George Washington woke up on December 14, 1799, with a very sore throat.  When it worsened, the doctors were summoned.  Naturally, Washington, who had left office just two years earlier, received the very best care from the most knowledgeable and competent doctors, those at the top of the medical profession.**

Their expert diagnosis: Washington’s four ‘humors’ or bodily fluids, were out of balance.  This analysis was based on a 1500-year-old Greek theory and accepted as scientific fact: The human body is regulated by four fluids: blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile.    “The group of fourth- and third-century BC physicians known as the Hippocratics who formulated (and more importantly wrote about) their theories, were the first organized group to consider that illness had natural—not supernatural—causes.”

Illness, they believed, resulted when the four humors were out of balance, as they must have been in Washington’s case.

The doctors set about rebalancing Washington’s system. To do this, they followed a scientifically approved medical procedure:  They drained 80 ounces of his blood, close to 40 percent of his body’s total!  

Whether they did this by opening one or more of his veins or by attaching leeches to his body is unclear.  Both procedures were normal.

Unfortunately, the treatment did not work; in fact, it might have killed him, or at least hastened his demise, because our first President died later that same day.

Did bloodletting kill George Washington?  “Many doctors, in fact, believed that bloodletting or the removal of a portion of an ill person’s blood could improve their condition. In accordance with this, in addition to the application of the usual crude purgatives and emetics, over half of Washington’s blood was drained in just a few hours. It is widely held today that the Father of our country died from the aggressive bloodletting, which resulted in severely low blood pressure and shock.”

As horrifying as those images are and as barbaric as those practices now seem, bloodletting by opening veins or attaching leeches had been ‘best practices’ in medicine for 1500 years.

Until one day they weren’t.

For me, Washington’s story mirrors what’s been going on in public education.  In my analogy, Washington represents public education,  and his doctors are the men and women in charge, people who are convinced that education is out of balance (i.e., sick) and that standardization is the cure.

One hundred years ago, standardization in education actually made sense.   After all, shouldn’t ‘third grade math’ be pretty much the same in California, Kansas, and Massachusetts?  Setting standards with across-the-board rules and measurements made it possible (at least theoretically) to make legitimate comparisons of students from different schools and different states.  And standardized, machine-scored exams like the SAT (developed in 1926) provided supposedly ‘objective’ results that could be trusted because they weren’t subject to the whims and biases of the adults correcting the exams.

Before long, the flaws in this thinking became apparent.  Supposedly ‘objective’ tests were culturally biased (in favor of the privileged).  Machine-scored tests couldn’t measure depth of understanding or test for knowledge of complex ideas.  And so on.

But, like the practitioners of medieval medicine, our education experts entertained no doubts about their approach.  Instead, they clung to power.  In fact, they doubled down, eventually making test-based accountability the quasi-religion of ‘school reform.’

Over the years, much has been sacrificed in the name of higher scores on machine-scored, multiple-choice tests: 1) We lost a balanced curriculum that includes the arts, science, history, and physical education.  2) Recess and free play disappeared from many elementary schools, replaced by practice-testing.  3) Classroom dialogue disappeared, replaced by (so-called) “personalized learning” on iPads and other tablets.  4) Hundreds of thousands of good teachers abandoned the field, frustrated by a system that wanted to turn them into baby-sitters and test-monitors.  And on and on.

Just as doctors withdrew Washington’s blood, our public schools are being bled dry, by for-profit charter schools, on-line virtual schools, some (supposedly) non-profit charter schools, massive investments in educational technology, and an expanded bureaucracy of people hired to watch over teachers to make sure they hew to the standardized curriculum.

In Washington’s case, we know that his doctors–at minimum–hastened his death. They may have killed him.  Will today’s ‘education doctors’ kill public education?  That’s an open question.

In Washington’s case, doctors may have opened his veins or used leeches.  Today, it’s all leeches.

You can probably name them yourselves, the leaders and followers who are bleeding public education dry.

How long will the leeches remain in control?  Medicine’s history is not encouraging, unfortunately.  “The notion that 4 bodily fluids—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—caused illness persisted for more than 2000 years in the West until the rise of controlled empirical science in the mid-19th century.” 

By my reckoning, education’s medievalists (AKA the leeches) have been running public education since at least the 1980’s, and I think 40 years is more than enough.   They’ve done too much damage already.

It’s long past time to end standardized bubble testing, to insist on multiple measures of student accomplishment and a varied curriculum, and to demand recess, project-based learning, and more.  All charter schools must be financially transparent and bound by the same rules that apply to traditional public schools.  Teachers must be paid more and given time to create curriculum and watch each other teach.

(I could go on with this list but ask you instead to read “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)


**I learned about George Washington’s plight from Mo Rocca’s absolutely delightful book, Mobituaries, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

7 thoughts on “EDUCATION’S LEECHES

  1. End the zero sum game of public schools’ shadow competition, the privately managed charter schools, competing for the same public education tax dollar, by having separate dedicated funding source for each subsystem of public education. My hope is separate dedicated funding for the two subsystems is included in your listing of “more”.


  2. John, we agree that the over-use of standardized tests has had a huge negative impact.

    However, yes to offering public school choice, including district options open to all that some of us created beginning in the late 1960’s, and chartered public schools. Both need to be highly transparent and accountable for how $ are spent.
    I remember some educators arguing against creation of the K-12 ST Paul (district) Open School, in fall 1971. Students, families and educators gain from options.

    The “resistance” to charters is in part a concern about outrageous spending of $ which has occurred in some places. That’s totally unacceptable.

    But the resistance to charter also is represented by Ravitch and Jim, above. State Dollars in most states have followed wealthy whites who sent their kids to mostly white suburban suburban schools. There was and is no Ravitch resistance to suburbs. But when you try to empower low income people of color, with options outside the district system, all hell breaks out.

    Fortunately, both nationally and in some states progressive educators in both district & charter sectors to promote multiple and applied performance measures, to learn from each other, and to work on other issues.


    • Privatizing public education does NOT make an educator a progressive but a modern advocate of reforming public education with set of education reforms that including standardized testing and “choice” that are as misguided and destructive as Leeching was in the era of George Washington.

      Joe Nathan helped write the nation’s first charter public school law. He has been an advocate of “choice” Leech ever since and been funded by Billionaire foundations in spreading his privatization propaganda ever since.

      NAACP has officially recognized that charters do not “empower low income people of color” and called for a moratorium on anymore charter schools because choice is privatization leech and destructive of nearby public schools.

      Mobilize progressive educators and resist the choice leech that is seeking to bleed the resources from our public schools.


  3. Literally Millions of low income and people of color disagree with the NAACP. You may recall that Dr. King helped create the SCLC because he and others saw different ways to produce progress. You may recall that the Mississippi Freedom Summer was created by others who believed more direct action was needed.

    So Jim, are you opposed to allowing wealthy white folks to choose exclusive suburban “public” schools where the admission price is the ability to purchase a very expensive home and pay high real estate taxes (which are tax deductible)?

    Are you in favor of magnet schools found in various cities that are allowed to screen out students on the basis of text scores? (I’m fine with district options open to all and have in fact helped start many).


    • I think John Merrow comparing what critics call education “deform” movement–and supporters, such as Joe, call education “reform” movement–with the since abandoned theory and practice of Leeching of George Washington’s day, although an imperfect analogy makes important points.

      One point that is lifted up by the Leeching comparison is that the false medical theory of Washington’s day was at best harmless; and those subject to the practice at worse were harmed and died.

      The failed education deform theory of our day is that privatizing public education system with privately managed publicly funded charter schools would provide competition and competition would improve both subsystems of public funding.

      How is public education system better off today than before the deforming privatization of the public education system was introduced?

      The competition between the two subsystems for students to enroll has not improved the publicly funded education system as a whole. And, that competition has in fact done harm to public schools by de-funding nearby public schools as privately managed charter schools have grown within a zero-sum relationship.

      A zero-sum relationship was what Joe Nathan and others were able to create in Minnesota charter law, This is relationship that means that charter schools grow at the expense of public schools. A destructive relationship that Joe Nathan, and his charter supporters, try to hide by trying to brand privately managed charter schools as public or “public charters” and hope the public want notice they are paying for two education systems were once there was only one taxpayers’ education system.

      Leeching medical theory of Washington’s day has been proven as wrong as the choice propaganda claim that competition would improve both public schools and charter school by the competition between the two publicly funded subsystems.


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