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  • Sharon McCormack

Book Review: Yong Zhao, "What Works, May Hurt"

Updated: May 15, 2019

Yong Zhao. (2018). What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education.

New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University, 2018. viii + 168pp. $45.10 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8077-5905-9


Yong Zhao's What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education interrogates different educational interventions that have had a significant impact on the educational landscape in recent years within the United States. Zhao uses the analogy of side effects in medicine to discuss recent educational reforms situated within a neoliberalism agenda. As he states, “education just like medicine can have side effects causing harm while doing good” (p. 3). Zhao’s book is timely within current political and educational discourse related to education reform to find solutions to address issues and challenges in education. As he points out governments, politicians, policy-makers are looking for political expediency and this he argues is where adverse consequences in education are often not considered.



Zhao uses the analogy of ‘side effects’ to critique the educational reform policies and practices mandated upon unsuspecting school leaders, teachers, parents and more importantly students within educational systems across the United States. The case studies for critical analysis include: (i) The educational policy of No Child Left Behind Act; (ii) The educational program of Reading First; (iii) Educational research of Direct Instruction and Visible Learning; and (iv) Educational discourses related to High Performing Educational Systems in East Asia, High Cognitive Ability Teachers and the Math and Reading “Wars”. As he argues is often the case, the zealous manner in which many of these interventions have been administered into education systems has meant there has not been the foresight to consider the possible side effects, and therefore these have often not explored. As he states, “education can hurt and help at the same time”(p. 33) and in this book, Zhao provides a compelling argument of many the policies and practices that have been situated within the neoliberalism educational reform effort have significantly affected students, teachers, schools, and societies.


Throughout the book, Zhao remains committed to this central argument in analysing a range of education reforms and practices. In each of his case studies, he addresses the fundamental question of “does this suggest that certain educational practices can be effective in achieving certain goals but can hamper the realisation of other, equally important goals?” (p. 3). This question supports him in pursuing the line of inquiry that he states, “has proven meaningful for thinking about educational issues” (p. 2). This provides the reader with a unique and refreshing perspective when evaluating education reform. Treating topic with the chapters as a medical case study, Zhao provides his readers with an introduction to the case and outlines political, social and historical contexts the case studies are situated. He then delves into the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and finally explores the adverse side effects of the interventions. Zhao comprehensively supports his central argument in each case study by drawing upon a large body of educational research literature to not only provide a detailed description of the case studies but also to direct the readers’ attention to the negative impacts they have had within education.


What was initially a published journal article investigating the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act, Zhao has expanded his line of thinking about education into his current book providing the reader with a thought-provoking and confronting take on the current political and educational landscape. In this critique, Zhao challenges the status quo related to neoliberal market-based solutions implemented through education policies and practices such as high-stakes testing, standardised curriculum, scientific evidence-based approaches, and whether they have delivered the promised panacea in education. Instead, as the reader discovers many of these educational interventions have narrowed the view of the purpose of education and schooling leading to wide-ranging and long-lasting effects. Although the central argument of his book within the chapters of the case studies is repeated, this is to be expected considering the purpose is to build a solid case to raise awareness to governments, policy-makers, educational researchers, school leaders, teachers and other advocates in education. When proceeding with educational reforms it is necessary to consider more fully both the intended and unintended consequences of educational interventions.


Yong Zhao’s What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education, is the antidote currently required in education today. In his book, he has provided the remedy needed to counteract the political and educational discourses in the neoliberalism agenda that informs education reform. This book is a must-read for all stakeholders associated with education reform.



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