Society of Bioethics and Medicine
Revisiting Past Education Policies, Looking Out for the Future
Written by Raheem Sheikh
Edited by Jacquelyn Tang
Alena Analeigh Wicker, from Fort Worth, Texas, is not unlike most students. She studies for her college classes, sees new movies with friends, and plays soccer. Many university students may attest that balancing social and work lives is a difficult undertaking. For Wicker, this task may be more challenging as she completes two degrees in the biological sciences and interns at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) — all at the age of thirteen.
This past fall, Alena A. Wicker became the youngest Black-American student accepted to medical school. Encouraged by her family, professors, and advisors, she applied for early acceptance to the University of Alabama’s Heersink School of Medicine for 2024. Now, as she considers the next steps of her future, all while completing her research at NASA, she shares that when she took her first biology class, she knew “a big part of what [she] wanted to do was viral immunology” and “advocate for underrepresented communities that lack health care.” Her optimistic attitude and motivation are refreshing. However, we must look to the past to determine if the future can embrace her talent and cultivate many budding minds nationwide.
The No Child Left Behind Act
After several years of a pandemic that has disrupted education for millions of children, standardized test scores are yielding low results. The situation is polarizing. While some students are blossoming in self-guided, personalized-learning environments, other students are scoring averages significantly lower than before the pandemic, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Did policymakers need another round of standardized test scores to reveal the incontestable fact that the pandemic detrimentally impacted students? Universities seemed to identify this deficit early by revoking standardized test score submissions during their 2021 application cycles and continuing to allow test-optional applications.
“The hysteria over NAEP reflects our continued obsession with standardized testing, which began with 2002 No Child Left Behind Law,” says Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. Some of the most important things that the No Child Left Behind Act set out to accomplish included increasing the accountability of schools for their educational outcomes and closing the gap between scores of low and high-performing students. In contrast, while the NCLB Act generated higher numbers, the new policy of “teaching to the test” reduced effective learning, which previously employed students with applicable critical thinking skills. According to state NAEP statistics, “student scores this year declined across the country in reading and math in fourth and eighth grade to levels seen some two decades ago,” roughly when the NCLB Act was first instituted. While some positive outcomes have come from NCLB’s core approach, such as “a clearer focus on outputs over inputs, the disaggregation of student results by race and ethnicity, and a revolution in education data,” it cannot be definitively stated that NCLB was successful. In New York, for example, the Nation’s Report Card reported little increase in test results over the past twenty years in Grade 8 Mathematics, Reading, and Science. Moreover, the educational inequity that the policy sought to bridge, has been exacerbated by race and economic tensions. While it was well intended, NCLB has some serious deficits that were exposed during the sudden transition to hybrid and online learning during the pandemic.
A Failing System
For aspiring medical students like Wicker, it is difficult to ignore the intersection of politics and education, especially in medicine. The American Medical Association (AMA) has launched the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians. Why? Because they feel the nation needs to renew its commitment to physicians and medical students. Some may argue that physician burnout has become an overcomplicated issue. The 38% to 63% spike in physicians who reported feeling burnout, would indicate otherwise; Moreover, as low as 30% of physicians report career satisfaction, as observed in a recent study by Mayo Clinic. If only one in three physicians report feeling satisfied in their career, there must be an issue in the environment or system in which they work, suggests Dr. Christine Sinsky, the AMA's Vice President of Professional Satisfaction. Her team predicts that there will be a shortage of 100,000 physicians over the next ten years. They have considered factors like administrative burdens (including inadequate technology) and disbelief in the science of COVID (stemming from divisive conversations with patients who do not believe in the treatments) to be at the root of this issue.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway from the AMA’s study is that burnout is not a new issue. It is the product of long-term deficits in medical education and preparation, corporate clinical environments, and hidden-agenda politics. With standardized testing declining and vanishing, perhaps new methods for educating youth and graduate students need to be considered. For Alena, pursuing a unique educational journey, unbounded by our traditional understanding of the school, proved beneficial. Learning through the classroom, dual enrollment programs, and international travel, she personalized a path aligned with her career aspirations. Perhaps her experience should serve as a model for new education policies, especially in medical training, in the future.
“Addressing the Rapid Rise in Physician Burnout Revealed by a New Study with Christine Sinsky, MD.” American Medical Association, October 20, 2022. https://www.ama-assn.org/practice-management/physician-health/addressing-rapid-rise-physician-burnout-revealed-new-study.
Diaz, Adriana. “Girl, 13, Is Youngest Black Student Accepted to Medical School.” New York Post. New York Post, July 21, 2022. https://nypost.com/2022/07/20/girl-13-is-youngest-black-student-accepted-to-medical-school/.
Hess, Frederick. “It's Been 20 Years Since No Child Left behind. What'd We Learn?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, September 22, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/frederickhess/2022/09/21/its-been-20-years-since-no-child-left-behind-whatd-we-learn/?sh=4f7f6fce6331.
Lockett, Phyllis. “Reimagining Learning: An Interview with Alena Analeigh, the Brown Stem Girl.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, October 7, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/phyllislockett/2021/10/07/reimagining-learning-an-interview-with-alena-analeigh-the-brown-stem-girl/?sh=29f7b7c42de6.
Strauss, Valerie. "Did we Need NAEP to Tell Us Students aren’t Doing Well?: What the Scores Do and Don't Tell Us." WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post, last modified Oct 27.
Wood, Jenee Henry, and Joel Rose. “Analysis: No Child Left behind Was Signed 20 Years Ago This Month. Why It's Making Education's COVID Recovery so Much Harder.” The 74, January 20, 2022. https://www.the74million.org/article/analysis-no-child-left-behind-was-signed-20-years-ago-this-month-why-its-making-educations-covid-recovery-so-much-harder/.
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