School & District Management Opinion

“Doing What Works” Doesn’t Really Work

By Justin Baeder — March 23, 2011 1 min read
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What is effective professional practice, and how can we improve the performance of our students by influencing educator practice?

There is a popular myth that we can bring about improvement by finding out “what works” and then making sure everyone does the things that work. Robert Marzano has sold truckloads of books (Classroom Instruction That Works, School Leadership That Works, et al.) on the basis of this premise, but it’s not quite so simple.

To be sure, there are good educational practices and poor ones, and we can all get better at what we do by replacing our inferior practices with superior alternatives. But how far can this carry us in the quest for improvement?

I believe that the greatest potential for educational improvement lies in two major areas:
1. Human capital
2. Systemic coherence

Everything else is peripheral, and cannot bring about sustained large-scale improvement.

I recently wrote about Phil Rozenzweig’s terrific book The Halo Effect and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers. One of the delusions is the “Single Explanations” fallacy:

Many studies show that a particular factor leads to improved performance. But since many of these factors are highly correlated, the effect of each one is usually less than suggested.

If you read any of Marzano’s “What Works” books, you’ll see that the effect sizes for various instructional and leadership techniques fit this description perfectly: They are highly correlated with each other, and don’t operate additively. In other words, if I’m a terrible educator, but I decide to start doing everything that “works,” I won’t necessarily get vastly better results.

Yes, you can get better by imitating those who are better than you—this is how most learning takes place—but this is very different from “implementing” decontextualized practices and expecting it to “work.”

My concern is that we are now basing policy on the presumption that abstracted strategy-copying can bring about large-scale improvement. The Gates Foundation is spending millions to find out what teaching practices are “effective” so we can make everyone implement them.

How far will this get us? Not very far. Great teachers are great teachers, whether or not they use “best practices.” When we study great teachers, we can start to identify common elements in their instruction. However, turning these practices into policy by making poor teachers implement them is not the road to success for our students.

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