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.