A Call to Arms for Education Innovation

Imagine that the U.S. Government issued a call to the most innovative parts of our society: Create an Algebra I curriculum so engaging that kids would be clamoring to get to class every day.
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Imagine that the U.S. Government issued a call to the most creative, innovative and productive parts of our society: Create an Algebra I curriculum so exciting, so well-designed, so engaging and so firmly based on well-established principles of learning that kids would be clamoring to get into the course, rushing to class every day and learning the subject at unheard-of levels. Imagine that this call enticed technology developers, entertainment companies and top university researchers and developers to devote their best minds to the task, knowing that if they develop a practical model and it passes a rigorous evaluation for effectiveness, it could be used in secondary schools across the U.S. and, indeed, throughout the world.

If such a call went out and were backed up with serious funding for development and evaluation, does anyone doubt that American ingenuity could solve the problem of Algebra I? Of course it could. Many groups might try out prototypes and many, perhaps most, might fail. But if just one or just a few programs succeeded in making the world's most effective Algebra I course, the impact would be dramatic.

The idea that such a process of innovation could exist is not a fantasy. This vision has recently been proposed by the Obama administration. The idea is to create an ARPA for education. ARPA stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency. The original ARPA is DARPA, in the Defense Department. A hugely successful response to the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957, DARPA sponsored development of the Internet (originally the ARPANET), GPS, stealth technology, pilotless drones and much, much more.

In education, an ARPA would encourage and fund development of new technologies and approaches, which would need to show evidence that they improve learning substantially in comparison to current methods. ARPA-Education would probably focus on technology innovations, but could fund anything likely to make a big difference in learning.

Of course, ARPA-Education would not just be about Algebra I. Imagine simultaneous projects in beginning reading, in science and mathematics at all levels, in solutions for English language learners and in school-to-college and school-to-work transitions. Imagine innovative approaches to teaching foreign language, history and geography, perhaps using elaborate simulations. Imagine novel approaches to teacher professional development and initial teacher training, classroom management and formative assessment.

President Obama has proposed to start ARPA-Education with $90 million -- peanuts compared to the $3.2 billion DARPA, but a very good start in the education field. The Administration's ARPA proposal is the logical next step from the equally unprecedented Investing in Innovation (i3) program already under way, which is helping proven programs to scale up and helping newcomers build capacity. What ARPA would add to i3 is a proactive outreach to non-traditional innovators capable of creating astonishing leaps forward in educational practice.

Education reform has been stuck in recent years trying to improve the management of the same old system. Both the existing i3 and the proposed ARPA offer potential for breakthroughs where it counts: in daily classroom practice.

America leads the world not because of its capability in managing existing systems. It leads the world because of its unparalleled capacity for innovation. It's about time that we apply this capacity to solve our education problems. The Obama administration is headed in exactly the right direction in seeing innovation, not regulation and top-down mandates, as the way forward for education.

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