Thinking About “What Works”

Last week was one of those weeks when I spent way too much time yakking at people. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I had the chance to speak at a Philanthropy Roundtable gathering, Thursday I interviewed NYU’s Jonathan Zimmerman on his new book on sex education, and Friday I spoke about The Cage-Busting Teacher at Teaching & Learning 2015. In all of these settings, there’s a natural inclination to want to know “what works.”

People want to know: “what works” in philanthropy? What works when it comes to advocacy? What’s the right way to evaluate teachers? What works in sex ed? And so forth. Here’s the thing: I think that asking the question in that way, while totally understandable, reflects an unhelpful bias.

There are at least two ways of thinking about human affairs when it comes to “what works.” One is to figure out “what works” and then to promote it through all available means—and ensure that more people do it. The other presumes that “what works” is often a product of context, conditions, and circumstance, and therefore we should be hugely cautious about our ability to understand the world or make it conform to our desires.

In thinking about teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, school governance, school discipline, and much else, we’ve been searching diligently for the “best” solutions. And, truth be told, there are things that seem to work well—often very well—in particular places and at certain times. The trouble is that, decade after decade, efforts to “scale” these solutions or turn them into policy just hasn’t delivered.

It’s easy to decide that the challenge is a question of “implementation,” or getting the recipe wrong, or some such. I think the problem is more fundamental. There’s a reason that state governments don’t require all companies to evaluate employees according to a certain rubric and that bankruptcy courts don’t require all struggling ventures to adopt a particular “turnaround” strategy. It’s because the world is complex. What works in one place, at one time, for a certain community, will often turn out differently elsewhere. And our ability to anticipate or account for all that is horrific.

But our “what works” bias tends to tune all this complexity out. Now, it’s vital to understand that this complexity is in no way unique to education. It’s evident in every complex human interaction. In fact, in one field after another, it turns out that the ability of experts to anticipate and make sense of the world is astonishingly bad. In a favorite (if familiar) example, it turns out that the nation’s leading stock market forecasters actually fare worse than a six-year-old who happens to pick the historic market average. Since 2000, it turns out that the 22 “chief market strategists” at Wall Street’s biggest banks and investment firms have been off by an average of 14.7 percentage points per year—while our six-year-old would have been off by just 14.1 percentage points.

That’s why I’m a big fan of policy reforms that clear away the detritus of the Common School, the Progressive Era, bureaucratic creep, and overgrown CBAs, but am so leery of federal or even statewide efforts to dictate how to “fix” schools and systems. That said, it’s not that I think “nothing works.” It’s that I think a lot of things can work when done right, and that what matters is that educators, schools, and systems have the opportunity, tools, and incentives to get them right.

That’s why I think about “what works” in terms of much more prosaic virtues. I think transparency works. I think empowering talented professionals works. I think rewarding excellence works. I think it works when we make it easier for problem solvers, communities, and educators to start new schools and revamp obsolete systems.

At a basic level, this is one way to think about some of the splits among school reformers today. There are those who believe that experts can identify certain approaches that “work” and that advocates can make sure those are adopted. And there are those who think many of the ideas that “work” today have great promise, but think the wiser course is to create the conditions for excellence and trust that solutions will eventually flourish. I’m unapologetically in the second camp—where are you?

– Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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