of the schools. 

    Most prescriptive books on education overflow with statistics, charts, and graphs meant to prove the efficacy of whatever method is being advanced. This volume is devoid of such analysis. While Dr. Comer repeatedly suggests that scores rise in the schools he has worked with, he presents little in the way of statistical evidence. Most of his claims are based on anecdotes and offer little proof of sustained improvement. 

    In fact, Dr. Comer makes it clear that test results are secondary to improvements in the emotional health and well-being of students, parents, and even teachers.The index entries under “testing” open a window that sheds a harsh light on his attitude towards standardized tests: These include “inadequacy of exclusive focus on,” “harm caused by,”“Teachers’ unhappiness with and stress due to,” “biased tests,” “students fear/anger about test taking,” “negatives uses of,” and “allegations of cheating.” 

    Anti-testing rhetoric is the usual defense offered by “progressive” educators to justify programs that don’t work. While advocates of failed theories like “balanced literacy” (the new term for “whole language”) will blame inadequate professional development for teachers, Dr. Comer will prescribe yet another school psychologist. 

    It is useful to compare this volume with another I reviewed for these pages some months back. “No Excuses,” by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, and “Leave No Child Behind” are both books that insist that all children, regardless of background, can achieve at the highest academic levels. Yet Dr. Comer offers an “Officer Krupke, I’m misunderstood,” solution. The Thernstroms, by contrast, recognize that positive results can only come through hard work and more rigorous teaching, not the pity of a social worker. 

    No one suggests that tests are perfect. Nothing in this world is. But unhappiness with the scores is a call to action, not a signal to retreat. Where the Thernstroms advocate measures like a longer school day, a longer school year, and more demanding traditional style instruction, Dr. Comer wishes to form committees to explore the emotional well-being of all the “stakeholders” in the school community. 

    It is clear Dr. Comer deeply believes in his theories, and he still has many supporters. But if there is any lesson that we have learned from the well-intentioned but failed initiatives coming from the Great Society, it is that when your efforts fail, you must take a fresh approach. We must try to apply to education the same kind of thinking behind the great public policy triumphs of the 1990s — welfare reform and “broken windows” policing. 

    I appreciate and admire Dr. Comer’s love and concern for the children,but in the final analysis only hard work and self-reliance will fix our broken schools.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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