Why ‘doing what works’ doesn’t work

“Doing what works” doesn’t really work, writes Justin Baeder in Ed Week’s On Performance blog.

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.

If teachers switch from poor teaching practices to good teaching practices, it will help — but not a great deal, Baeder writes. Bad teachers won’t get significantly better results by adopting “best practices” that “work” for good teachers.

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.

This won’t get us very far, Baeder believes. To make a “sustained large-scale improvement,” we need to recruit and retain better teachers and principals and develop coherent systems that support teaching and learning.

In an earlier column, Baeder wrote about the “single explanations” fallacy described in Phil Rozenzweig’s The Halo Effect and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers: “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.”

Learning is influenced by many factors, Baeder writes.

The armchair reformers want us to believe that education works like this:
Teacher + Student = Learning

If we aren’t getting the level of learning we want, and we can’t change much about the student, the teacher is the logical place to focus. But what this simplistic model omits is the ecosystem in which the teaching-learning relationship exists.

Value-added models have shown that teachers are responsible for 20-40% of the variance in student performance, meaning 60-80% of student learning is dependent on factors other than the teacher. . . . Poverty matters. Parents matter. School culture matters. Student health matters. Teachers matter too, but they are far from the only salient factor in student learning.

A brilliant math teacher at my daughter’s middle school had success teaching the “new new math,” but less talented teachers — notably my daughter’s seventh-grade pre-algebra teacher — couldn’t pull it off.  Parents rebelled, forcing the school to offer a traditional math alternative.

About Joanne


  1. Simply doing what works in certain situations is going to be fruitless unless one understands *why* it works. With situations as varied as teachers can encounter in a classroom, the best thing to have on hand is several solutions to the same problem with an understanding of why (and when) they work and fail.

  2. “The Gates Foundation is spending millions to find out what teaching practices are “effective” so we can make everyone implement them.”

    If this is the case, that we don’t know which practices are effective, why don’t we shut down Ed Schools and till we learn? Also if this is the case, are we exacerbating our educational woes by teaching ineffective practices? Just what has been going on in the multi-billion dollar education research “business” all these years? Is it all a sham?

  3. So, essentially, “Doing what works” is just another example of cargo cult behavior.

    As far as teaching the “new-new-math” turd my district uses, the only reasons I’m able to have any success are A) I’ve been doing it long enough to know exactly where all the glaring holes are B) I have enough time to first cover the curriculum then actually teach the math C) There are enough rookies around that they leave me alone to do my thing. Less experienced teachers, or self-contained special education teachers who have to teach every course, don’t have those advantages.

  4. Thanks for the discussion, Joanne.

    JoeH – great question on a point that I could have been clearer about. There has been plenty of good research on which practices are better than others, and I don’t think that’s been a waste.

    What is wrongheaded, though, is to expect that simply having everyone do all of the better practices will lead to vastly different results. Overall performance is a package deal more than we might realize – it’s more about the person and the conditions under which they work than whether they use certain techniques.

  5. When I meet with clients it is very evident to me that each student learns differently. Teachers are no different–they each have a style and method that is a strength for them. There certainly are sound teaching methods that every teacher should have in his/her toolbox, buth they need to be able to use the most effective tools for themselves and students.

  6. “Doing what works” somewhere else is probably better than winging it.