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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at

Education Opinion

What Are the Side Effects of Your Latest Initiative?

By Peter DeWitt — June 06, 2018 4 min read

If you’ve ever seen Distinguished University of Kansas Professor of Education Yong Zhao speak, you understand that he brings a great deal of energy to every engagement. I was with Zhao at Boston College last Fall. He stood on stage to begin his keynote, connected his computer to the LCD projector, opened up a file of pictures for everyone in the audience to see, and started speaking off the cuff. It was fascinating and engaging.

Zhao is not afraid to speak his mind, whether he is giving a keynote or sitting on a panel with other speakers. He is there to challenge our thinking, and I believe it comes from a place where he is constantly trying to challenge his own thinking.

Recently, Yong sent me his latest manuscript, “What Works May Hurt: Side Effects In Education,” which will be published by Teachers College Press at the end of June (2018). In the book, Zhao dives into the side effects of initiatives that were supposed to improve education. It’s an interesting and important premise.

Side effects is such an important word to use in the subtitle of the book because we are constantly confronted with them in our daily lives. We hear a litany of them when we are watching advertisements for the next great medication that will save our life, and unfortunately, the side effects often seem worse than the disease we are trying to treat.

In his new book, Zhao inspires us to wonder whether we are under the same risks to our health when thinking about educational initiatives.

Educational Side Effects
Zhao believes that our educational “improvements,” have side effects, and he voices his concern whether the side effects are worse than the problem that policymakers, researchers and politicians are trying to “fix.”

He brings up topics like NCLB, ESSA, vouchers and one other piece of research I will address later on. What Works May Hurt: Side Effects In Educationis an important book because we must address the opportunity costs of those initiatives we go after, and the ones that are pushed down on us from the state and national level.

In the book, Zhao writes,

Side effects in education can happen for a number of common-sense reasons. First, time is a constant. When you spend time on one task, you cannot spend that same time on another. When a child is given extra instruction in reading, he or she cannot spend the same time on art or music. When a school focuses on only two or three subjects, its students do not have the time to learn something else. When a school system focuses on only a few subjects such as reading and math, students won't have time to do other and perhaps more import- ant things.

We know that this is true. School leaders have taken away recess in order to increase time on learning, so the side effect of high stakes testing has been that some school leaders decided that play was less important than test prep. And we wonder why we are raising a generation of stressed out children? In this case, the side effect is worse than the issue we are trying to face because it actually exposes students to more drill and kill, and less time to explore their creative minds.

And then there is the elephant in the room...

Visible Learning
Zhao does confront the Visible Learning research by John Hattie. For those of you who have read this blog before, you know that I work with Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer and present with him from time to time. Zhao’s criticisms of Hattie’s work are not new to me, because other researchers have had the same criticisms. The criticisms are very important to understand, such as the use of the meta-analysis approach, effect size calculations, as well as the overall large effect sizes.

Zhao quotes Hattie from two of his books (2009, 2012), where John provides caution to those who read the book. For a more current explanation from Hattie, please click here. Additionally, it’s important to note that Zhao’s book says that Hattie has 195 influences on learning, and he actually has over 250. The top three influences cited in the book have also changed. The point here is that Hattie is constantly updating his research, and I believe he should receive some credit for providing those updates because it shows that he is learning from the limitations.

Unfortunately, many people cite Hattie’s research incorrectly and then blame him when they do it. It is the responsibility of the researcher to talk about the methods they use and the limitations of their studies, but isn’t it the responsibility of the consumer to make sure that they are implementing the practice in a way that shows they clearly understand the research?

If you’ve ever done educational research, a required section in the research is called “Limitations.” This clearly means that every piece of research we look at has limitations, and the consumer of it should take the responsibility to fully understand it before they try to implement it.

And that is an important part of the book as well. Zhao has a critical eye, and looks at some of our biggest initiatives and the side effects and limitations that came with them. Those side effects may have been caused by the initiative, but it was also caused by those who tried to implement the initiative.

In the End
Zhao writes,

American education faces many uncertainties today. But one thing is certain: We will see a slew of new policy proposals as states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act and whatever actions the new administration may take, in addition to the mind-boggling number of products, programs, and services already vying for the attention (and money) of parents, schools, and education systems. When making decisions about policies and products, we should ask for information about their adverse effects in addition to evidence of positive effects.

I believe we should also look at our own practices while implementing the initiative, and wonder whether we create some of those side effects that are central to What Works May Hurt: Side Effects In Education. This bookshould provide us with the opportunity to be proactive the next time we consider a new initiative.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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