An ARPA for Education?

2013-03-26-GeorgeMiller032613.jpgRecently, Congressman George Miller (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee launched a bill to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) for education. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Senator Bennet (D-CO). The idea is based on DARPA, which has for many years supported innovation and experimentation in defense. DARPA is responsible for funding such technological marvels as the Internet, global positioning satellites (GPS), and pilotless drones.

In education, ARPA-ED would emulate the structure of DARPA in trying to provide rapid, flexible support for experimentation and innovation, especially applications of cutting-edge technology to enduring educational problems. Like DARPA, ARPA-ED could seek to entice non-traditional bidders to apply. These might include technology companies, entertainment companies, or others willing and able to create and take to scale exciting and innovative applications. Think of Microsoft, Apple, or Disney creating algebra programs, science programs, or beginning reading programs using new or established technologies in new ways.

The importance of ARPA-ED would be in encouraging innovative developers of all kinds to create new solutions that take advantage of rapidly evolving technologies. ARPA-ED would be intended to solve a key problem we now have in educational innovation, which is that it takes a very long time to go from idea to development to evaluation to dissemination. For high-tech innovations, the technology may have progressed a great deal between the time the program began and when it was completed. ARPA-ED would be designed to work quickly and flexibly. If an innovator has substantial development already completed but needs further refinement and evaluation, ARPA-ED could fund what remains to be done. If a company or non-profit can fund part of the development costs, ARPA-ED could work out a cooperative funding arrangement. If a developer has a terrific idea in need of an initial proof of concept, ARPA-ED could provide seed funding. The idea would be to support anything that could potentially make a big difference on important, persistent problems for large numbers of children in the fairly near future.

ARPA-ED projects would be risky. Many would fail to come to fruition, or would be found in later evaluations to be ineffective. However, this is the nature of innovation, and if we want to find giant leaps forward, we also have to be ready for a few pratfalls, too.

I am a big fan of ARPA-ED and have written about it before. However, there are a few elements ARPA-ED would need to maximize its impact on educational practice.

First, while few restrictions should be placed on the nature of the innovations, all projects need to eventually be subjected to a large-scale randomized evaluation in comparison to current practices, using widely accepted measures not made up by the experimenters. It is not enough to create something cool or ultra-techy. It has to work.

Second, innovations need not be cost-effective immediately, but there must be good reason to believe that they will be cost-effective within, say, five years.

Third, funding for ARPA-ED must not come from other programs targeting evidence-based reform in education. In particular, funding for ARPA-ED must not come at the expense of Investing in Innovation (i3), which is funding the development, evaluation, and scale up of proven programs of all kinds. i3 is already showing great promise, and cutting it back would be counterproductive to the cause of evidence-based innovation. ARPA-ED should be a high-tech sister program to i3, not a competitor. In the near term, i3 is carrying the flag for evidence-based reform, and slowing it would damage the spirit of innovation on which ARPA-ED would also depend.

To do ARPA-ED right will take a lot of money, though it would be a drop in the ocean among all education funding. ARPA could require $1 billion a year from new funds. The federal government would have to fund it. This will probably not happen from federal funding in the current political environment, but it is worth thinking through so that the idea will be ready to go if the opportunity arises in coming years.

ARPA-ED could transform educational practice if it could take on big problems (such as algebra, science, dyslexia, or English language learning) and solve the heck out of them using innovative strategies. ARPA-ED could change the slow pace of innovation and dissemination in education, and build a national sense that education problems can be solved using innovation and research.

Taking a Charter Network to Scale: IDEA Public Schools

The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, will highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

What are charter management organizations learning about scaling up their strategies?

Today’s post is based on a conversation between the Forum for Youth Investment and IDEA Public Schools’ Chief Human Assets Officer Audrey Hooks. She describes IDEA’s attempt to disseminate its guiding principles and knowledge, not just curriculum and materials.

IDEA Public Schools is a growing network of K-12 public charter schools serving more than 13,000 students in 28 schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley, Austin and San Antonio. In the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, IDEA leads 12 primary and 12 secondary public charter schools, alongside 20 Independent School Districts. For their i3 project, they formed a partnership with the Pharr, San Juan and Alamo Independent School District (PSJA). Together, the goal is to reform the human capital systems in both districts (IDEA and PSJA), from onboarding principals and teachers to developing them as leaders and evaluating them. “What is unique about our i3 project is that both districts have very similar needs and we are meeting those needs through solutions that include similar components,” reports Hooks. “But as we have gone through the grant and gotten more sophisticated in our thinking, each district has customized and personalized our offerings based on the unique cultures of each organization.” The two districts had explored working together for years, and the i3 grant gave them the opportunity. In particular, it created the opportunity for each district to test out strategies to build capacity internally rather than bring in outside firms or consultants, and to build the necessary district infrastructure to support those changes.

Over the course of this work, one of the key lessons that IDEA and PSJA have learned about scaling is that ideas and best practices are more important than specific curriculum and training modules. According to Hooks:

The first thing we had to do was come together as a partnership to decide what we actually believed was most important to scale. Was it most important that adopters use the exact modules of our curriculum with fidelity? No, we decided. Instead we have a set of human capital principles that we think are the most important to get out there.

Those principles, gleaned from two years of doing this work, include:

1. Clearly define teacher and leader excellence. Use the definitions in every stage of the human capital pipeline – to hire the right people, onboard and train them, evaluate their performance, and make promotion decisions. 
It sounds simple says Hooks, but in reality, it is not a practice most districts follow. Hooks:

More often than not, the hiring team doesn’t talk to the coaching team, doesn’t talk to the people who do performance evaluation. The point is not that all districts need to use the same framework, just that you need a good, research-based framework that your organization is committed to using in a variety of settings – hiring, coaching and evaluation.

2. Success at all stages of human capital work can and should be measured in part by student achievement. 
Hook says:

For example, one critical measure of teacher success comes a year after teachers have been hired and involves looking at their impact on student achievement – that is one of the factors that we should use to determine if our hiring team and principals are making strong hiring choices.

3. Human capital development should be integrated into the everyday business of the district. In the IDEA/PSJA partnership, effective development is not a slate of programs but rather a philosophy of operation. “We actually made a decision not to create a separate i3 work group to create materials and an institute on professional development and training,” says Hooks.

Instead, we decided that it had to be embedded to ensure its sustainability. I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that if I were to leave, that five years from now the IDEA schools would still have our Principal in Residence Program, our Leadership Institute and all these great human capital developments that i3 kick started for us. They aren’t going anywhere. The reason they are so embedded is because we built them in house.

Embedding principles in a district is an important first step, but when the practices and strategies that enact these principles are allowed to develop internally they become part of the operating procedure for any new school that IDEA opens. That is significant given IDEA has a goal to open 56 more schools by the end of 2018. Hooks believes this learning in their i3 work has informed and enabled their scaling. Although she was always confident they could raise funds to build new buildings and get schools up and running, she was less certain about finding and training the talent. Now with the new Principal in Residence program and the Teacher Institute in place, she feels confident they can find the people to fill all those new schools.

One of the most critical lessons of this grant is that the partners are able to embed new human capital principles in two very different systems – one rapidly growing, relatively new organization and one established district serving twice as many students. When it comes to embedding new principles and practices in a well-established district like PSJA, change can be harder. Hooks acknowledges that in a district that has been around for more than 100 years, current practices may be more established and there are often more staff members to invest in any changes to fundamental practices. The PSJA staff who are implementing human capital practices have had great success thus far, which is a promising sign that the principles described above are still valid, regardless of setting, and that even in a district where change may be more difficult, having these guiding principles in place will make change easier than simply trying to import new training or curricula without that foundation.

Universal Preschool: Use Innovation and Evidence to Make it Effective

In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” He referred to research that has demonstrated long term positive effects of attending high-quality preschool programs. President Obama’s support has excited the early childhood community. Who could be opposed to expanding high-quality preschool opportunities? Yet this begs the question: What does “high-quality” mean in practice?

“High-quality” preschools are often defined by educators and economists alike as ones in which teachers are adequately paid, facilities are adequate, and the ratio of staff to children is low. These are indeed important elements of quality and they are serious problems, as preschool educators are often very poorly paid, poorly educated themselves, and lack decent facilities. The low salaries received by preschool teachers leads to a high turnover rate, which also reduces quality. So ensuring universal access to high-quality preschools when many current preschoolers are already struggling with quality and funding issues will be a heavy lift.

Leaving aside money issues, however, there is an important question about how preschool programs should be structured. There is lots of research showing the benefits of high-quality preschool in comparison to no preschool (as in the famous Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs). However, there is far less research showing different benefits of different preschool approaches.

The Preschool Curriculum Effectiveness Research initiative compared a number of promising approaches to each other and to groups using standard preschool teaching methods. The results are summarized in a review on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia. By the end of kindergarten, only a few of the programs showed child outcomes superior to those achieved by other programs. Structured programs that had a very strong focus on language and emergent literacy, giving children many opportunities to use language to work together, solve challenges, and develop positive relationships with each other, had the best outcomes for children.

Technology has so far played a modest role in early childhood education, but this may change as multimedia devices (such as interactive whiteboards) become more commonly used. Technology offers opportunities for teachers to enhance language development by engaging children with brief content that helps them understand how the world works. For example, children learning about health can see videos on how the body works and can be provided with video models of how to stay safe and healthy. Children can make choices and manipulate pictures and videos representing objects and processes. Further, classroom technology allows for linkages with the home, as parents increasingly have computers, DVDs, and other media available. Children can be shown exciting content in school and then take home DVDs or link electronically to specific materials that closely align with the content they learned that day. These electronic activities can be designed to be done with parents and children together, and can then inform parents about what children are learning in school. Also, in high-poverty homes children often have few if any books. Existing DVD or internet technologies can provide children with access to appropriate literature, which can be read to them by narrators or by their parents or older siblings.

Of course, technology will not replace the majority of early childhood teaching. Young children still need to manipulate real objects and learn to work with each other, sing songs, develop coordination and creativity, and practice appropriate behaviors. However, technology may add the capacity for teachers to show anything they want to their children and to link to the home in ways that have not been possible in the past, and this may result in enhanced learning at this critical age.

Expanding preschool access is a terrific idea, but it will take a lot of money and a long time to put into place. The possibility that it may take place should motivate immediate investments in innovation and evaluation, to develop new ways of ensuring that early education leads to enhanced preparation for success, especially for disadvantaged children.

Preschool quality should not just be seen as a question of per-pupil cost. Preschool educators and children need innovative, proven models that use modern teaching strategies and technologies that are appropriate to the developmental needs of four-year-olds. Innovation and research is needed to show the way as we head toward universal preschool.

What Schools Can Learn From McDonald’s and Starbucks


Courtesy of McDonald’s

I was inspired to write this blog post while on a family vacation in northern Wisconsin, on Lake Superior. In this sparsely populated area, there is a Wal-mart, a Curves, at least two McDonald’s and outlets of many other national chains, as there are in every corner of our great and diverse nation. Every one of these enterprises started somewhere, figured out how to do what it does very well, and then learned how to maintain quality and effectiveness at scale. Each makes adaptations to local circumstances and needs, but their national companies go to great efforts to see that all maintain a set of standards of quality.

Yet in education, people seem to think that scaling up of proven programs is impossible or even undesirable, no matter how effective or attractive the programs may be. Instead, each of our more than 100,000 public schools in 15,000 districts is expected to invent its own path to excellence. Teachers participate in professional development, to be sure, but this is not the same as replicating effective programs.

One objection to the entire idea of scaling up proven programs is that ‘a school is a lot more complex than a Starbucks.’ Yes it is. But that very complexity should make schools more, not less, likely to seek reliable, replicable solutions to the parts of their complex task that can be solved this way, so that the professionals in the school can focus their efforts on the parts that cannot be. For example, there is no reason every school has to make up its own math program. Yet almost all schools buy books, rather than programs, give teachers a half-day in-service, and then expect teachers to figure out how to teach the content of the book to their kids, perhaps using audiovisuals or technology, but not a well-specified, research-proven approach.

There are proven, replicable programs for every level of mathematics (and other subjects). By ‘proven,’ I mean that they have been repeatedly tested in comparison to ordinary practices and found to be more effective. Schools may be more complex than Starbucks, but a math class at a given grade level in one school is a lot like a math class in another. There is no reason that teachers or school leaders could not choose among the several proven programs available to them, or perhaps invest locally in creating and rigorously evaluating something even better. Yet this is rarely what happens.

To those who would argue that America already has far too much ‘scaling up’ of Wal-marts and McDonald’s, I’d agree, but I’d also point out that this is just a matter of taste. In education, we can measure learning gains due to a given program. If a program is known to routinely increase learning more than ordinary methods, educators should embrace it, whether or not it was made locally. When your child is ill, do you prefer a proven treatment from far away, or an untested treatment made up in your local hospital?

Scaling up proven programs has its complexities, but it is not fundamentally different from scaling up any enterprise and maintaining its quality in each location. In fact, scaling up is an American specialty. In education there are several examples of effective scale-up. What is lacking is not the know-how, but the will. Government could readily encourage or incentivize schools to choose from among proven programs, and it could help non-profit providers of proven programs to build capable organizations to scale up their operations. The Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program is making a start in this direction, devoting substantial resources to help various programs develop their evidence base and scalability. Yet even i3 will not have a lasting impact if government at all levels does not begin to encourage school leaders to learn about and, if they wish, adopt proven programs to solve the predictable problems that all schools must solve.

Can Educators Turn Silicon Into Gold?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

On Feb. 27, TED announced that it was awarding a $1 million prize for educational innovation to Sugata Mitra. Dr. Mitra is famous for his “hole in the wall” experiment, in which he made a computer freely available to children in a Delhi slum, and documented their excitement and self-generated learning. Dr. Mitra repeated similar experiments in small villages in various parts of India, all trying to jump-start children’s passion for learning with simple access to technology. In his speech accepting the TED Prize, Dr. Mitra described his principle of Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs), and proposed to use his prize money to establish a School in the Cloud, a network of mentors (especially English grannies) mentoring children in India and encouraging their explorations with technology.

The vision presented by Dr. Mitra sounds exciting. Imagine that the boring, lockstep factory-like structure of the traditional school could be shattered, and students could become self-directed, self-motivated learners, exploring big questions unfettered by tests or busywork. Wouldn’t this prepare our children for the world of the future, in which knowing facts will be unnecessary (because they can look them up on line) and people can work wherever and whenever they want?

My only problem with Dr. Mitra’s wonderful speech is that I’ve heard it many times before over the past 40 years. Visionaries have been predicting that computers will revolutionize education since the early 1970s. The machines have certainly arrived in schools in very large numbers, although the schools have always lagged far behind the technology available in middle class homes. In about 1980 I recall visiting a suburban elementary school in Maryland. Fifth graders had been asked to make timelines of their own lives. I looked at their products, and saw the same pattern in every one. Each timeline began with a line in the year the child was born. Then there was a blank space leading up to the year and date when the child got his or her first computer, then lines for his or her first printer, various software, and so on, so the right-hand side of the timelines were clustered with densely packed lines, all related to getting more technology.

At least among middle-class kids in the developed world, digital technology has been around for a very, very long time. In classroom applications, simulations like Oregon Trail and computer-assisted instruction like CCC and Jostens have been widely available and widely used since the 1970s.

What is new today, and very important, is the democratization of technology. As computers and other devices become less expensive, they are becoming more and more accessible, even in places with few resources. That is the importance of Dr. Mitra’s work; he is making technology available to poor Indian children, and showing how this can be transformative for them, bringing them into the modern world and the modern economy. Widespread access to cell phones with access to the Internet, and to inexpensive tablets, are making knowledge and electronic capacity available throughout the developing world. Within the developed world, access to the Internet is also expanding rapidly, so that it will soon be the case that teachers can assume that every child will have a device at home capable of linking to the Internet.

Will access to the Internet be transformative? It will be for some children, of course, but if access alone were transformative, the developed world would be transforming like crazy in terms of learning, and it is not. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, scores in reading are only slightly higher than they were in 1980, and in math, somewhat better. In other developed countries, patterns are similar. If access to computers were decisive, middle-class children, at least, would be gaining rapidly. Admittedly, the technology itself keeps getting better and faster and easier to use, but from thirty years of experience in the developed world, it seems unlikely that access alone will lead children to become wise and capable.

Personally, I am very optimistic about developments in access to technology, but for reasons that have little to do with the “teacher-free” vision embraced by Dr. Mitra. My optimism stems from the possibility that when every student can be assumed to have access to computers at home and in school, programs can be developed to integrate activities in those different settings. Many schools, for example, are using forms of “blended learning” or the “flipped classroom,” in which all children are expected to do some activities at home that feed into activities they do in school. In flipped classrooms, teachers may send out their lessons to be viewed at home, so that class time can be used for cooperative learning, experiments, expeditions, or other activities that depend on groups of children working with the teacher. We are designing a middle-school math program in which children experience cooperative learning enhanced by traditional teaching and exciting content on interactive whiteboards. Then, during a study hall and following up to homework, students work at their own level and pace using individualized Khan Academy materials. The idea is to use homework time to focus on individualizing instruction for students, while using class time for the activities that move the whole class forward together. We are hoping to organize online tutoring from older students or adults to help struggling students during the after-school hours. We do not know how this will all work out, but we are confident we can make it work in some form.

The long history of technology in education should make us very skeptical about claims that technology dropped into classrooms or homes will change everything. I have no doubt that when exciting and replicable solutions to enduring educational problems are found, they will incorporate technology in a significant way, and will take advantage of ubiquitous access to the Internet. However, we must carefully evaluate any solutions we create or propose, using the highest standards of evidence. This means comparing new solutions to traditional practices in terms of learning gains, ideally assigning schools at random to use new programs or stick with their existing programs.

I congratulate Dr. Mitra on his well-deserved recognition as a visionary in technology and education, and I am sure he will continue to advance the frontiers of education in developing as well as developed countries. Things are moving so rapidly in technology that there is no telling what things will look like in five or ten years, much less longer periods, so we should celebrate pioneers willing to push us to the next level and try out new solutions.

TED and The Huffington Post invite you to take the SOLE Challenge, a unique contest in which we’re asking teachers and parents to create child-centered learning labs in their homes and schools. Write an 800 to 1,000 word blog post on your experiences and send it to Three winning submissions will get to attend TED Youth 2013.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today’s most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend’s ideas to contribute as a writer.



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Robert E. Slavin
Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University