Yong Zhao: What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education

This medicine can reduce fever, but it can cause a bleeding stomach. When you buy a medical product, you are given information about both its effects and side effects. But such practice does not exist in education.

“This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.” No such information is given to teachers or school principals.

“This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative.” No parent has been given information about effects and side effects of practices in schools.

“School choice may improve test scores of some students, but it can lead to the collapse of American public education,” the public has not received information about the side effects of sweeping education policies.

Educational research has typically focused exclusively on the benefits, intended effects of products, programs, policies, and practices, as if there were no adverse side effects. But side effects exist the same way in education as in medicine. For many reasons, studying and reporting side effects simultaneously as has been mandated for medical products is not common in education.

In this article just published in the Journal of Educational Change, I discuss why education must learn the important lesson of studying and reporting side effects from medical research. Side effects in education occur for a number of reasons.

First, time is a constant. When you spend time on one task, you cannot spend the same amount on another. When a child is given extra instruction in reading, he/she cannot spend the same time on arts or music. When a school focuses only on two or three subjects, its students would not have the time to learn something else. When a school system only focuses on a few subjects such as reading and math, students won’t have time to do other and perhaps more important things.

Second, resourses are limited. When it is put into one activity, it cannot be spent on other. When school resources are devoted to the common core, other subjects become peripheral. When schools are forced to only focus on raising test scores, activities that may promote students’ long-term growth are sidelined.

Third, some educational outcomes are inherently contradictory. It is difficult for an educational system that wishes to cultivate a homogenous workforce to also expect a diverse population of individuals who are creative and entrepreneurial. Research has also shown that test scores and knowledge acquisition can come at the expense of curiosity and confidence.

Fourth, the same products may work differently for different individuals, in different contexts. Some people are allergic to penicillin. Some drugs have negative consequences when taken with alcohol. Likewise, some practices, such as direct instruction may work better for knowledge transmission, but not for long term exploration. Charter schools may favor those who have a choice (can make a choice) at the costs of those who are not able to take advantage of it.

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 effects.

What works can hurt!

Article info:

Volume 18, Issue 1, February 2017, Pages 1-19

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Yong Zhao

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He currently serves as the Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he is also Weinman Professor of...