Education Opinion

Moderation: A Radical Approach to Education Policy

By Michael J. Feuer — June 13, 2006 8 min read
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When I mentioned I was writing a book about rationality in American education, my friends had helpful reactions. One said, “Good, I like short books,” and another was surprised to hear I was into science fiction. No, rationality is not the first word that springs to mind when one thinks about the American public school system. In fact, maybe even the word “system” is a stretch: As the former Harvard University president James B. Conant once observed, “[W]hen one tells a foreign visitor that we have tens of thousands of local school boards with vast powers over the elementary schools and the high schools, he is apt to say, ‘This is not a system but a chaos.’ ”

—Patti Raine


The fact is that we Americans are usually a pragmatic and efficient people, yet we prefer a bit of chaos when it comes to the governance of our public institutions. We are allergic to anything that smacks of central authority, and if there is a civil religion that binds us, then its sacred texts include stern commandments on the dispersion of power. We have distributed accountability not because it was forced upon us, but because we designed it that way—and fought for it. And it’s not limited to education: Anyone who has tried to change vehicle registration from Virginia to Maryland knows the true meaning of government by fragmentation.

Whether this American experiment in governance is a cause or result of our extraordinary demographic mosaic would be hard to untangle in this short space. Either way, though, our celebration of diversity is tempered: We are proud of our disparate origins, but we also like to believe we are one nation. Our Great Seal doesn’t just exalt the pluribus, it promises an unum, and though the details on how to make that happen were left sketchy, historically the responsibility has fallen heavily on our schools. No wonder our education policies often are based on recipes that call for varying measures of pluribus and unum, with the specifics to be negotiated by a sharply diverse and opinionated group of chefs. To cite a familiar example, the federal No Child Left Behind Act is an ambitious national law rooted in notions of common standards for all children—yet it guarantees discrepancies, if not chaos, by reserving implementation details to the states.

With diffused governance etched in our political DNA, my friends’ jokes about rationality take on new meaning. What can that word possibly mean in the context of so much organized and inspired cacophony? What can it mean in a system hard-wired for multiple and often irreconcilable values? For analytically oriented post-Enlightenment thinkers, rationality is about clear goals and the logical pursuit of optimal solutions by informed decisionmakers. But what happens when goals are vague or overdefined, when it is impossible to imagine—let alone enumerate—all possible solutions, when the context changes too fast relative to problem-solving capacity, when objective information is nonexistent or inaccessible, and when everyone is an expert with an assumed right to be heard?

One wonders why a profession steeped in the norms of academic discourse and the life of the mind should have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, toward reasonableness.

If this sounds anything like the reality of American schools and schooling, then maybe we should redefine the word “rationality” rather than hold our educators, researchers, and policymakers to an irrelevant utopian standard. The fact is that neither teachers in their classrooms nor policy wonks in Washington confront well-defined problems for which all the necessary data are readily available. Nor do they seek optimal solutions. Most of them seek reasonably good solutions to inordinately complex and dynamic problems, and they base their decisions on appropriate rather than exhaustive deliberation. They have to think and act fast, given the realities of classrooms and legislatures, and they operate under dense clouds of uncertainty. The one thing they know for sure is that their decisions will be challenged.

This is not exactly an environment conducive to the myth of cool, calm, and calculated optimization. But that doesn’t mean rationality is absent or impossible. With limited mental and computational resources, and a pressing need to act in the absence of complete information, rational people search intelligently for strategies which, though potentially imperfect, seem good enough. The Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon called this behavior “satisficing,” a key concept in his theory of “procedural rationality” that has reshaped the way we think about complex decisions in many fields.

Many fields, but not education. Ironically, the cognitive revolution that displaced a century of behaviorist theory about teaching and learning and contributed to refreshing new insights about economic and social policy has had little or no impact on the way we think and argue about education policy. If one listens to the debates about almost any reform initiative, a shrill cacophony of maximalism usually drowns out the voices of moderation and compromise. We suffer recurrent cycles of despair and exuberance, what the education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban called “a pie-in-the-sky brand of utopianism” and “public rituals of dismay and promise.” Some might argue that the architects of the No Child Left Behind law were “irrationally exuberant” when they decreed that all students would be proficient by 2014. But opponents of the law who see only the downside risks are equally guilty of maximalist intransigence when they ignore the program’s potential (and actual) benefits.

One wonders why a profession steeped in the norms of academic discourse and the life of the mind should have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, toward reasonableness and moderation. Maybe moderation and compromise are viewed as cop-outs, especially nowadays when partisan rancor and ideological bullying are so fashionable; maybe education politics is so noisy because our kids mean so much to us; maybe hyperbole helps focus public attention—and loosen up public dollars. In any case, and at the risk of sounding naive, I offer here a few modest suggestions for making education policy and research at least procedurally a bit more rational.

We all need to cool our rhetoric. Social scientists are sometimes sadistically gleeful when they find inevitable flaws in policy, while politicians often mistake healthy skepticism for apology for the status quo.

First, researchers need to improve their standards of evidence. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to show why the No Child Left Behind law may not reach all its goals in the allotted time. The tougher part, often ignored by otherwise tough-minded researchers, is chasing the follow-up questions: By how much are those goals likely to fall short? How will the shortfalls affect different population groups? Is there agreement on the acceptable ratio of benefits to risks? How much more time would make a difference? And perhaps most important—in the absence of federal law, would the predictable trends in student achievement, especially for poor and minority kids, be tolerable?

Politicians, too, should rethink standards of evidence. While they are right to demand rigorous evidence about the advertised advantages of proposed reforms, especially those offered by groups with partisan or commercial interests, they should avoid setting evidentiary standards too high. One of the biggest threats to evidence-based policy is methodological nihilism—the rejection of reforms because definitive and foolproof evidence of their benefits is lacking. After all, as Nobel laureate Simon, an economist known as “the father of artificial intelligence,” warned late in his career, science is about discovery as much as validation; too much emphasis on the latter can stifle the former. But devising methodologically sound criteria to guide judgment in the absence of hard experimental evidence is no cakewalk: It needs to be a high priority for joint attention by researchers and policymakers.

Second, we all need to cool our rhetoric. Social scientists are sometimes sadistically gleeful when they find inevitable flaws in policy, while politicians often mistake healthy skepticism for apology for the status quo. A good example comes from the world of testing. When test scores rise rapidly, measurement experts correctly ask if the gains are real. But at times they are too eager to find the “smoking gun” of mischief (test prep, cheating, and other games that are played to inflate scores), and miss the possibility that at least some kids are actually doing better. The demoralizing effect on teachers, students, and reformers can be powerful. On the other hand, politicians (and other researchers) often react to the legitimate queries posed by measurement experts by labeling them as “test bashers.” This is egregious, analogous to calling medical researchers apologists for cancer when they show that certain therapies are wrongly applied, misleading, or don’t work.

Researchers need to be encouraged to scour the evidence and “tell it like they see it,” but they also need to be sensitive to the excesses of rhetoric. They need to understand that premature and aggressive evaluation can sap the morale of reformers and the inventive juices of educators. And politicians need to appreciate that skepticism in science is the mother of invention, and that without rigorous questions there can be no valid answers. Finding the right point on the imaginary fine-tuning knob (excuse the anachronism) won’t be easy, but arrangements can be made to foster mutual respect and collective responsibility.

If we’re serious about pursuing a more rational approach to education policy, we should start by applying lessons from the study of human cognition and organization. The pursuit of better research, better policy, and better practice requires experimentation, trial and error, learning by doing, and delayed gratification. Above all, it requires agreement that it is often more rational to seek good solutions than to hold out for the best ones.

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as Moderation: A Radical Approach to Education Policy


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