Radical Moderation

Finding Fault With a Plea for ‘Rationality’ in Policymaking

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To the Editor:

Michael J. Feuer’s plea for “moderation” and “rationality” in American education fails to deal with system change ("Moderation: A Radical Approach to Education Policy," Commentary, June 14, 2006). It thereby could lead to less rationality, rather than more of it.

For years, pouring money into improving the services of the existing school system, such as teaching, curriculum, and textbooks, has seemed “rational.” But if, as is increasingly seen, the system that took shape a hundred years ago is obsolete and can’t motivate and organize its human resources—not only teachers and administrators, but students, families, and communities—in the ways needed to reach today’s education goals, then seeking solutions within the old system isn’t rational. What rationality demands instead is fundamental system redesign.

The problem is that system change seems irrational to those who don’t see the need for it. A common attitude is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—just give us the money we need to improve present services.” Educational success for all children looks utopian, given the low expectations and winners-and-losers assumptions built into the present system’s testing, tracking, and grading mind-sets. Proposals for teamwork at the school level appear to violate the chain of command required by the present bureaucratic model. Partnership with students, parents, and communities seems an irrational and unnecessary burden within the entrenched mind-set that the role of teachers is to deliver instruction to students.

Pleas for rationality and moderation therefore may stifle needed system change unless this need is addressed and better understood. What has to be moderated is not just the “shrill cacophony” of current educational dialogue, but the frustration and unproductive blame-placing that emerge when a deeply entrenched system can’t achieve its goals. What is required instead is rational dialogue about how the system should be redesigned to best meet the needs of American children and society.

David S. Seeley
City University of New York
College of Staten Island
Staten Island, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Well, the truth is finally out. Not only is it inconvenient to have to present evidence that your new ideas for education reform actually may work, but such requirements also are disruptive and may dampen creativity and initiative (as well as funding).

In his lament for moderation, Michael J. Feuer lets us look behind the push for evidence-based reform initiatives to see symptoms showing that we may not really mean it.

Since education reform has long depended on private sources for its research-and-development support, it has been vulnerable to much whimsy, deference to cachet, and top-down reform ideas. The federal level long ago abandoned the adequate funding of research and development for school and teacher education reform, except to advance some administration agenda.

Unlike our colleagues in the health sciences, who enjoy significant public and private support, education has no equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration to require trial and evidence before application. Hundreds of thousands of children deserve such protection. Even if it dampens a little enthusiasm along the way.

Donald J. Stedman
Chapel Hill, N.C.

The writer is a dean emeritus of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a senior fellow at the Raleigh-based North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute, and a senior adviser at the Center for Psychology and Education, in Chapel Hill.

Vol. 25, Issue 42, Page 47

Published in Print: July 12, 2006, as Radical Moderation

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