Education in the United States needs to improve and evolve. Too many learners get lost in the current system. Even more are underserved or under-resourced. Almost nobody is learning enough—and pandemic-era learning loss and mental health challenges have left this generation of students even more at risk.
There’s not a lot of consensus about what to do about it, but recently there’s been growing alignment between right and left that our education system can benefit from a national vision for “big bets,” a moonshot mindset similar to the vision that sent astronauts into space and helped create everything from the Internet to life-saving vaccines.
What’s also clear is that DARPA-type programs can engender bipartisanship. Since DARPA’s birth in 1958, and of similar programs in other sectors, the U.S. government won praise on both sides of the aisle for investing in high-reward research and development (R & D). This investment has led to groundbreaking innovations in energy, health care, intelligence, and the military.
Now it’s education’s turn. Congress should create the National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE) within the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), which would advance moonshot thinking that will benefit U.S. students far into the future.
Unfortunately, this vision didn’t come through clearly in the latest draft of the Advancing Research in Education Act, a bipartisan bill set to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act, that was released by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee leadership this week. While there are pieces of the proposed legislation to celebrate, an early draft of the bill leaves out authorization for NCADE and also short-changes education R & D in its overly restrictive definition of “evidence-based.”
The HELP Committee notwithstanding, Covid setbacks have given NCADE’s supporters new energy. With strong support from the IES Director and the rise of groups like the Alliance for Learning Innovation, momentum is building.
The urgency goes far beyond immediate school challenges. Consider, for instance, how China is outpacing the U.S. in developing its talent pipeline of underrepresented groups in innovation fields. A World Intellectual Property Organization study found that, “from 2001 to 2005 and 2016 to 2020, China grew its capacity of women inventors at almost double the rate of the U.S.—42 percent in China compared to 22 percent in the U.S.”
Investment in policies like the New Essential Educational Discoveries (NEED) Act, soon to be reintroduced in Congress, and the creation of a new center dedicated to advancing DARPA-like R & D in education can provide both the focus and the guardrails needed to foster education innovation.
Currently, most developments in education, like new ed tech, take place in the private sector, and appropriately so. Yet private industry is often more focused on short-term, profit-driven projects, which hamstrings longer-term, student-centered innovation. Moreover, these innovations are proprietary, dramatically limiting access to valuable data and the amount of new R & D that can come from them. Likewise, the philanthropy field also often requires “market-ready” solutions.
Adding to the challenge: The education market is highly fragmented and doesn’t lend itself to transformative R & D. With 14,000 school districts in the U.S., it’s hard to achieve scalable impact for new products. So for many private companies, it’s a better business bet to build safe tools guaranteed to sell rather than taking on the risk associated with developing breakthrough solutions.
NCADE would serve as a bridge between basic research—which rarely makes its way into classrooms via practical applications—and the private sector. The possibilities are boundless and are made all the more exciting by recent, groundbreaking developments in artificial intelligence, large language models, and virtual and augmented reality. NCADE could potentially lead to breakthroughs in automated tutoring for struggling students, instructional feedback and support tools that increase teacher satisfaction and retention, and more effective ways of teaching dyslexic students to read.
It doesn’t have to start with an enormous budget. Smaller investments can still lead to groundbreaking innovations. The Experiment Foundation is testing this out for programs with budgets totaling $50,000 to $250,000. Early results are promising, such as CalWave, which started as a $9,000 project and is now one of the longest-duration wave-energy projects in the world.
Researchers and developers need more opportunities and support to test out their ideas and learn from their failures. NCADE would invest in approaches and technologies that have the potential to transform education in ways that can’t even be imagined yet. The future is not as far away as people might think, and while groups may disagree on the details of how best to reshape education, leaders must begin investing in foundational education R & D moonshots now. NCADE is the opportunity to embark on this bolder path and ensure American education continues to lead the way for the world instead of being left behind.