What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education
reviewed by Ashley Weber - January 11, 2019
This program helps improve your students reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever School choice may improve test scores of some students, but it can lead to the collapse of American public education (p. 1). Such are the side effect warnings with which Yong Zhao begins his book, What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education.
A distinguished professor at the University of Kansas School of Education, Yong Zhao strives to increase awareness among policymakers, researchers, and consumers of the negative side effects of nationwide educational initiatives. He argues that what works for some may not work for others, noting the negative consequences of even the most well-intentioned programs. He also argues that conducting more educational research is critical to advancing education as a scientific field.
When discussing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the books first chapter, Zhao draws readers in with engaging writing and a medical-themed organizational layout that outlines the Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prescription, and Side Effects of the initiative. Throughout the text, Zhao includes ample research studies and program results as evidence to support his thesis that educational programs and standardized norms must undergo an experimental trial period before being implemented on a large scale.
The subsequent chapters feature informative titles and defined headings, providing the reader with an easy navigation experience. This reader-friendly layout along with the books affordable price make it accessible to multiple audiences both within and beyond academia, including educational researchers, teachers, facilitators, and administrators.
Finally, Zhao states that if the risks of a product outweigh its purported advantages, it should not be allowed anywhere near students. He recognizes, however, that no matter what effects may be produced by these programs, cultural and societal differences may lead to varied perceptions about their outcomes.
In introducing the text, Zhao shares a bold statement about his personal educational experience in China as it relates to testing and accountability:
Having grown up in China, I had personal experience with testing and accountability. I knew how high-stakes testing corrupts education, turning it into test preparation. I knew how a test-driven education causes damage to the physical and psychological well-being of students, parents, and teachers. I knew that a test-driven education does not result in citizens who can defend a democracy, nor does it produce the creative and innovative individuals needed in the modern economy. (p. 2)
Zhao goes on to posit that what works (at least in this scenario) will not perhaps hurt, but will undoubtedly hurt. He also points out that desired outcomes are not guaranteed following even the most prescribed implementation processes. No Child Left Behind, Randomized Controlled Trials, and Direct Instruction are just a few examples of the problematic initiatives he discusses.
Originally intended to be published as an article, this text constitutes a rarity as there are not many published books that explore the side effects of specific initiatives in American education in this way. Zhaos audience of educational researchers, faculty of higher education, school administrators, and classroom teachers will not only be intrigued by Zhaos findings, but inspired to advocate for a much-needed shift in how educational initiatives are brought into schools.