Letters And Testimony


Improving the Department of Education's R&D Projects

letters and testimony

Improving the Department of Education's R&D Projects

April 26, 2024

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Today, I submitted written testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. Click here to download a pdf of the testimony.

Chairman Aderholt, Ranking Member DeLauro, and members of the Subcommittee:

My name is Robert Bellafiore, and I am Research Manager at the Foundation for American Innovation, a think tank focused on promoting innovation, strengthening governance, and advancing national security. I write to recommend that the Subcommittee prioritize research and development (R&D) programs and activities within the Department of Education (ED)'s FY2025 budget. Recognizing the challenging fiscal environment, I recommend offsetting increased spending on R&D by shrinking or eliminating ineffective programs within ED.

Additionally, Congress could increase the return on investment from federal education R&D by improving transparency and ensuring that best practices and research findings are made broadly available to teachers, parents, and other stakeholders. This would be particularly valuable for R&D projects focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and computer science learning.

I encourage the Subcommittee to include language in the report accompanying the funding bill requiring ED to improve transparency about best practices identified through federal education R&D programs. To inform future appropriations and ED activities, the Subcommittee should also include language requiring ED to use the data collection capabilities and authorities of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to monitor access to STEM and computer science learning opportunities. Finally, the establishment of a well-designed “ARPA-ED” modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has the potential to avoid the pitfalls of past R&D programs.


Since the 1950s, the United States has sought to strengthen economic and national security by improving STEM education, including through federal education R&D. However, a review by my colleague of the history of federal education R&D found that these activities have often not informed classroom practices, and that important findings are often implemented only if they align with stakeholders’ priorities. For example, in the 1970s, a major national study found that direct instruction was the best method for teaching children, but the finding was widely ignored by school administrators, policymakers, postsecondary education schools, and other public education stakeholders. Furthermore, another review of federal education R&D activities to improve STEM and computer science found that they have little evidence of success, often because such projects have not been effectively analyzed to identify and promote best practices.

More recently, Congress replaced the Obama-era Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which provided grants to support “innovative practices” in education, with the Education Innovation and Research Program, which has a similar mission of funding and evaluating new practices in education. But ED’s National Center for Education Evaluation recently found that i3 was largely ineffective: “[F]ew of the strategies that grantees implemented and subsequently evaluated improved student outcomes in grantee sites.” This finding offers yet more evidence that education R&D efforts need to be revamped.

To that end, I offer the following recommendations.

Require ED to annually report findings and lessons learned from its R&D activities, and make this information available to other agencies, Congress, and the public. ED should improve the transparency of its R&D programs by regularly publishing findings of federally funded research and by publishing third-party evaluations on its website. ED should also use its platform to spotlight promising STEM education models and inform stakeholders about potential models. Identifying best practices and models that can be replicated by schools should be a focus of federal education R&D efforts.

Require ED to use IES’s data collection capabilities and authorities to improve the transparency of public schools’ STEM and computer science offerings. For example, IES could use the School Pulse Panel to provide snapshots of STEM education access and achievement. Greater transparency about the condition of STEM and computer science education in schools could inform future federal education R&D and other education interventions. Broader transparency efforts could include posting information on how much funding public schools receive, and where that funding goes.

An important step in improving the value of IES would be reauthorizing and reforming the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (ESRA), which reformed the federal government’s approach to education R&D. ESRA’s reauthorization has been due since 2008; since then, funding for the activities authorized by the law have come through the appropriations process. In December 2023, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed the Advancing Research in Education Act, which would reauthorize and reform ESRA. This bill provides an important opportunity to improve the federal government’s education R&D efforts.

In December 2023, I coauthored a report offering recommendations for ESRA. One top recommendation, already addressed above, was improving the transparency of federal education R&D activities. Below, I highlight other top recommendations from the report.

Require IES to conduct federal program evaluations: IES could play a meaningful role in evaluating federally funded education programs. While Congress does not consistently act on IES’s findings, federal program evaluations provide valuable guidance about whether federally funded programs are accomplishing their objectives. Congress should require IES to conduct additional program evaluations of ED-funded programs to determine their effectiveness.

Reform or eliminate ineffective education R&D programs: As discussed above, many R&D programs that have been evaluated have been found to be ineffective, either because they do not make any important findings or because those findings are not implemented. Congress should identify and terminate ineffective R&D programs, so that the funding can be put to better use elsewhere.

Improve the timeliness of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)’s statistical collection and public reporting: NCES oversees IES’s data collection activities and maintains the Common Core of Data, the federal government’s main database of public schools. NCES’s data could be much more valuable to policymakers, teachers, and parents if they were published more quickly. IES, and specifically NCES, should therefore be required to improve the timeliness of their statistical publications. To help NCES improve its reporting obligations, the Subcommittee should consider reallocating some of the funds that are currently supporting ineffective R&D programs to NCES. Having more, and faster, data on public schools is likely to be more valuable than continuing to fund unproven R&D projects.

Require IES and NCES to perform additional data collection and reporting activities, including codifying the School Pulse Panel. The School Pulse Panel, started by IES during the pandemic, was an important source of timely information on public schools’ performance. By authorizing the School Pulse Panel, Congress could authorize IES to regularly conduct timely surveying and data collection, so that policymakers and the public regularly have up-to-date information about the state of K-12 education.

Require the Government Accountability Office to conduct biennial audits of IES. To ensure IES’s value, Congress should require GAO to conduct regular studies of IES’s work, and to study whether state and local education agencies are using IES-funded research and best practices. These regular reviews would help ensure, first, that IES is fulfilling its mission of producing useful education research, and second, that that research is successfully being incorporated into classrooms.

Establish an ARPA-like program within IES. There is growing interest in the creation of an “ARPA-ED,” modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has developed many breakthrough technologies. The New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act (introduced in 2022 and reintroduced in 2023) would create a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), inspired by DARPA. As I argue in my paper, “Paying careful attention to institutional design and taking the right lessons from DARPA’s successes would be crucial, but a carefully designed NCADE could play an important role in spurring useful education R&D.” In particular, a strong link between R&D findings and implementation, and an emphasis on temporary projects with clear timelines and priorities, will be necessary if NCADE is to avoid the failures of other education R&D programs.


In conclusion, effective federal education R&D has the potential to improve learning opportunities for American students and national competitiveness. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

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