Most people who have ever been involved with human subjects’ rights know about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This was a study of untreated syphilis, in which 622 poor, African American sharecroppers, some with syphilis and some without, were evaluated over 40 years.
The study, funded and overseen by the U.S. Public Health Service, started in 1932. In 1940, researchers elsewhere discovered that penicillin cured syphilis. By 1947, penicillin was “standard of care” for syphilis, meaning that patients with syphilis received penicillin as a matter of course, anywhere in the U.S.
But not in Tuskegee. Not in 1940. Not in 1947. Not until 1972, when a whistle-blower made the press aware of what was happening. In the meantime, many of the men died of syphilis, 40 of their wives contracted the disease, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis. The men had never even been told the nature of the study, they were not informed in 1940 or 1947 that there was now a cure, and they were not offered that cure. Leaders of the U.S. Public Health Service were well aware that there was a cure for syphilis, but for various reasons, they did not stop the study. Not in 1940, not in 1947, not even when whistle-blowers told them what was going on. They stopped it only when the press found out.
In 1997 a movie on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was released. It was called Miss Evers’ Boys. Miss Evers (actually, Eunice Rivers) was the African-American public health nurse who was the main point of contact for the men over the whole 40 years. She deeply believed that she, and the study, were doing good for the men and their community, and she formed close relationships with them. She believed in the USPHS leadership, and thought they would never harm her “boys.”
The Tuskegee study was such a crime and scandal that it utterly changed procedures for medical research in the U.S. and most of the world. Today, participants in research with any level of risk, or their parents if they are children, must give informed consent for participation in research, and even if they are in a control group, they must receive at least “standard of care”: currently accepted, evidence-based practices.
If you’ve read my blogs, you’ll know where I’m going with this. Failure to use proven educational treatments, unlike medical ones, is rarely fatal, at least not in the short term. But otherwise, our profession carries out Tuskegee crimes all the time. It condemns failing students to ineffective programs and practices when effective ones are known. It fails to even inform parents or children, much less teachers and principals, that proven programs exist: Proven, practical, replicable solutions for the problems they face every day.
Like Miss Rivers, front-line educators care deeply about their charges. Most work very hard and give their absolute best to help all of their children to succeed. Teaching is too much hard work and too little money for anyone to do it for any reason but for the love of children.
But somewhere up the line, where the big decisions are made, where the people are who know or who should know which programs and practices are proven to work and which are not, this information just does not matter. There are exceptions, real heroes, but in general, educational leaders who believe that schools should use proven programs have to fight hard for this position. The problem is that the vast majority of educational expenditures—textbooks, software, professional development, and so on—lack even a shred of evidence. Not a scintilla. Some have evidence that they do not work. Yet advocates for those expenditures (such as sales reps and educators who like the programs) argue strenuously for programs with no evidence, and it’s just easier to go along. Whole states frequently adopt or require textbooks, software, and services of no known value in terms of improving student achievement. The ESSA evidence standards were intended to focus educators on evidence and incentivize use of proven programs, at least for the lowest-achieving 5% of schools in each state, but so far it’s been slow going.
Yet there are proven alternatives. Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org) lists more than 100 PK-12 reading and math programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards. The majority meet the top level, “Strong.” And most of the programs were researched with struggling students. Yet I am not perceiving a rush to find out about proven programs. I am hearing a lot of new interest in evidence, but my suspicion, growing every day, is that many educational leaders do not really care about the evidence, but are instead just trying to find a way to keep using the programs and providers they already have and already like, and are looking for evidence to justify keeping things as they are.
Every school has some number of struggling students. If these children are provided with the same approaches that have not worked with them or with millions like them, it is highly likely that most will fail, with all the consequences that flow from school failure: Retention. Assignment to special education. Frustration. Low expectations. Dropout. Limited futures. Poverty. Unemployment. There are 50 million children in grades PK to 12 in the U.S. This is the grinding reality for perhaps 10 to 20 million of them. Solutions are readily available, but not known or used by caring and skilled front-line educators.
In what way is this situation unlike Tuskegee in 1940?
Photo credit: By National Archives Atlanta, GA (U.S. government) (, originally from National Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.