Dylan Wiliam's guide for clear education thinking

I owe Education Gadfly readers an apology. Dylan Wiliam’s excellent and eminently sensible book was published nine months ago and has been sitting on my desk since then. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Creating the Schools Our Children Need deserves your immediate attention.

An authority on assessment, a former ed school dean, and researcher at ETS, Wiliam is something of an education celebrity in the U.K. and internationally. But he remains comparatively unknown and underappreciated in America, where he has lived on and off for fifteen years. Creating the Schools Our Children Need, which is aimed directly at American readers and written for non-experts, should change that. Wiliam’s goal is to help school board members, administrators, and others who are concerned with raising broadly the performance of U.S. schools to become “critical consumers of research.” His straightforward prose, blessedly free of jargon and unerringly practical, is uniquely well suited to his purpose. “Research will never tell school board members exactly what they need to do to improve their schools,” Wiliam writes, since districts vary too much for the same thing to work everywhere. One of his most trenchant observations is that the reason it is so hard to improve education in America is “because it doesn’t have an education system. It has 13,491 of them.”

He puts forth three proposals about how to think of any ideas that are suggested to improve education. First, he advises, “get away from the idea of what works in education, and instead ask, ‘How well does it work?’” It’s one thing to say, for example, that an intervention is “statistically significant.” If the effect size is tiny, efforts might be better directed elsewhere. (Wiliam is particularly persuasive on weighing the “opportunity costs” of misdirected focus in education.)

Second is that, in evaluating ideas, “we also need to take into account the cost of interventions.” For example, class size reduction might work and often does, particularly in early grades, but its effectiveness depends on the availability of large numbers of strong teachers—and it’s very expensive. “Costs and benefits are meaningless if studied separately,” Wiliam explains. “Any educational policy needs to be evaluated in terms of the balance of benefit to cost.”

Third, it’s not enough to say a policy or program is “evidence-based” unless you’re sure it’s likely to work in a particular district. “This might seem obvious,” he observes, “but many educational innovations work in small-scale settings but when rolled out on a wider scale are much less effective.” As Wiliam notes early in the book, “Everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere.” Given our propensity to follow fads—and follow them off a cliff—this is a worthy mantra for American education. Let’s hope it sticks.

Lest you get the impression that Wiliam is an education Eeyore, glumly insisting nothing works, or works well enough to justify the cost, the final section of Creating the Schools Our Children Need cites “two things that can improve educational achievement substantially, and with little additional cost.” The first is a knowledge-rich curriculum; the second is improving the teachers we have (not the teachers we wish we had).

Anyone looking for a quick explanation in layman’s terms of why it’s a fool’s errand to fetishize “Twenty-First-Century Skills” such as critical thinking and problem solving must read Professor Wiliam on the subject. “The big mistake we have made in the United States, is to assume that if we want students to be able to think, then our curriculum should give our students lots of practice in thinking,” he writes. “This is a mistake because what our students need is more to think with.”

He is equally clear-eyed on efforts to improve teacher effectiveness. We are not very good at predicting who will be an effective teacher, Wiliam points out. Neither are we as good as we think at identifying good and bad teachers through things like observations, surveys, or test scores. “For the foreseeable future, improving teacher quality requires investing in the teachers we already have,” or what Wiliam calls the “love the one you’re with” strategy: Almost all teachers, he insists, can reach elite levels of performance if they work hard at it for ten years. The key is creating a culture of improvement and focusing their improvement efforts on the things that benefit students most. “And the available research evidence suggests that is using assessment to adjust instruction to better meet students’ needs,” he concludes.

Ever since hearing him speak at one of the first U.S. ResearchED conferences, Dylan Wiliam has been on my radar screen. Please forgive me for taking so long to put him on yours.

SOURCE: Dylan Wiliam, Creating the Schools Our Children Need: Why What We're Doing Now Won't Help Much (And What We Can Do Instead) (Learning Sciences International, 2018).

 
 
Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.