How can scientific research better inform education policy?
That question is at the core of the three-part Burton and Ingles Lecture Series at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which has made the translation of solid educational research into educational practice one of its priorities under Dean Ellen Lagemann. Michael Feuer, a leading educational research and policy analyst, continued to probe “The Science of Rationality and the Rationality of Science” in the second of his three lectures on Feb. 24.

All three lectures by Feuer, who is executive director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Research Council of the National Academies, focus on cognitive psychology – “where theories of human rationality, ideas about rational decision-making reside” – and its applications on learning, teaching, organization theory, and even public policy.

Yet, said Feuer, there’s an ironic twist. “Though cognitive psychology has had this important effect on teaching and learning, and some effect on organization theory, it has had almost no effect on the way we think about the organization of schooling and public policy about education,” he said.

Feuer’s thesis of how a science of rationality might shed light on schools and schooling also took into account procedural rationality – that is the process by which organizational decisions, for instance are made. He explained that a “purely rational approach” is insufficient for “problems of anything other than quite trivial dimensions.”

Further, he argued, the decentralized system of school governance in the United States, where tens of thousands of local school boards hold enormous power over the processes of teaching and learning, compounds the complexity of finding any “quick fix” to education policy. Feuer offered an anecdote about the minister of education in France, who told a wide-eyed audience of American policy-makers that he decided in the spring to try a hands-on approach to science education, and by fall every school in France had implemented the new curriculum.

This sort of centralized decision-taking is impossible in the U.S. system. “There are very special features of the way the U.S. has decided or fallen into its system of governing education that rule out the possibility of anything like an optimal solution to this complex configuration of issues and goals and needs of our system,” Feuer said.