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.

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