Side effects in education: Winners and losers in school voucher programs 

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YONG ZHAO is a Foundation Distinguished Professor at the School of Education, University of Kansas, Lawrence. He is the author of What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education (Teachers College Press, 2018). 

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Missing the Point: A Response to Patrick J. Wolf

On Feb. 6, 2019, Patrick Wolf posted a reply to Yong Zhao on EducationNext:

Article On School Choice Ignores Key Evidence.


Here’s Zhao’s response:


In response to my recent Kappan article Side Effects in Education: Winners and Losers in School Voucher Programs, Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions, offers me three pieces of “friendly advice:”

  1. First, don’t call people names.
  2. Second, get your facts right.
  3. Third, know the subject of which you speak.

The advice is sound and should be heeded by everyone who wishes to engage in productive discussions of any topic. Unfortunately, though, Wolf does not follow his own advice and misses the point of my article. Permit me to pass his advice back to him.

First, don’t call people names.

According to Wolf, I am a name-caller because I label “school choice researchers as either ‘proponents’ (a.k.a., ‘advocates’) or ‘independent researchers.’” However, I don’t understand why identifying researchers in these ways amounts to name-calling. An advocate (or proponent) is commonly understood to be someone who supports, defends, or argues in favor of a cause. It is not a derogative, insulting, or offensive word, unless of course the cause itself is morally questionable, objectionable, or repugnant. Since it does not appear that Wolf believes school choice to be a repugnant cause, describing researchers as advocates and proponents hardly equates to insulting them.

(As an aside, the American Federation of Children, which explicitly describes itself as an “organization that does lobbying and grassroots advocacy work” in support of school choice, has referred to Wolf as an “advocate” for its cause. I have to wonder whether he has accused that organization of “name-calling.”)

Further, because I refer to some researchers as advocates and others as independent, Wolf accuses me of attempting to judge researchers’ intentions: “Zhao would need to possess the capacity to look inside of the hearts of his fellow human beings and therefore observe their intentions.” Actually, though, my intention, which Wolf appears to misread, is simply to characterize a pattern I have observed in the findings presented by researchers. It might be nice to have the power to peek inside people’s hearts, but for my purposes, it’s sufficient to look at their publications.

While we’re on the topic of name-calling, let me note also that Wolf chooses to label me as an ideologically biased “doubter”:

“So long as doubters like Professor Zhao continue to ignore the wealth of published evidence to the contrary, empirical research on school choice and civic values will continue. Many commentators, however, insist on trusting their ideological preferences on the matter of school choice and civic values instead of their lying eyes.”

Further, not only does Wolf presume to have seen what lies within my heart (ideological bias, he thinks) but also to have surveyed the whole of my academic expertise. “School choice,” he writes, “is new academic territory for Zhao, a Distinguished Professor who specializes in education technology and virtual learning.” Apparently, Wolf believes that if researchers are new to a topic, then their findings can be dismissed out of hand. In contrast, he touts his long history with the subject of school choice as evidence of his superior insight. He doesn’t just offer me “friendly advice” but he does so “as someone who has studied the topic for over 20 years.”

I find it odd for Wolf to suggest that I must be wrong because I’m newer to this topic than he is. As Charlotte Bronte once remarked: “I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”

Moreover, Wolf is simply wrong about my background. My specialization in educational technology hardly precludes me from studying additional subjects, and I have in fact studied and written extensively about a broad range of issues in education, which Wolf could easily have learned by reading some of my recent writings or browsing my website.

Second, get your facts right.

Again, very sound advice that we all should follow. But here, too, Professor Wolf misses the point. The primary purpose of my Kappan article — adapted from a chapter in my book What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education (Teachers College Press, 2019) — is to call attention to the complex nature of educational interventions such as voucher programs, which can have both positive and negative effects. My point is that scholarly and policy-focused debates about these programs have focused mainly on their average effect on students. It is also important, I argue, to consider those programs’ differing effects on various groups of students, with attention to a broad range of outcomes.

Wolf, however, misreads my argument. He accuses me of criticizing “the body of research on the achievement effects of school choice” on the grounds that it focuses exclusively on average effects. Then, as if to prove me wrong, he points to studies that have examined variations of outcomes across different subgroups of students.

But my article does indeed point to research findings, including Wolf’s, that show negative effects of school vouchers on some students. My point isn’t that the body of research has excluded such findings but, rather, that these negative effects have been under-reported or ignored in publications that favor voucher programs, on the grounds that, as Wolf says, “A program has a single, general effect on participants unless its effects on different subgroups are, themselves, significantly different from each other based on statistical tests.”

What Wolf misses here is that individual children are not statistical probabilities and no matter how small the number of children who experience negative effects, those effects should be given serious attention. By way of comparison, a medical procedure may have benefits for the majority of people, but if it causes harm to even a very small number of patients, those adverse side effects should be discussed, not ignored.

I suspect that Wolf has a problem with my article not because I get the facts wrong but because I highlight facts that are right but which he may not want to discuss. Specifically, I have called attention to facts that challenge a simplistic and overly friendly interpretation of the evidence supporting voucher programs.

Third, know the subject of which you speak.

I couldn’t agree more. But again, I would ask Wolf to give that advice to himself, too, particularly when it comes to the broader study of K-12 education.

As he sees it, I don’t have a solid grasp of the research on school choice: “Zhao concludes his essay with the claim that, ‘Little, if any, empirical evidence has been collected concerning other equally important outcomes of schooling, such as preparing students for civic engagement and betterment of a shared society.’” But, he adds, “Actually, there is a deep and broad research literature on the mostly positive effects of school choice in general and private schooling in particular on civic values such as political tolerance, volunteering in one’s community, political knowledge, political engagement, social capital, and patriotism.”

However, rather than proving that I don’t know the subject at hand, Wolf’s accusation only exposes his own limited understanding of the value of public education for a democratic society. In fact, those benefits go well beyond “political tolerance, volunteering in one’s community, political knowledge, political engagement, social capital, and patriotism.” (For more, see the two articles that I reference in my piece: Abowitz & Stitzlein, 2018, and Labaree, 2018). For example — and this is hardly an exhaustive list — important student outcomes include creativity, curiosity, psychological well-being, physical health, and the ability to communicate effectively across varied contexts. Even if we accept Wolf’s statement that there is “a deep and broad research literature” on the effects of school choice on civic values, it remains true that choice’s influence on many other important educational outcomes have yet to be assessed carefully.

Moreover, while my article focuses mainly on the relative lack of debate about the negative effects of school voucher programs, Wolf points to research about “school choice in general and private schooling in particular” as evidence of my ignorance of the field.

Again, it strikes me that Wolf has largely missed the point of my Kappan article. Educational interventions, like medical treatments, often have adverse side effects that accompany the intended benefits. Because education has many competing outcomes, interventions that have a positive impact on one outcome may come at the cost of other potential outcomes. And because students have differing characteristics, an intervention that helps some students may hurt others. This applies to all educational interventions, and voucher programs are no exception.



Abowitz, K.K., & Stitzlein, S.M. (2018). Public schools, public goods, and public work. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 33-37.

Labaree, D.F. (2018). Public schools for private gain: The declining American commitment to serving the public good. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 8-13.

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