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Why the Department of Education Should Improve R&D Transparency

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Why the Department of Education Should Improve R&D Transparency

July 27, 2023

In a blog post earlier this year, Institute of Education Sciences Director Mark Schneider presented his goals for the next year, which will mark the end of his tenure overseeing the Department’s research arm.

My highest priority is establishing ARPA-like activities in IES. I have written before about how IES is charged by Congress to fund high risk, high reward R&D projects that will have a game changing impact on educational outcomes in the United States. This will be achieved by creating a DARPA-like entity focused on education using rapid cycle, transformative and more inclusive applied research.

This is good news. As I wrote last year, an ARPA model for the Department of Education holds great promise, particularly if it is used to fund the development of transformative education technologies that have the potential to directly benefit students. My colleague Sam Hammond recently highlighted the potential benefits of an ARPA model:

Any significant boost in federal funding for educational R&D should thus insist on an open and transparent framework for evaluating various interventions. One way to do this would be through an APRA-Ed model, similar to the “advanced research projects agencies” we already have for energy, defense and biomedicine. The virtue of the APRA model is how it not only enables experimentation, but also the rigorous, outcome-oriented evaluations needed to know if an experimental invention actually worked, with the presumption that failing interventions won’t be funded in perpetuity.

As IES works on this innovative approach to education R&D, Director Schneider and his colleagues in the Department of Education should also work to improve the return on investment from its existing R&D activities.

As Melissa Moritz and I wrote in our recent paper on federal R&D focused on STEM and computer science education, “The Department of Education should annually report findings and lessons learned from its education R&D activities and make this information available to other agencies, Congress, and the public.” The same goes for the National Science Foundation, which oversees a large portfolio of education R&D activities.

This is a unique moment in American education, when evidence-based information and new tools and strategies are desperately needed. After students suffered large learning losses after prolonged school closures, schools, teachers, and even parents are working to provide tutoring and, in some cases, better learning environments for their children. The new universal education savings account programs that are sweeping the nation provide opportunities for parents to use education resources in new ways to ensure that their children receive a high-quality education. In all these efforts, useful findings, best practices, and other information developed through education R&D activities can promote innovation and improvement.

The good news is that Congress and the Biden administration have several short-term opportunities to improve how the United States uses federally funded education R&D to improve how children learn. The annual appropriations process provides Congress with an opportunity to direct the Department of Education to improve transparency. The Senate HELP Committee announced that it was taking up the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act and solicited public feedback, which I provided. And the White House is working on its next five-year plan for STEM education; my colleague Robert Bellafiore shared public comments during the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s listening session in the spring.

There are many areas of disagreement in federal education policy. But funding education R&D, including to improve STEM education, has been a bipartisan priority since the 1950s. In 2023, Congress and the administration should focus on improving basic transparency about federal education R&D projects to make sure that they help improve how American children learn.

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