The Case for Reforming and Strengthening Federal Education R&D

Lincoln White Paper

Click here to download a PDF version of the paper.

The United States faces unprecedented challenges in elementary and secondary education. Prolonged school closures caused widespread learning losses and other negative effects that threaten the future of a generation of American children. Today’s students will grow up in a future where emerging technologies have the potential to change society and the workforce in unforeseen ways. Renewed great power competition with the People’s Republic of China and Russia are creating new national security and economic risks for the United States that once again highlight the need to improve learning in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and other key sectors to maintain a competitive advantage.

Since the 1950s, the United States has authorized and funded federal K-12 education research and development (R&D) programs aimed at improving STEM education and learning opportunities for American children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This report reviews and analyzes the history of federal K-12 research and development. This history includes several missed opportunities, including a national evaluation that was broadly ignored despite identifying an instructional method that delivered superior results in improving student outcomes. It also reveals that the longstanding strategy of K-12 R&D activities has been to fund academic and empirical research about K-12 education rather than to develop new tools for improving students’ learning opportunities. Despite a longstanding, bipartisan commitment to identify “what works” in education, federally funded education research activities appear to have a limited impact in changing K-12 education policy and governance.

In 2022, the United States will spend less than $1 billion on K-12 education R&D initiatives through the Department of Education and National Science Foundation, an amount largely unchanged over the past decade. As a nation, the United States spent $864 billion on elementary and secondary education in 2019, or about 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

A review of the broad history of federal education R&D provides insights that should inform future congressional and executive branch action.

Key Findings:

  1. There is longstanding bipartisan support for federal spending on K-12 education research to improve student learning, yet federal education funding for R&D remains a small fraction of overall federal spending on R&D. 
  1. Historically, federal education R&D within the Department of Education has focused on supporting research, rather than development. 
  1. Education research has guided national K-12 education policy reforms only when research findings align with existing priorities of major interest groups or policymaker goals and objectives. 
  1. Over the past decade, the federal government’s funding for education R&D has increasingly focused on developmental projects, such as the Investing in Innovation (i3) and Education Innovation and Research programs, which have the potential to spur innovations across the K-12 education sector.
  1. Political factors, such as liberals’ and conservatives’ views about the role of the federal government in K-12 education, have influenced federal K-12 research and development programs and will continue to do so. 

Learning from this history, Congress and the administration have an opportunity to reform and strengthen federal K-12 education R&D in 2022 and beyond.

Recommendations

  1. Congress and the Biden administration should focus an increasing share of education R&D resources on initiatives that develop practical applications, including technology or instructional models, that address federal government K-12 education priorities.
  1. Congress and the Biden administration should act on available research evidence to reform federal programs and activities and reallocate resources to more promising efforts.
  1. Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should focus current education research and program evaluation activities on the immediate challenges in American K-12 education.
  1. Congress should commission an independent and authoritative review of past federally funded research that would share recommendations for best practices with education stakeholders, school leaders, and parents.
  1. To inform future federal education R&D expenditures, Congress and the Biden administration should conduct horizon scanning to anticipate and understand how emerging technology and artificial intelligence will affect American education and the workforce.
  1. Congress, the Biden administration, and civil society should study how an Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) model or similar models could be applied to improving K-12 education, drawing lessons from the defense, intelligence, homeland security and energy sectors.

While the history of federal K-12 R&D activities is full of disappointments and missed opportunities, the United States cannot afford to further neglect the opportunity and urgent need to spur innovation in elementary and secondary education. Congress, the Biden administration, and civil society should take action to reinvent and strengthen federal K-12 education research and development.

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Dan Lips
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