As in medicine, second opinions valuable in schools

Editor’s note: This column ran last week in many ECM Publishers newspapers. It elicited many responses, some of which the author relates in a follow-up column printed here along with the original.


Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

Fortunately, a second medical opinion recently showed I did not need a painful “spinal tap.” Instead, the second doctor who examined me (after I expressed concerns about the first, dramatic diagnosis), prescribed ice on my back and anti-pain pills every four to six hours.

My morning’s very sore neck felt much better by the end of the day – and I was reminded once again, about the value of a second opinion, whether it’s in medicine or in education.

When I was 12, I took a woodshop and metal class. The teacher told me if he had not talked with other teachers, he would have referred me to be reviewed as a “special needs” student.

I was really bad at metal shop. Despite my best efforts, I produced a spatula that was nowhere near as nice as a number of other young men’s … some of whom did not do well in writing or math. Those were areas where I did pretty well.

In another column, I’ve mentioned terrific YouTube videos produced by students at High School for Recording Arts (found here: These are incredibly creative and helped win their school the national best “school small business” award from Junior Achievement last year. Some of the most creative kids producing these videos are students who in other schools had been classified as “behavior problems” and “anti-social.” At High School for Recording Arts, they excel.

My plea to parents is: Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion, not just in medicine but also in education.

If your youngster is doing well in a traditional classroom, great.

Some youngsters don’t thrive in a traditional classroom but excel in a more project-based, applied program. I think of the students at High School for Recording Arts or the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts and youngsters who love a program called “Genesis Works.” Genesis Works students attend traditional schools part of the day and then spend another part of the day as interns in businesses. I’ll say more about this in a future column.

The conventional school works well for some youngsters. But some require a second opinion and a second option. True in medicine. True in schools.

Column attracts powerful responses 

Powerful, personal and passionate. That’s how I’d describe more than 20 responses to my column recommending a “second opinion” in medicine and education. All over Minnesota, and the U.S., people described themselves or their children as benefiting from a second view. Here are a few examples and what this can mean for schools.

Bill wrote: “My son was the kind of good-with-your-hands-bad-at-academics kid you describe. … Adopted at age 7, (he) is a carpenter, and the smartest guy with his hands I know.”

Karen, now an internationally recognized college professor recalled: “My third-grade teacher told my mother that I wasn’t college material! Amazing.”

Thomas explained, “I was in shop class in seventh grade and couldn’t plane a piece of wood straight while other kids I thought were dumb were making incredible inlaid chessboards. The teacher took me aside one day and said, ‘Even though you’re not so good at this, you are good at the things that are important for being a success in life.’… I’ve (spent) a good portion of my career … advocating for the kids in shop class who made the great chessboards!”

Matthew wrote: “Cursive was a major problem with my teachers – not because of the product, but because of how I held my pencil. I had fluid, excellent writing, but my grip was ‘wrong.’ This resulted in calls home in 2nd grade and a recommendation to be in the ‘Cursive Club,’ … a remedial cursive session in place of recess one day a week, in fifth grade.

“My parents thought it was ridiculous, so they (and I) ignored it. … I have unique, clear, elegant cursive (and I only write in cursive) that has served me well. Years ago … I made a font of a print version of my handwriting. It’s been downloaded over 400,000 times.

“In addition, I was recommended to go to speech therapy when I was about 12. Turned out my teeth had to be adjusted a bit. I had two removed. By 15 or so I was in great shape. I love public speaking, it’s one of my favorite things.”

Tom, a newspaper editor recalled: “As for shop class, I was a C student there, too. I did much better in more classical studies like history, English and math. In some ways, I wish it were otherwise. When something goes wrong on the home front, I often say to my wife, ‘Call the man,’ instead of trying to fix it myself.”

Gary, a veteran educator, believes, “one size does not fit all, or even most. Ideally, every student would have an Individual Education Plan. … Each student has his or her unique interests, skills, learning styles, and personalities. … As kids … we knew that we were better at some things than others and other kids were better than we were at other things.” Gary recommended Ken Robinson’s illustrated lecture on changing schools (

Wayne, a veteran award-winning educator wisely concluded: “A serious shortcoming of conventional schooling is that nonacademic students (not good at reading and/or math) are treated as poor or failures. That takes an enormous toll on a student’s sense of self when, in fact, the student may be strong in nonacademic areas. In schools, those areas just don’t count for much – a tragedy. … When will we learn and act upon the fact that not all students learn the same? Or that schools need to recognize, prize and reward many kinds of learning? To do otherwise continues an inhumane aspect of schooling.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at [email protected]