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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learning Alliances: Building a Better Education

Experts discuss the School Development Program.
By James P. Comer, Norris Haynes

The School Development Program (SDP) model was established in 1968 as a collaborative effort of the Yale University Child Study Center and the New Haven public schools. It began in two elementary schools that were the lowest-achieving in the city, had poor attendance, and serious problems with relationships among students, staff, and parents. Staff morale was low. Parents were angry and distrustful of the schools. Hopelessness and despair were pervasive.

Our Yale Child Study Center staff -- social worker, psychologist, special education teacher, and child psychiatrist -- identified underlying problems in these schools: family stress and student underdevelopment in areas necessary for overall success, as well as organizational, management, and child development knowledge and skill needs on the part of school staff. Schools were ill-prepared to modify behavior or close the developmental gaps of their students. The staffs usually responded with punishment and low expectations. Such responses led to difficult staff-student interactions and, in turn, to difficult staff-parent and community interactions, staff frustration, and a lower level of performance by all.

A number of realities about the American educational system became apparent to us. The organization and management of the vast majority of American schools are deeply entrenched in the attitudes, values, and ways of the larger society, and maintained by traditional training and practice. Efforts toward improvement, such as providing knowledge of research findings, in-service education, and mandates from the outside, rarely bring about significant or sustained change.

In order to promote change, mechanisms must be created that allow parents and staff to engage in a process in which they gain and apply knowledge of systems, of child development, and of individual behavior to every aspect of a school program in a way and at a rate that are understandable and not threatening. When faithfully adhered to from the start, these mechanisms help the people involved achieve the kinds of small early successes crucial to reinforcing confidence in the new program. Each success encourages the staff to use these ways of working, until the new ways eventually replace the old.

Working collaboratively with parents and staff in New Haven, we gradually developed a nine-component process model (three mechanisms, three operations, three guiding principles). The mechanisms are: (1) a governance and management team representative of the parents, teachers, administrators and support staff; (2) a mental health or support staff team; and (3) a parents' program. The governance and management team carries out three critical operations: the development of (4) a Comprehensive School Plan with specific goals in the social climate and academic areas; (5) staff development activities based on building-level goals in these areas; and (6) periodic assessment, which allows the staff to modify the program to meet identified needs and opportunities.

The model also includes several important guiding principles and agreements. Participants of the governance team (7) cannot paralyze the leader. On the other hand, the leader cannot use the group as a "rubber stamp." While the principal usually provides leadership to the governance and management group, (8) decisions are made by consensus to avoid "winner-loser" feelings and behavior. (9) A "no-fault" problem-solving approach is used by all of the working groups within the school, and eventually these attitudes permeate the thinking of most individuals.

In 1990, SDP began developing partnerships with schools of education, state departments of education, and other institutions. These partners will eventually be able to support the efforts of local and neighboring school districts independent of the Yale Child Study Center. It is planned that these alliances will evolve into semi-autonomous regional centers in different parts of the country.

Additionally, the work has been extended through high schools and is beginning to address curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology issues through involvement in a New American Schools Development Corporation-sponsored project entitled Authentic Teaching, Learning and Assessment (ATLAS) Communities. This cooperative effort will fuse the principles and practices involved in Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools at Brown University, Howard Gardner's Project Zero at Harvard University, and Janet Whitla's teacher preparation and technology utilization work at the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts.

Technology is a great asset in linking schools, homes and communities for learning, engagement, and support. After parents and children receive training in the use of computer technology, they can communicate with schools and one another during and after regular school hours. This communication helps bridge the gap among schools, homes and communities. It strengthens the collective capacity of the entire network of services to respond more efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of children and their families.

The SDP model calls for all groups to work together, coordinating resources and programs to establish and achieve school objectives and goals. This work is driven by relationship and child development imperatives, focusing most on institutional arrangements that hinder adequate functioning of all members of the school community. The goal is to create a school climate that permits parents and staff to support the overall development of students in a way that makes academic achievement and desirable social behavior possible. Such an approach has a much greater potential for improving students' academic success, decreasing the likelihood of their being involved in problem behaviors, and increasing their chances for life success.

In an analysis of achievement data in the Benton Harbor, Michigan, area schools, SDP schools demonstrated gains that significantly exceeded those reported for the school district as a whole. An assessment of SDP effects conducted by the research office of the Prince George's County, MD, public schools revealed that average percentile gains on the California Achievement Test were significantly greater for SDP schools than for the entire district.

Measures of attendance, suspensions, classroom behavior, group participation, and attitude toward authority were used to assess students' school adjustment. Data analysis indicated that over a four-year period, schools experienced significantly greater declines in suspension days, absent days, and number of corporal punishments recorded when compared to the district as a whole.

In a recent study, SDP students in the fourth and sixth grades were compared with non-SDP students on six self-concept dimensions on the Piers Harris Self-Concept Scale. Analysis revealed notably higher scores by the SDP students on all six self-concept dimensions and on total self-concept. Other studies by Haynes, Comer, and Hamilton-Lee also indicated important positive changes in self concept when compared to non-SDP students.

In a quasi-experimental study involving 288 students, those in SDP schools reported significantly more positive assessments of their classroom climate than did students in non-SDP schools. Classroom climate was assessed using the Classroom Environment Scale. A total of 155 parents and 147 teachers also completed a school climate questionnaire designed by the researchers. Parents and teachers of students in SDP schools reported greatly improved assessments of their schools' climate when compared to parents and teachers of children in non-SDP schools.

In summary, the School Development Program is not just another new program to be carried out along with the other experiments and activities already underway in a school. It is a nine-element process model that takes substantial time, commitment, and energy to implement. It is a different way of conceptualizing and working in schools and completely replaces traditional organization and management. Most important, the School Development Program produces desirable outcomes only after a cooperative and collaborative spirit exists throughout a school.

James P. Comer is Maurice Falk Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, associate dean of the Yale Medical School, and director of the university’s School Development Program. Norris M. Haynes is an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center and Yale University’s Department of Psychology and director of research for the university’s School Development Program. © 1994 James Comer & Norris Haynes.

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