It's the Development, Stupid

Assessment, Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

(This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.)
Two years ago, my wife and I signed up to receive monthly emails charting our son’s development. When he was still in utero, the emails began with visual markers of his growth – he was the size of a grape at one stage, the size of a kumquat at another. Now, as he toddles his way through the world, the information is more focused on his behavior, reassuring us, for example, that a recent rise in meltdowns actually means that his development is “right on track.”
Across that same period, I’ve been part of a founding group that will, in August 2011, open a new public school here in DC (a school my son will one day attend). And what I’ve learned is that, for reasons I can’t fully understand, most of our country’s pre-schools maintain this evaluative focus on child development – and most middle and high schools abandon it altogether.
Why is this? If we know that up to two-year spans in development are normal in any area of a child’s overall growth, why do we recognize the value of flexible, developmentally-based evaluations when children are smaller, and then shift almost exclusively to inflexible, time-based evaluations when they are bigger? How might our schools be different if we valued all children’s social and emotional development as much as we revered their academic growth?
Luckily, this is not purely an abstract question. Since 1968, renowned Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer has administered the School Development Program (SDP), a research-based, comprehensive K-12 initiative grounded in principles of child, adolescent, and adult development. As Comer explains, “SDP is not an add-on program. It’s an operating system for the school, based on the recognition that development and learning are inextricably linked. Both are needed to adequately prepare young people to be successful in school and in modern life. And schools are the only organizations strategically located to help all children grow and compensate for the difficult conditions that interfere with the growth of many.”
Despite the clear logic – and sound research – supporting the Comer model, most people outside the innermost education circles have probably never heard of it. Dr. Comer is rarely mentioned amid the media’s infatuation with the newer generation of education reformers. Yet ask any group of parents what they want their children to know, feel, and be able to do as adults, and you will hear talk of not just academic goals (and test scores), but also physical, psychological, verbal, social, and ethical development – the very things the Comer model is designed to help educators tend to, monitor, and support.
I don’t know why the current national conversation about education reform is so mute on the developmental needs of children – regardless of whether they’re 5 or 15. I do know our school will listen to what the experts are telling us. And the good news is I see signs elsewhere that people are creating more flexible structures in which all children and adolescents can learn and grow. This year in Kansas City, for example, school officials will begin switching 17,000 students to a new system where, instead of simply moving kids from one grade to the next as they get older, schools will begin grouping students by ability. And despite its lack of media attention, the SDP continues to work effectively with schools across the country and throughout the world.
Of course, before shifting from a narrow focus on academic content to a broader focus on developmental processes, we must require a different, more finely attuned skill set in our teachers. This is something the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which just released a new report on the importance of development in teacher preparation, clearly understands. As NCATE puts it, “The essential task of any educator is to combine a depth of knowledge about subjects with a thorough understanding of the subject under study and to bridge the two with appropriate instructional plans and pedagogical tools. Indispensable to that process is the knowledge that human development displays complex patterns and variation, and effective teachers are able to draw upon that knowledge in service of the growth and learning of their students.”
We can create this sort of system – our teachers and students require this sort of system – but we won’t get there unless we’re willing to invest in the necessary structures and supports that can create a long-term teaching profession in this country, not just a short-term teaching force. Learning and development is not a simple, linear march into the future; it is a complex, nonlinear circling of ourselves and our places in the world. Understood that way, perhaps more Americans will start to pay more attention to how children and adolescents develop – and start to think differently about exactly who can, and who can’t, teach.