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Book review: What Works May Hurt

Yong Zhao's critique of evidence-based reforms hits the right beats but doesn't go far enough, writes Sir Kevan Collins

Book review: What Works May Hurt

Yong Zhao's critique of evidence-based reforms hits the right beats but doesn't go far enough, writes Sir Kevan Collins

What Works May Hurt

Author: Yong Zhao

Publisher: Teachers College Press

Details: 176pp, £31.50

ISBN: 9780807759059

I have this annoying habit of going out to enjoy a meal in a fancy restaurant, telling the waiter how much I’m enjoying the meal and then making peanut butter on toast as soon as I get home. I felt a bit like this after reading Yong Zhao’s book.

I know he writing about an important issue; he’s assembled an interesting menu and the ingredients are well sourced but, after eating, I’m left feeling unfulfilled and in need of tea and toast.

It’s a shame because Zhao’s fare is usually up my street. His previous works on the implications of globalisation, the misguided application of technology and his experience of growing up in the Chinese education system are all must-reads.

Perhaps it’s the title. What Works May Hurt takes aim at an emerging movement and one that I’m part of – an ambition to make education an evidence-informed profession.

Zhao is right to urge caution and to challenge some of the lazy thinking that has emerged around the idea that education is purely a science to be observed, measured and applied. He’s definitely right to challenge the desire of policymakers to clean up the messy world of education and employ evidence and what works as another instrument in the compliance toolbox.

In What Works May Hurt, Zhao reviews a clutch of policy reforms to challenge the current state of education research and its validity for practice. His arguments circle around three key points: everything has side-effects; long-term outcomes are as important as short-term gains; and average effects can disguise serious harm and damage for individuals. He’s right, these are all dangers and risks that serious proponents of an evidence-informed education system need to take into account.

Zhao begins his review with a seriously big beast in the education reform jungle: No Child Left Behind (NCLB). He examines four key elements of this “what works” policy: accountability and testing, parental choice, the use of scientifically proven programmes and finally, highly qualified teachers. He is rightly critical that the policy failed to consider side-effects and establish compensatory programmes.

But here’s my problem. Just because a policy adviser decides to claim a policy is based in “what works”, that doesn’t mean it is. Far from NCLB being a test of “what works”, it was largely owned and driven by policy advisers and bid writers who cobbled together programmes and policies designed to meet federal funding obligations. The laudable intention to restrict funding to scientifically proven programmes was quickly trumped by political pressure to implement the ideologically charged accountability framework and tactical considerations around the distribution of the money. If anything, the programme serves as an example of a system-wide failure to apply what we already know and use rigorous methods to test and learn.

NCLB wasn’t George W Bush’s only foray into education policy. Zhao recalls the interesting story about the president and his wife convening a panel to consider the very best evidence on teaching reading on their first day in the White House. The $1 billion programme, Reading First, was developed to support America’s most disadvantaged schools.

Zhao uses this example to remind us that education reform is big business. Reading First programmes were given preferential treatment and promoted to schools without solid independent evidence. Consequently, the programme ended up in front of a senate committee where it was declared corrupt. Citing this lack of control and an obligation to present the impact of interventions, Zhao is right when he makes the case for independent evidence and protection from false and unsubstantiated claims.

Zhao doesn’t limit his fire to US reforms and moves beyond specific programmes to line up John Hattie’s worldwide education blockbuster, Visible Learning. Although he visits the nerdy but crucial methodological questions around Hattie’s approach, he focuses in on the broader questions around the validity of measuring education in the narrow terms of attainment. A neat set of ecological metaphors are mustered to remind us that education is by its nature a complex set of interactions and we only ever have a part of the story or a partial glimpse of the interactions that contribute to how children develop and what they learn. 

He uses an apt Chinese proverb to capture the risk of blind reliance on evidence – “Medicine can be poison”. Yes, but it can also save lives and ease pain. Knowledge isn’t the problem and it would be a mistake to read this book as an excuse to return to the dark ages of ignorance, myth and personal prejudice. Zhao refers to the promise of a balanced approach that, as ever, sounds nice but always needs to be unpacked. I’m willing to accept the charge and we’re working hard to do better research: to focus on the hard grind of design and methods, to go beyond academic outcomes and measure essential non-academic skills and most importantly, to make sure we report as we find without fear or favour.

Throughout the book, I was frustrated by Zhao’s failure to make the next step and set out an approach to provide better evidence to shape and inform education policy. If only Zhao had added the simple subtitle “…so do better research” and backed it up with recommendations and practical implications, then this interesting book would have shifted gear from a fascinating review to a useful resource to move things forward.

Sir Kevan Collins is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation

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