In the heart of every federal agency lies a dream of becoming the next DARPA—the folks that brought us advances like GPS and the internet. I want to bring you up to speed on our most recent efforts to create ARPA-ED and open a discussion with our stakeholders about where we will go from here as we pursue its creation.
While ARPA-ED won't create a new internet, there are many questions a DARPA-like unit might tackle: How will we identify the new literacy skills Americans need and develop them in learners across the lifespan? How do we even conceive of appropriate literacy and writing skills in a modern, AI-dominated world? How can we best harness innovations to create a personalized system of education so that instruction is tailored to the needs of learners? How can we use new technology to relieve the paperwork burden on teachers, freeing them to do what they do best—teach students?
These sprawling questions are just examples of how innovation and technological advancements can force a large-scale revision in the field. The new vision of IES to "Innovate in Education Sciences" will help us support these advances in the work we do and the work we support.
Where we stand on the road to ARPA-ED
The drive for creating more DARPA-like programs has accelerated in recent years, as evidenced by the creation of ARPA-H (health) and ARPA-E (energy). Many provisions in the FY23 Omnibus budget bill lay the groundwork for creating an ARPA-ED function within IES, but this interest is far from new. Between 2005 and 2008, when I was commissioner of NCES, the Department held many meetings with DARPA personnel trying to figure out how we could create ARPA-ED. These discussions continued throughout the Obama Administration. Indeed, one could view the i3 (Investing in Innovation) program as an attempt to introduce DARPA-like features into the Department via competitive grantmaking.
In July, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) introduced the NEED Act, which calls for the creation of a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE) within IES. NCADE would be charged with developing and scaling innovative, cutting-edge practices and tools modeled on the strategies that have been so successful at DARPA. Congress did not pass the NEED Act in 2022, though the act will, I hope, be revisited this year.
While I remain optimistic about NCADE, I have been thinking about what we can accomplish with the resources we do have—especially the additional $30 million that Congress has appropriated for IES to incorporate DARPA-like methods into the education R&D infrastructure and the increase in IES' personnel budget allowing us to hire program managers to build out and manage this new work.
Improving what we have
We are beginning to scope out how best to use this new money to leverage many of the innovative activities and programs we have launched in the past few years and to invest in new activities that advance the goals laid out by Congress. We already have projects, programs and prize competitions in place—some new and some longstanding—that provide a strong foundation for the transformative education R&D work that the nation needs, and that Congress has funded us to do. Here's the next challenge: how do we build on this foundation using the additional appropriated funds and the new staff to pursue the vision of ARPA-ED?
As we deploy these new resources, the intent of Congress is clear: While IES has historically sought to balance applied and basic research investments, the ARPA lens clearly calls for a shift toward a more applied, "use-driven" strategy.
Building something new
We are already considering the broad contours and strategies needed to accomplish this vision. We are looking at new research programs that embody the rapid turnaround and transformative vision that is essential to the future of education research. We are looking at ways to build new partnerships with states and school districts, researchers, and ed tech companies. We are looking at ways of supporting more research using AI, machine learning, and data science methods, including funding training programs in these fields. We are looking at ways to build on our ties with NSF to bring new perspectives and new and diverse talent into the education sciences.
To be sure, these innovations will build on the 20 years of research and development IES has already supported but will require more thought, more energy, more creativity to get us to the future state of education R&D and improved learner outcomes that the nation needs.
Changing how we staff
The DARPA model invests program managers with far more authority to pursue research avenues and product design than the traditional model IES has followed over its 20-year lifespan. DARPA also employs the Heilmeier Catechism in evaluating its proposals. Can we hire the right people with that kind of mindset? If so, they will help us chart the future. Committing too many resources now to definite paths forward without the input of these new program managers will only make hiring the kind of people we need even more difficult. So, our hiring to support this new transformative work will be especially measured and consequential.
Influencing the field
At the same time, we will seek to encourage our fellow education researchers to pursue not only evergreen problems of practice and policy but to work on new technologies that must be brought to the fore. The launch of ChatGPT in November 2022 sparked a much-needed discussion of how education (and ultimately the workplace) will be transformed by the innovations in artificial intelligence, machine learning, large language models, and data science that ChatGPT integrated and rendered visible to the general population.
IES is already working to harness the power of AI—the new IES/NSF AI institute seeks to develop a sophisticated AI-driven assessment and a tailored instruction program for students with speech and language disabilities. We hope that in the future we can build on this approach to make it universal.
As many of you may remember, when we began to codify the principles of education research IES wanted to use in supporting the education sciences, I asked readers to suggest names for the effort. Fiona Hollands of Teachers College, Columbia University came up with the winning entry—the now world-famous SEER principles. (BTW: "world-famous" is only a slight hyperbole. I have been surprised by how many different people in OECD, for example, are aware of SEER.)
I now open the floor for suggestions for the name of our new innovation-focused unit (with the caveat that when the NEED Act passes, the unit will eventually be called "NCADE"). The current, internal name for the unit: BabyCADE. Can you do better?
Please send your suggestions and any comments to: Mark.email@example.com