Failing to Succeed

The road to wisdom? Well, it’s plain
And simple to express:
Err and err and err again
But less and less and less

.-Piet Hein

This past summer, a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) carried out a test of the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), the fastest airplane ever built. Traveling at 13,000 miles per hour, the pilotless plane will be able to go anywhere on Earth in an hour or less.

In the test, the plane worked perfectly, soaring into near-space orbit and then gliding as planned for nine minutes. It then “lost contact” with its controllers and plunged harmlessly into the Pacific (or if it harmed anyone, they haven’t said so).

Here’s where the story gets interesting for educators. DARPA, and the project leaders, confidently hailed this test as a step toward a solution of great importance, and were sure that the hypersonic plane would soon be functional. That kind of tolerance for failure as a step toward success does not exist in education research. In our field, any setback in a series of experiments is likely to be fatal.

The result of a system that fails to value evidence of effectiveness and gives up too early on setbacks is that we rush from one untested “miracle” to the next, learning nothing. The system discourages real innovation and rigorous evaluation; it’s safer to stick with modest improvements and not subject them to controlled experiments in real schools.

With the path that we are on, the U.S. will have a 13,000 mph airplane before it has a proven, replicable approach to teaching algebra. Yes, the huge resources going into the hypersonic plane would greatly accelerate the pace of innovation in education. But with far fewer resources than those being devoted to the HTV-2, we could make substantial gains in educational innovation. Senator Bennet (D-Colorado) is looking to change this. This week, he will introduce an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would create ARPA-ED, the education community’s own mechanism for dramatic, breakthrough developments in effective educational technology. I have joined forces with New Schools Venture Fund and others in sending a letter of support for the amendment to Senate HELP committee’s leadership. If the amendment should pass, it may be just the fuel we need to get proven education reforms on a faster track.

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