The Wrong Medicine

If you brought your coughing baby to your small town doctor a hundred years ago, it’s quite possible he would have sent you down to the local apothecary to purchase a bottle of One Night Cough Syrup.

The Doc’s advice: “Just give your baby a half teaspoon of this elixir and he’ll be sleeping like a rock.”

He would not be kidding.

Take a look at the list of ingredients in this special cough syrup. While a mixture of alcohol, cannabis, chloroform, and morphine might not do much to cure your child’s cough, I suspect it might help everyone in the house get a little sleep. I can’t help but wonder how many children didn’t wake up in the morning after taking a dose of this stuff.

One Night Cough Syrup was the subject of a 1934 legal case in which the FDA ruled the drug’s “claims of its therapeutic properties” were misleading — because, you know, most of its main ingredients are highly addictive, harmful substances.

Of course, a few decades earlier, the doctor might have given you something else to soothe your toddler’s cough.

Yup! That’s Bayer’s Children’s Heroin.

Between 1890 and 1910, heroin was sold as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. It was also used to treat children suffering with congestion. I had no idea.

To treat your child’s painful toothache a hundred years ago, you might let them suck on one of these tasty cocaine drops for a few minutes. As the manufacturer claims, the relief would be nearly “instantaneous.” I imagine these were probably popular with people of all ages.

Have a kid suffering with asthma? Back in the day, you could actually buy some special cigarettes to help relieve your child’s asthma attacks.

While not as awful as the earlier medicines, the whole concept of having your child breathe in smoke to help them breathe seems horribly misleading. My chest hurts just thinking about it.

Today, it is beyond comprehension we would prescribe any of these remedies to any child, for any reason.

We are aghast when someone allows their thirsty child to get a drink of water from an outdoor water hose, let alone swallow a spoonful of highly-addictive narcotics to soothe a sore throat.

It makes me wonder how Americans a century from now will view some of the “prescriptions” we administer to today’s children to remedy perceived ailments.

Will they be like us and think, “What the hell were those people back then thinking?”

Since this is an education blog, I am going to segue this discussion to our nation’s addiction to the prescription of test-based accountability as the remedy for what ails America’s schools.

In 2001, President George Bush declared the American system of public schools dangerously “unhealthy.” To treat our nation’s schools, Bush put an entire generation of children and their schools on an expensive and distasteful pill called “No Child Left Behind.”

After fifteen years of the same bitter medicine of test, sort, rank, and punish, shouldn’t we begin to see some evidence that our nation’s schools are getting “healthier” and that our children are graduating better prepared for college and for leading productive lives?

Like author Alfie Kohn, I believe the last 15 years of test-based reforms have been based on “an exaggeration of the problem, a misdiagnosis of the causes, and a prescription that has caused more harm than good.”

In an attempt to cure our so-called “sick schools,” we have spent billions of dollars and completely disrupted our entire educational system. The federal government has usurped authority from local school boards with top-down mandates and micromanagement.

Schools have been closed, teachers have been fired, unions have been busted, and charter schools have proliferated across our country. States have spent a small fortune developing more rigorous standards, implementing new curriculum and instruction, and pushing additional testing in our schools.

In Oklahoma, we went even further by implementing Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE) in 2006. This legislation required students to pass four of seven End of Instruction (EOI) tests to earn a high school diploma. Since 2012, thousands of Oklahoma students were denied a diploma based on their failure to pass one or more exams, despite earning sufficient grades and credits to have graduated otherwise. This medicine failed badly and had numerous harmful side effects. The legislation was rightly repealed last year.

The central question is what have we gotten for making our children swallow this awful medicine of standardized testing for the past 15 years?

Are the graduates of Class of 2017 in appreciably better academic health than the Class of 2002? And, isn’t the answer to this question vitally important in deciding what we do next?

What does the data tell us?

One respected measure of academic performance and college readiness is the ACT assessment.

The ACT is typically administered to high school juniors each year and measures academic readiness in four core subjects: Reading, English, Math, and Science. Students receive a score in each tested area as well as a composite score using all four results.

Certainly, the results of the nationally normed ACT will give us some indication as whether all of this work and stress over the past decade is bearing any fruit, right?

Prepare to be thoroughly underwhelmed.

Here are the average ACT composite scores for Oklahoma and the United States for the past ten years:

2006: OK 20.6  US 21.1

2007: OK 20.7  US 21.2

2008: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2009: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2010: OK 20.7  US 21.0

2011: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2012: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2013: OK 20.7  US 20.9

2014: OK 20.8  US 21.0

2015: OK 20.7  US 21.0

2016: OK 20.4 US 20.8

If you would prefer a visual, here is what this data would basically look like in line graph form (providing for normal statistical variation):

2006 ________________________________________________________ 2016

Impressive, huh?

The slightly lower ACT average for Oklahoma last year is likely attributable to the fact that the Oklahoma Department of Education afforded all juniors the opportunity to take the test for free, thereby increasing the number of students taking the assessment.

Anyway you look at this, the ACT scores in our state and nationwide reek of utter and complete stagnation.

Back to my original question.

At what point do parents, teachers, and administrators stand up and say “Enough is enough?” When do we begin to refuse to allow the removal of even one more dollar from our classrooms to continue to support this enormous exercise in futility.

How about now? Today.

The right number of standardized tests that we should be forcing down the throats of our children is precisely zero. The tests do not help our children, our teachers, or our parents. They have not improved education in America one bit.

The adverse side effects of lower student engagement, reduced emphasis on arts and music, demoralization of teachers, loss of valuable instruction time, and the stagnation of innovation in many of our schools far outweighs any perceived benefits of annual standardized testing.

Isn’t it way past time to end the nation’s failed experiment with test-driven education and begin transforming our schools to prepare students for success in the 21st century?

Our nation does not need great test takers. It needs thinkers, creators, problem solvers, communicators, and entrepreneurs.

We need a new prescription for America’s schools. It begins with a full review of the social and cultural factors which affect student achievement, most notably poverty, the breakdown of families, and systemic inequalities. It also involves a real discussion of what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century and a re-imagining of our schools toward that aim.

The alternative is to have our children continue swimming in this stagnant pond of test-based slime. A pond that causes too many to drown and leaves many more unprepared for the challenges of adulthood.

Just as morphine, cannabis, and chloroform were not the right medicine for ill children last century, standardized testing is not the remedy for our academically unhealthy students today.

It’s simple the wrong medicine. We need to stop subjecting our children to its side effects.

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4 thoughts on “The Wrong Medicine

  1. Great Article! I would like to comment on:
    “We need a new prescription for America’s schools. It begins with a full review of the social and cultural factors which affect student achievement, most notably poverty, the breakdown of families, and systemic inequalities. It also involves a real discussion of what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century and a re-imagining of our schools toward that aim.”
    This statement should be the true focus of educators and lawmakers! I am afraid that until educators can get on the same page that the “snake oil” we been getting isn’t going away. School leaders need to develop philosophies based on TRUE learning science and behavioral science, because the” prescription” should be written by us. The problem is that WE have been affected by the “snake oil” salesmen! We have been blindly taking the “snake oil” for over 15 years! Educators HAVE to step up and take the lead starting with our State Dept. Complying with politically driven policies have to stop ruling the day! In my opinion public schools are already held accountable everyday and want to have great rapport with families and have students that perform to the best of their ability. These things are best decided by us. : )

  2. And perhaps, just perhaps, the Advent of the internet has some correlation. Kids are sitting still far longer, and their attention spans are far shorter. It has massive implications for holistic development. Kids needing occupational therapy at places like Brain Balance, I would venture a guess, have surged.

    • I hear you, Keri. But what makes you believe that standardized testing and all of its accoutrements is the “right medicine” to address student apathy and lack of engagement in our schools? How will more testing create thinkers and problem solvers? We will always have tests – I get that. I just wish we kept them in perspective and didn’t worship them like we do. Kids will always be much more than a test score.

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