This piece originally appeared in City Journal.
American education faces a curious mix of change and stasis. Public school closures during the pandemic fundamentally changed the relationship between schools and families, visible in historic declines in students’ test scores. K-12 education is also struggling with a broader stagnation: inflation-adjusted average per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled since 1970, yet long-term test scores have remained broadly flat. While several states are experimenting with various forms of universal parental choice programs, at the federal level, another idea is gaining steam: the establishment of an education research and development entity, modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The Biden administration and some members of Congress have backed the creation of a new National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), which, according to Oregon representative Suzanne Bonamici and Pennsylvania representative Brian Fitzpatrick’s NEED Act, would be explicitly modeled on DARPA. Institute of Education Sciences director Mark Schneider summarized these efforts earlier this year, noting the “$30 million that Congress has appropriated for IES [the Institute of Education Sciences] to incorporate DARPA-like methods into the education R&D infrastructure.”
The Obama administration proposed an “ARPA” for education back in 2011, promising innovations such as “digital tutors as effective as personal tutors,” “courses that improve the more students use them,” and “educational software as compelling as the best videogame.” Congress never authorized or funded it. But with the Biden administration launching a new ARPA-like initiative, this time with funding from Congress, now is the time to think through what a new federal education R&D project should look like.