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Hidden in more than 4,000 pages of the omnibus appropriations bill that President Biden signed in December is funding for a key education initiative that advocates have been pushing for decades.
The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the Department of Education’s statistics, research and evaluation arm, received $40 million in new money for research and development, a portion of which must be used to “support a new funding opportunity for quick-turnaround, high-reward scalable solutions.”
While the language may be vague, many advocates see it as a major step toward developing, for education, the federally-funded research and development capabilities that have long existed in other fields.
Going back several administrations, there’s been interest in creating an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-Ed), akin to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that supports innovations for the military. But the initiative kept getting lost in politics, said Mark Schneider, director of IES.
That changed when the pandemic put schools to the test — one that many failed — and demonstrated how essential education R&D funding is, he said. Covid “shined an incredibly bright light on the systemic failures that education has had,” said Schneider. “The normal processes of education research and teaching and learning were not up to the crisis.”
“What this money allows us to do is to begin to build an infrastructure where we aren’t just testing on affluent white kids.”
Jeff Livingston, cofounder and CEO of the Center for Education Market Dynamics
In July 2022, U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-OR, and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-PA, proposed legislation to create a National Center for Advanced Development in Education, focused on R&D and innovation, using DARPA as a model. While the final version of the omnibus bill fell short of providing the $100 million requested to create that separate center, said Schneider, it allows IES to create a separate unit housed at the National Center for Education Research to focus on innovation.
Education experts say the new unit could help seed advancements in how students learn and teachers teach in a rapidly evolving digital age, in which the education field can be caught off guard by the latest developments, such as AI’s explosion on the market.
While much of the current conversation has been around ChatGPT and cheating, some argue AI tools have the potential to advance great teaching and learning. But if the government doesn’t lead research into the uses of AI, we could see a proliferation of companies claiming to use AI without any evidence, said Bart Epstein, founder and former president of the EdTech Evidence Exchange.
The potential benefits of government investment in research are “mind bogglingly important.” Epstein said. “Right now, our nation’s education R&D engine is very small and it’s mostly powered by individual companies doing small scale research and development to benefit their commercial needs.”
Related: Edtech companies promise results, but their claims are often based on shoddy research
The U.S. Department of Education’s 2023 R&D budget is roughly $402 million, an amount that seems almost minuscule when compared to the budgeted amounts of almost $84 billion for the Department of Defense and $8.4 billion for the National Science Foundation. The omnibus bill also directs the Department of Education and IES to collaborate more closely with the NSF, which brings deep expertise to the research and development process.
Epstein said that one of the biggest problems in education is a “misalignment” between how student learning is assessed and “what we actually care about.” An expanded R&D unit, he said, could help develop better ways to conduct assessments, like testing students on the skills and capabilities they need in today’s society.
A new research division would also help schools overcome the “collective action problem” they currently face when deciding which technology or product to invest in, Epstein said.
“Right now, our nation’s education R&D engine is very small and it’s mostly powered by individual companies doing small scale research and development to benefit their commercial needs.”
Bart Epstein, founder and former president of the EdTech Evidence Exchange
“No individual school district would be economically rational to spend $2 million studying a product that it’s thinking of buying for $100,000. It’ll just never happen,” he said. “But if 1,000 school districts all make the same rational decision, they all buy something with no independent evidence, the company collects millions or tens of millions of dollars of revenue. And as a society, as a country we learn nothing about what works where or why.”
IES’s Schneider said one of the most important tasks of the new unit will be to figure out how to get the products and technology that work — whether that’s information about an edtech product’s efficacy or research about emerging technology like ChatGPT — into the hands of school leaders in a timely manner.
There’s another reason why the nation needs an ARPA-Ed, according to Jeff Livingston, cofounder and CEO of the Center for Education Market Dynamics. For years now, Livingston’s focus has been on ways innovations in education can better serve Black and Latino students, as well as students who are experiencing poverty or who speak English as a second language.
“What this money allows us to do is to begin to build an infrastructure where we aren’t just testing on affluent white kids,” Livingston said. With improved R&D funding and infrastructure, innovations can be built for the needs of diverse learners and better reflect America’s classrooms, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any chance that we’re going to let that opportunity pass us by or let it get lost in the politics,” Livingston said. “Because this is the start of something huge that Covid has exposed to all of us is so desperately necessary.”
This story about education R&D was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter
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