Scaling Pockets of Achievement to a System of Excellence for All With Evidence Infrastructure

What started with projected images printed on glass plates in 1870 has evolved, improved, and advanced to the education technology (EdTech) teachers and students rely on every day. Schools, districts, and society expect a lot from our technology now, from leveling the education playing field to keeping America competitive by bridging the significant modern learning needs for students and our workforce.

But while there are clearly pockets of innovation that improve achievement, equity, and outcomes, we have hobbled our education system by not investing in the basic research and development infrastructure other sectors have. Without a connected infrastructure where states, districts, and key stakeholders can share evidence of what is working more quickly and cost-effectively, our system will remain siloed and our children, our communities, and our nation’s competitiveness will suffer.

A comprehensive, funded research and development infrastructure
Districts and states, using a research-based EdTech infrastructure, outperform their peers in key instructional and financial outcomes. They beat the odds by leveraging rapid, practical, and rigorous evaluation to decide which resources to bring into their schools, how to implement them successfully to maximize impact on student learning, and differentiate their actions to support the success of all teachers and students. They gather and communicate evidence with all stakeholders, including parents — bridging the gap between school and home — and their EdTech provider partners, resulting in better products, implementation, and support.

While several trailblazing state and local agencies have invested early and seen benefits in both outcomes and budgets, a nationally aligned research and development infrastructure across K-12 education would lower the costs for all, increase the speed of innovation, and achieve this type of impact at scale.

The current, deficient state of education research and development (R&D)
Before exploring specific pockets of innovation and how some states, districts, and solution providers have been able to leverage evidence to improve outcomes and comply with federal requirements, it is important to understand how we got here. The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the extent to which learning is technology-enabled, underlining the fundamental role that EdTech now plays in students’ learning and school experience. According to the latest EdTech Top 40 report, districts in the United States use over 1,400 different digital tools on average per month. This figure is up over 50% from pre-pandemic levels, and has kept growing since. With this explosion of EdTech comes the need to evaluate what works, for whom and under what conditions. Yet, education research and development lags, especially when compared to other fields.

Since World War II, public and private sectors in the U.S. have invested time, money, and expertise in mutually agreed upon R&D systems in our most important sectors: transportation, healthcare, defense, and energy, to name a few. These significant investments have led to amazing innovations — from connected highways to new vaccines and energy sources — as well as to lower-cost knowledge sharing, a rapid scaling of what works, and arguably the most competitive industrial economy in history.

While most sectors have benefited from a combined average spend of 4-12% of their total investment in R&D, education has not. Our federal education investment in research is less than 0.25%, and only began meaningfully over the last two decades. This has created slow and expensive innovation cycles, significant digital equity gaps, and minimal incentives to translate research into scalable practice. Even more so, it has slowed our competitiveness in all sectors.

Thankfully, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the overarching federal education law, requires federal and stimulus dollars to be used for “evidence-based interventions,” and defines four levels of evidence (similar to phased evidence in pharmaceuticals) to foster shared understanding. Recently, the New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act has bipartisan support in Congress to create a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE) dedicated to developing and disseminating innovative, cutting-edge education practices and tools — a center much like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which activates innovation in the defense industry. These critical steps are a good start that can connect and amplify the pockets of innovation already occurring in the field.

An EdTech research and development infrastructure is a game changer
For the last eight years, state agencies, districts of all sizes, solution providers of every type and their partners, have leveraged rapid, practical, and rigorous research and evidence to improve outcomes and budgets.

The Utah legislature and the Utah State Board of Education have invested in statewide EdTech effectiveness since 2015, providing local education agencies with a single opt-in digital infrastructure to manage, measure, and communicate how their EdTech interventions and tools are to be used and their effects. Districts and charters serving over 90% of Utah families use aligned infrastructure, providing state leaders with insights and evidence on which tools are to be used and how they are working to inform their budget and policy decisions.

Results are enviable. While many U.S. districts and states saw 4-7% student enrollment drops during the first years of COVID, in the face of increased alternative education options, the State of Utah saw less than 0.7% decrease during the pandemic, and has lately rebounded and grown. The Texas Education Agency, the State of Connecticut, and other states have activated aligned infrastructures similar to Utah.

Nationally, individual school districts have transformed their decision-making for more equitable outcomes, safer learning ecosystems, lower susceptibility to cyber-attacks, and lower costs. By running their own rapid-cycle evaluations and safely analyzing billions of student and teacher interactions every week, school districts have gained more efficiency, better budgets, and an improved experience for all stakeholders.

For example, North Carolina’s Union County Public Schools (UCPS), like many districts, allow each of the schools in their district to adopt EdTech individually. In 2017, Casey Rimmer, UCPS director of innovation and technology, discovered this had resulted in a “wild west” of products being used and little data — even on pricing — being shared across the district.

Since then, the district has unified its EdTech ecosystem, making it more efficient, effective, and equitable for all students. While educators and schools still have local control, Rimmer coordinates how they organize tools, ask for teacher feedback on existing EdTech, develop consistent communication and training support, and streamline the EdTech request process, resulting in higher teacher retention and better budgets.

While a single, district-based EdTech infrastructure gives districts like UCPS a platform and the requisite information they need to evaluate their own tech decisions more easily, connecting these districts and states together through a scaled infrastructure would offer educators, policymakers, and leaders the insights needed to learn from each other. The resulting network effect would extend beyond districts and schools.

Providers — the largest investors in development — can better access and share data about their programs, tools, and supports, elevating the field and the types of offerings available, if they can do so together, faster, and at lower costs. States can develop policies that appropriately fund interventions and approaches that are proven to work for their unique student and educator populations.

According to the latest OECD data, the United States ranked 24th out of 36 nations for government funding of university research and development as a share of GDP. Nine nations invested more than double this rate. The consequences of not scaling an EdTech R&D infrastructure go far beyond increased costs. Without knowing what works, we cannot meet the needs of many students and teachers. We cannot be globally competitive if we do not educate all students in a meaningful, research-backed way.

What we need to make education R&D infrastructure
Scaling an R&D infrastructure for an entire field is no small task, but we are not starting from zero. These examples show the benefits of a digital research infrastructure for select states and districts. Imagine what this type of infrastructure could do if scaled for all school districts, educators, and students. We would be better able to elevate best practices, share insights more broadly across K-12 organizations, and drive impact and improvement among providers. Critically, educators would be better equipped to support students with resources proven to make a difference, thus giving students access to the tools and supports to help them succeed in the classroom and beyond.
The four critical pillars needed to create an effective R&D system include:
1. Local digital infrastructure to manage, monitor, evaluate, and share evidence within schools and districts.
2. National R&D infrastructure to connect the local digital infrastructures to each other and scale pockets of excellence.
3. Human infrastructure to equip, train, and empower educators, policymakers, and solution providers with data and how to use it in their day-to-day.
4. Policy infrastructure to align and incentivize research, and evidence must continue to evolve.

Normalizing evidence sharing among districts, states, and providers will equip decision makers with the information to make real-time decisions about their EdTech, reduce costs, and ultimately, ensure every student has an equal opportunity to thrive. With a properly funded education R&D infrastructure, we would see a powerful network effect that transforms education for all and ensures America’s competitiveness.

About the author
Karl Rectanus is an educator and a high-growth serial entrepreneur committed to expanding equitable outcomes through systemic change. As the co-founder and chief executive officer of LearnPlatform, a for-benefit research organization, he leads a team of educators, researchers, and technologists committed to expanding access for all students to the tools and teaching that work best for them.