If we want to compare education to medicine, we should look instead at the field of public health. Teaching children and adolescents is akin to what a community health professional faces in trying to get people to brush their teeth, eat less junk food, and exercise more. While this comparison is more apt, it is less appealing since the United States has epidemic rates of preventable diseases stemming from our poor habits regarding diet and exercise.
Public health in America is a disaster, no doubt for a host of complex reasons that go well beyond anything public health professionals have or have not done. Much like education. But the comparison that we continue to make is with medicine per se, which causes problems.For example, unlike medicine, effective teaching cannot be discerned strictly on the basis of scientific studies. The more we insist that it can—and we insist a great deal—the more we deny teachers the crucial element of judgment. It would be wonderful if effective teaching could be defined by research-based standards of practice written in a manual. But that, to use our public-health analogy, would be like writing a manual for the best way to run an anti-obesity campaign for any town large or small, rich or poor. In public health and in public education, context matters a lot.