Feds Back Potential Launch of Cutting-Edge Education Research Program

Staff Writer
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Legislation signed by President Joe Biden in the final days of 2022 has increased federal funding for education research and development, and potentially makes way for the education equivalent of DARPA, the Department of Defense’s longstanding advanced R&D arm. 

The $1.7 trillion government funding bill, known as an omnibus package, includes an infusion of $70 million to the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s independent, nonpartisan arm for statistics, research, and evaluation. 

The institute consists of four centers focused on education research and statistics and is now working with a yearly budget of $808 million after the approximate 10 percent increase. 

“It’s clearer now than it’s been in the past, and maybe the COVID pandemic lit a fire [so that] there’s a recognition that things have to move faster [in education R&D],” IES Director Mark Schneider said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief 

Of the total $70 million increase, Schneider said $30 million of it will be used as a down payment or an initial step in conducting rapid-turnaround studies and creating the foundation for a possible ARPA-Ed, or Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education.

“Everything we’ve been doing for the last few years is trying to increase the rapidity of our work, to do more scaling up, and dissemination,” he said. “But ARPA-Ed would be a new push forward.” 

The idea for ARPA-Ed is based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA — the Pentagon’s program for making pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.

Created in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in response to the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik satellite, DARPA has since pioneered groundbreaking research and development projects, not only focused on military capabilities but in civilian society as well, including the Internet and global positioning systems. 

Discussions of a DARPA-style education project date back more than 20 years. They include a 2012 budget proposal, which did not take hold, to create such an education research initiative during the Obama administration. 

Proponents of the new education research effort want to mirror the defense agency’s model of a well-funded, highly flexible R&D entity that pushes innovation at rapid rates. 

Plans to Scale Up

Schneider said potential progress also lies in the creation of a separate National Center for Advanced Development in Education, which would be housed in the Institute of Education Sciences and follow a model similar to DARPA.  

Such an organization was proposed in a bipartisan bill, the New Essential Education Discoveries Act, last summer, but did not make it into the measure that Biden signed in December. 

If that legislation is revived, the Department of Education “will have built the foundation for ARPA-Ed, and we can scale up,” Schneider said. 

It’s clearer now than it’s been in the past, and maybe the COVID pandemic lit a fire [so that] there’s a recognition that things have to move faster [in education R&D].Mark Schneider, Director of the Institute of Education Sciences

As part of the $70 million in new research funding, $10 million will go to the continuation of the institute’s School Pulse Panel survey to measure the impact of the pandemic on public school students and staff, and remaining funds will be used to build and improve existing programs. 

Schneider said he aims to rearrange operations within the National Center for Education Research, one of the institute’s four hubs, in the meantime, and to create a fifth unit.

The institute also plans to hire three new program managers, bring in university fellows through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, and conduct more research in areas such as machine learning, data science, and privacy protection, Schneider said. 

“The real challenge will be how to deploy that additional money in new endeavors that are transformative,” Schneider said, supporting projects “that change the teaching and learning R&D structure, and that create a more modern approach to educational sciences.” 

Felice Levine, executive director of the American Education Research Association, wrote in an email to EdWeek Market Brief that she hopes the increased funding for education R&D will go toward emerging topics of research that have become more important during the pandemic.  

Those areas include the use of artificial intelligence, and issues relating to the workforce, educational equity, and in structures to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, she said. 

“[This] is a critical first step in addressing the underinvestment over the past decade in the important education research and statistics that IES supports,” Levine said. The funding will “expand the work that IES is embarking on to address longstanding and emerging challenges across all levels of education.” 

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Image by Getty.

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