Skip Navigation

Operation Reverse the Loss, Redux

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | Kumar Garg, Managing Director of Schmidt Futures | December 9, 2020

Since I announced Operation Reverse the Loss last month, we at IES have been working to flesh out some of the key ideas. A valuable thought partner in this work is Kumar Garg, current Managing Director of Schmidt Futures and previous leader of President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign. I invited him to co-author this blog.

We have identified three main “buckets” of actions that IES should pursue to help reverse pandemic-related learning loss:

  • Understanding the crisis and accelerating discovery.
  • Responding to the crisis with new tools to help students catch up.
  • Making sure the most high-need students don’t get left behind.

Understanding the Crisis

Establish a COVID Data “Learning Pulse” Program

Accurate and timely information about schools, schooling, and student achievement is critical to both data-driven policymaking and education R&D that meets the needs of students, their families, and their communities. Data collection must be dynamic and local: learning losses are not evenly distributed across the education system, nor are the systemic challenges millions of students face, such as uneven connectivity, inconsistent transportation, and, of course, health disparities. Each of these needs must be understood for effective response and recovery. To do so, IES should field an ongoing “Learning Pulse” survey that routinely monitors the nation’s education system, modeled on the current Census “Household Pulse” program. This effort, which responds to a growing national call for this critical and timely data, would allow IES to secure skilled software engineering and data science staff to manage the program and improve existing IES data collection and processing systems.

Stand up an Education Data Science Center of Excellence

IES is the nation’s leading entity on independent educational scientific research and statistical analysis, yet the Institute lacks a division dedicated to the now well-established field of data science. Building on broader calls to invest in ED’s digital capacity, this unit would focus on the processes and systems that enable the extraction of knowledge or insights from data in various forms (of particular importance given the variety of data sources and standards among education research efforts). In practice, data science has evolved as an interdisciplinary field that integrates approaches from computer science and data analysis fields, such as statistics, data mining, and predictive analytics.

IES must recruit and hire top-tier data science talent as full-time employees at IES. Their mandate would be to work across all of IES’ programs to identify opportunities to support new research methods; surface insights from new and novel data sources, including unstructured data; and accelerate innovation and discovery.

Building the Tools to Help Students Catch Up

Establish an Advanced Research Projects Activity at ED

Understanding student needs is half the battle but applying learning science to build breakthrough solutions at scale is essential to improving student outcomes. This requires far more focused R&D than ED has traditionally supported. ARPA-ED would fund projects performed by industry, universities, or other innovative organizations, selected for their potential to create a dramatic breakthrough in learning and teaching. It would be modeled after DARPA and The Advanced Research Project Agency Energy (ARPA-E). DARPA-style programs tend to be higher risk and require a unique, nimble approach to program management. Some examples of ambitious projects that an ARPA-ED entity could pursue include: (1) closing the kindergarten readiness gap by using voice recognition and developing online assessments that rapidly assess emerging reading gaps and dyslexia; (2) using advances in natural language processing to allow automated feedback on student writing and math homework, giving teachers new digital aids to support student improvement; and (3) instrumenting large-scale digital learning platforms to create a research infrastructure that drives continuous improvement in use of the learning sciences. Building on IES’ new Transformative Research RFA, the Institute should seek to stand up a new dedicated ARPA-ED unit and rapidly identify several key projects for R&D investment across both the academic and private sectors. 

Establish a tiered evidence program on tutoring to mitigate learning loss

OECD has estimated that the United States will lose $30 trillion in net present value GDP if COVID-related learning losses are not overcome. There is growing consensus that the most promising candidate for successful COVID catchup is tutoring; indeed, many proposals are being developed that call for a massive government investment in tutoring. There are tutoring programs that have evidence to support investments for scaling. However, tutoring programs work better with certain subjects and at certain grades and ages. For example, tutoring to improve early reading has strong evidence behind it, as does middle school math—but tutoring in later grades has so far had little evidence of success. What is needed is a systematic way of building on existing knowledge to identify and support scaling up of the most promising programs. The nation must make a large investment in tutoring, rooted in a tiered evidence model already used in Education and other federal agencies, to help identify and scale those programs with the most promise. Ideally, this program would be housed in IES and overseen by its education research and evaluation experts. Alternatively, IES could support this need by working with the existing Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program, with tutoring as a priority in the Department’s FY 2021 solicitation. 

Ensuring that All Students Can Thrive

Modernize the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

NAEP (also known as “the Nation’s Report Card”) is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. Conducted since 1969, the NAEP assessment has long been out of date both in terms of innovative assessment techniques and the availability and usability of the data collected.  Due to the COVID crisis, IES’s Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics was forced to postpone the 2021 NAEP until 2022, which provides a valuable window of opportunity to address long-overdue modernization efforts. We need to invest in technological upgrades that could ensure that future NAEPs cost less, produce more actionable insights, yield greater research value, and characterize student learning more effectively.  

Restore Funding to Special Education Research

Students with special needs and disabilities face stark challenges amidst the COVID crisis. Without reliable in-person professional support for these students, and because online learning tools and services largely have not been designed with special education in mind, these students, and their families, are facing unprecedented and significant challenges and risk. The Research in Special Education program, which is administered by the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER), supports rigorous research that aims to improve a range of education outcomes for students with or at risk for disabilities. Funding was cut by $20 million in the FY 2012 budget and has not been reinstated. Restoring this funding would help ED respond to the specific and substantial challenges for special education through the COVID crisis and its fallout—and will help improve support and opportunities for students with disabilities well into the future as education increasingly uses digital technology.

IES can undertake some of these activities by adjusting current activities and using existing resources. For example, IES has an agreement with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to undertake a year-long review of NAEP’s technology. The Institute launched the Transformative Research RFA as a first step toward supporting high risk/high reward research, and IES is working on identifying the best way to ensure that any expansion of tutoring programs will be evidence based. IES will continue down these paths using internal resources. However, given the size of the problem and the magnitude of the needed response, IES will require additional resources and partnership with philanthropies.

We are playing COVID catchup—but these actions can accelerate how fast we can overcome learning losses and build a stronger education research infrastructure to improve learning outcomes for all of America’s students.

As always, please reach out to me with any questions:

Kumar’s email is: