Covid upended our education system and in so doing made some of its toughest challenges more visible to most Americans. School administrators and teachers will spend the coming year responding as best they can to the immediate effects of the pandemic. As they should. However, the sector must also develop the capacity to create solutions for the future that fundamentally alter what’s possible for Black, Latino, and low-income students of all races.
What would this take? We know more today than ever before about how children and young people learn and develop. Breakthroughs in domains such as neuroscience, cognitive science and human development provide basic insights that could lead to stronger learning and life outcomes for young people. Advances in instructional methods and technologies have shown promise at small scale. But the education sector struggles to translate these into more widely used methods, tools, and practices that support students and teachers.
This is precisely the role of research and development (R&D): bridging the gap between basic research on the one hand and professional practice and product development on the other. R&D converts research into capabilities — practices, methods, prototypes, tools — that can be built on to create breakthroughs. The education sector, and K-12 in particular, lacks this type of R&D capacity. Other sectors of society have much stronger R&D ecosystems and often the innovations they spur have enormous impact on our everyday lives.
Most Americans have heard the story of Dr. Kizmekkia Corbett, the scientist who led the team that developed the Moderna Covid vaccine in a single weekend. It was an astonishing feat of brilliance and ingenuity. Less well known is that the team was building on capabilities that had been in the works for more than 10 years through DARPA, the federal government agency responsible for R&D for the nation’s military.
Arati Prabhaker, who served as DARPA’s director during the second Obama administration, made the connection in an op-ed in The Hill last week: “Developing a vaccine for a new infectious agent used to take years or decades. Moderna was able to ship its first Covid-19 vaccine doses for clinical trials just 42 days after the sequence for the spike protein was known. A DARPA program made that possible.” Other innovations sparked by the agency shape the way we live and work — GPS, Siri, the Internet — but the Moderna and other Messenger RNA vaccines are quite literally helping save the world as you read this.
DARPA doesn’t develop anything itself. Instead, it recruits visionary people as Program Managers (PMs) who then set barely-achievable goals for solving critical challenges. It nurtures a culture and processes that support big thinking, informed risk-taking and rigorous decision-making. PMs fund multiple projects executed by other government agencies, universities, corporations and nonprofit organizations, all trying to reach the same objective in different ways. Programs must build on existing research and scientific knowledge and apply it to important problems in novel yet concrete ways, translating foundational insights into more useful practices and tools. As Prabakar puts it, these projects are funded to “deliver prototypes, tools and convincing evidence. Users and implementers [are] brought along on the journey from wild dream to demonstrated reality.”
President Biden has proposed that Congress create two similar agencies, one focused on climate and the other on health. It’s not clear if they will be authorized. Between 2012 and 2016, the Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to create a similar agency for education R&D, but so far it’s not part of the Biden administration’s agenda.
Since a new well-funded government agency is not on the immediate horizon, we need alternate paths for supporting education R&D. Independent programs and/or nonprofit R&D initiatives can begin the work. Philanthropy can provide the resources for ambitious programs and help demonstrate the appeal of this type of capability-building, perhaps making the case for government investment more viable in the future.
A number of relevant efforts have emerged recently. Kim Smith and her team at Digital Promise launched a Center for Inclusive Innovation. One of their projects is an R&D program aimed at improving writing for high school students in three school districts. Smith and her team are partnering with communities around the country to further develop their Inclusive Innovation framework and practices.
The Fordham Institute organized an idea generation contest dubbed “A Moonshot for Kids,” which awarded $10,000 for concepts aimed at big goals such as doubling the number of students reading well by fourth grade.
Generating concepts is useful, but the field also needs larger, longer term investments in the R&D required to translate big ideas grounded in research into capabilities.
EF+Math was founded in 2019 to do just that. The program aims to double the number of Black and Latino students who are proficient in math in grades three through eight. Building on evidence that certain executive function skills — like working memory — help students learn math much more effectively, the program team employs an Inclusive R&D model that brings together a diverse group of educators, researchers, and developers from the beginning of the process.
Traditional R&D often has a more siloed approach, but in this Inclusive R&D model, all three groups enter on equal footing and bring their particular perspectives and expertise to bear on the program’s audacious math goal.
The program will invest in multiple projects, winding down ones that do not pan out and investing more deeply in those that show promise. An Educator Leadership Council participates in the decisions about which projects to fund and its members embed in project teams to infuse their wisdom throughout. The mix of funded projects are designed to advance the relevant learning science, develop new practices and prototypes, and generate evidence about the potential of blending EF skill development with math instruction. Nearly 300 people are now part of the EF+Math community, including teachers from across the country, interdisciplinary researchers, product developers and expert advisors.
The time is right to mobilize resources for education R&D. The Covid pandemic exacerbated deep challenges in K-12 education that can be addressed through inclusive R&D. We could find ways to ensure every child is reading proficiently by the end of third grade, even though only 34% do now. We could reinvent assessment to provide parents and teachers with an accurate and dynamic view of students’ emotional development along with their academic progress, which is nearly impossible with current instruments.
Public schools are receiving $130 billion to address the immediate challenges coming out of the pandemic. Even as we’re focused on improving classrooms today, R&D can help pursue big goals to dramatically improve student learning in the future.