One of the goals of the Moonshot for Kids initiative that we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have been running along with our colleagues at the Center for American Progress is to make the benefits of research and development tangible. It’s one thing to say that “schools could benefit from more R & D.” That’s almost a platitude, like “fitness is good” or “climate change is bad.” But it’s also too nebulous and ethereal—appealing to good-government types, perhaps, but not concrete enough to actually get funded by governments or philanthropists. If that is to change, we need to make it real.
As I wrote earlier this month, persuading people of the value of R & D isn’t very challenging in the private sector, where venture capital firms exist to place bets on big ideas that might scale up in the real world and make all involved a ton of money. But given that K–12 education has been where so many VC-funded projects go to die, we have to make a public-goods argument, not just a get-rich pitch, if we want to unleash serious R & D investment for our schools.
We also need to be clear-eyed about what education R & D is and what it’s not. It’s not just any idea, effort, or initiative, however ingenious, that might improve our schools. There’s a whole world of “school improvement”—or “improvement science” if you like—that’s focused on helping educators identify solutions to particular problems, and figure out how to make them work in their contexts. And there’s lots of federal funding available—especially via Title I and its “school improvement” set-aside—to support such efforts, as well as any number of state-level and non-profit ventures.
Research and development, on the other hand, is about producing tools and technologies that can help educators to be more effective or efficient.
And arguably, effectiveness and efficiency are two sides of the same coin. As my friend Michael Goldstein (education impresario and author of another perceptive post on tools for teachers) said to me via email recently, in K–12 education, “‘true cost’ includes teacher time, and it seems like lots of ‘research-tested’ ideas don’t stick because they are ‘expensive in teacher time.’” And thus if we want R & D efforts to lead to tools that are actually adopted, we need to avoid those that are expensive—that “take lots of teacher time, which most teachers do not want to spend.”
Now for the good news: Our Moonshot for Kids competition yielded several proposals for tools that could take work off teachers’ plates so they can be more impactful with the time available.
Take, for example, one of the competition winners, FineTune, with its proposal to automate a key part of the student writing process:
Learning to write a structured essay is much more about organizing one’s thoughts than it is finding the right words, and doing that on one’s own is a daunting task. There’s a reason most students dread writing. It’s what we at FineTune call the Blank-Page Problem. The challenge of getting started. Traditionally, for students, the solution to this problem has been to conference with one’s teacher because, ironically, doing so doesn’t involve writing. Instead, it entails the teacher asking pointed questions intended to elicit responses that move the student toward clarity of message (i.e., thesis) and flow of logic—that is, talking through one’s ideas until they achieve coherence. Clear thinking leads to clear writing. The larger problem—the one that has lacked a solution to date—is that the conference model doesn’t scale. Few, if any, teachers can devote the time required to meet with every student while managing other classroom responsibilities. But imagine if they could. Imagine if every student, regardless of ability or geography or socioeconomic status, could [via technology] derive the benefits of a conference before each writing assignment.
Or consider Bibliomatic, which wants to use Artificial Intelligence to develop speech recognition software to aid with early literacy. From its proposal:
Children need practice reading aloud to become fluent readers, but many don’t get the practice they need. Speech recognition for children could help solve this problem by allowing educational apps to “listen” to children read and give them helpful feedback. This isn’t happening yet because speech recognition for children is not yet accurate enough to be widely useable. Public and private investment could change that by accelerating the development of speech recognition for children. This proposal argues for an investment in public data sets and “common task”-style challenges with metrics for evaluating research. This approach has proven successful in adult speech recognition, where DARPA’s investment in early speech laid the groundwork for technological advances that eventually led to widespread adoption of consumer speech recognition like Siri and Alexa.
Wouldn’t it be great if bots could help tots learn to read, or teens learn to get their thoughts down on paper?
To be clear, like most white-collar workers, teachers aren’t going to be replaced by tech, not in my lifetime. But with assistance from the likes of FineTune and Bibliomatic, they would surely have more time for everything else that’s on their to-do list, including offering more personalized attention and instruction to the kids who need it most.
Those ideas—among many more—surfaced just through a pretty rudimentary think-tank contest with a grand prize of a measly $10,000. Think what would happen if billions of federal or philanthropic dollars were available for real-live education R & D.
Our schools need better tools. Investing in R & D may be the surest way to get them.