Is This the Key to Unlocking Breakthrough Education Research?

Frederick M. Hess
5 min readFeb 14, 2023

Dear readers,

I’m delighted to introduce an occasional new feature, “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” which I’ll be penning with my friend, Harvard University’s inimitable Jal Mehta (author of books like The Allure of Order and In Search of Deeper Learning). The idea was sparked by our shared sense that, in education, vague buzzwords, happy-dappy constructs, and intimidating jargon can too often stand in for careful thought or rigorous design. We’ve both been frustrated when we see sensible intuitions used to justify ham-handed mandates or dubious programs.

Now, we come at all this in different ways. Jal tends to see things through the lens of practice while I tend to think in terms of policy. And one place where Jal and I often part ways is how to address our concerns. I’m often inclined to just roll back programs and mandates and tell the consultants, hucksters, and buzzword artists to knock it off. Jal is marginally more optimistic, especially if we can appreciate context, respect on-the-ground expertise, and avoid the temptation of one-size-fits-all solutions.

In other words, while we’re both skeptics, our skepticism plays out differently — both in terms of the policy/practice divide and across the left/right ideological divide. So, we’ll be coming at things from different places. I’m hoping that readers might find the exercise useful, and even refreshing.

With that, I want to offer a couple of thoughts on one current enthusiasm in the world of education research — the “DARPA for Education” included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill that Congress recently passed. The long-discussed idea is modeled on the Department of Defense’s famed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has used a dynamic, fluid model to help birth innovations ranging from the internet to GPS to stealth technology. Well, Congress has delivered to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) a chunk of money (an unspecified portion of $40 million) to foster “quick-turnaround, high-reward” learning solutions.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think DARPA is a national treasure, absolutely favor more nimble education research, and would love to see us actually start to understand which tutoring approaches deliver and how schools might make real use of virtual reality. On the other hand, I worry that just calling something DARPA doesn’t make it DARPA. I worry that IES is too bureaucratic, education too suffused with an odd admixture of top-heavy evaluation contractors and ideologically-motivated scholar-activists, and the infrastructure and expertise aren’t there to meaningfully emulate DARPA.

Jal: Glad to join you here, Rick. When I was a kid and realized that Santa couldn’t hit every house on earth in one night, my next thought was that Santa must operate in a kind of federated structure. My parents called the Baltimore City Santa Claus Department, told them what I wanted, they delivered it late the evening of Christmas Eve, and my parents put it under the tree. So while I’m as averse to bad bureaucracy as the next guy, my goal here is less to tear things down, and more to think about whether there might be better ways to replace it.

For today’s topic, DARPA-Ed is supposed to be the replacement for some of the problems with past education research and development — not oriented enough towards practice; not interdisciplinary enough; too much of a disconnect between researchers, NGOs, and for-profit companies who might have larger reach to achieve greater scale. So, my first instinct is to say that we should give it a chance.

At the same time, before we start, we should think through the ways that education differs from defense. As Dave Snowden and Mary Boone point out, physical engineering is complicated; human beings are complex, meaning that they don’t follow simple cause and effect laws as physical science does. We have learned over and over again that context matters, that relationships matter, and that repertoires of ways to handle problems is better than one-size-fits-all solutions. Rick, is there a way we might organize DARPA-Ed that might take into account those features rather than repeating the mistakes of the techno-optimists of the past?

Rick: Love the Santa Claus story. I don’t think you’d ever told me that. Seems like you’ve got an outline of a great Magic School Bus episode. But that’s a whole other topic. As for DARPA-Ed, I like the question — but fear you’ve just doubled my concerns. I was already unsure whether education has a critical mass of the skill and will to do this. Now you’ve got me wondering whether the model itself translates.

After all, DARPA may be great at addressing technical design challenges. But DARPA isn’t expected to weigh in on how to best compensate military personnel, what constitutes an equitable allocation of military funds, or how to train unit leaders. Now, if DARPA-Ed were to focus on designing more effective tutoring technologies or tech-enabled phonics programs, I could see the analog. But that doesn’t seem to be what a lot of the proponents are promising.

Rather, it seems likely that DARPA-Ed will become a fancy label for some faster-paced research on instructional strategies, dropout prevention, teacher training, or whatnot. More research on all of that could certainly be useful. But I wouldn’t expect it to bring big change to education research or practice. Heck, I’m not convinced that those saying this could transform education research really have a clear vision of what it would take for that to be the case.

Jal: Yes. I think that if that’s what it became, that wouldn’t be a great use of the dollars. The things that DARPA is best known for — GPS and the internet itself — are not immediate solutions to military problems. They are underlying infrastructure that took a long time to build and ended up having many different applications. Education research, particularly federally funded education research, already tends to focus on the short-term priorities that are hot in the policy environment. So if DARPA-Ed could resist that pull and look into some longer-term questions, I think that could be constructive.

On my list would be: How can we assess education beyond basic literacy and numeracy? How can artificial intelligence assist in helping education become more differentiated and responsive to individual needs and concerns? How could we build worldwide communities of educators interested in working together on fairly specific questions, like how best to teach Shakespeare or foster perspective-taking in their students? For any of these questions, I would begin with the assumption that there wasn’t going to be one answer to be implemented with fidelity by teachers. Instead, we want to nurture an ecosystem, build infrastructure, offer tools, and create opportunities for wise educators to do their best work.

Will this happen? We will see. But I think we both agree that a new name and a fancy analogue is no substitute for careful thinking about what it takes to make progress in the complex and very human world of education.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.