Joe Nathan: Second Opinions are Valuable in Medicine and in Schools

by Joe Nathan

Fortunately, a second medical opinion this week 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 urging a painful procedure), prescribed ice on my back and anti-pain pills every 4-6 hours.

My 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.

Have you seen the value of seeking a second doctor's advice? Some years ago, one doctor diagnosed my father as having incurable Alzheimer's Disease. This doctor told me it would be tough, because my father was an independent sort, but that my brother and I needed to sell our father's home and put him in a retirement community.

Before we followed this advice, we brought my father from Wichita, Kansas to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Within a few hours they found something the Wichita doctor had not seen: An aneurism on one of his major arteries which was blocking a lot of blood from reaching his brain. They operated. He was fine for several more years. The first doctor's diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease was wrong.

As we start thinking about a new school year, I've been thinking about the value of a second opinion in schools. When I was twelve, I took a wood shop and metal class. The teacher told me if he had not talked with other teachers, he would have referred me for review 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 those from a number of other young men… 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 You-Tube videos produced by students at High School for Recording Arts (found here: These are incredibly creative, and helped win their school Junior Achievement's national, best "school small business" award last year. Some of the most creative producing these videos are students who in other schools had been classified as "behavior problems" and "anti-social," but at the 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 or school, that's great.

Some youngsters don't thrive in a traditional schools, 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, or those who love a program called "Genesis Works." Genesis Works has students attend traditional school part of the day and then spend part of the day as interns in a business (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.

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

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