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Recommendations on “From Seedlings to Scale,” a new ARPA-style program at IES

November 13, 2023 New Classrooms

The Institute of Education Sciences’s (IES) National Center for Education Research (NCER) solicited input this fall in an RFI for the new program within their Accelerate, Transform, and Scale (ATS) initiative called “From Seedlings to Scale” (S2S). This initiative was directed and funded by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023.As we’ve noted in the past, this grant, connected to the proposed creation of the National Center for Advanced Development in Education at IES, aims to provide “quick-turnaround high-reward, scalable solutions intended to improve education outcomes for all students.” Further, Congress suggested research and development (R&D) activities such as breakthrough technologies, new pedagogical approaches, and innovative learning models for the new funding opportunity. New Classrooms has offered comments on how the S2S grant program could be structured to ensure true innovation and best support the development and implementation of transformative solutions throughout the entire funding cycle.

Director Schneider:

On behalf of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, we are pleased to submit these comments in response to the Institute of Education Sciences’ (IES) Request for Information (RFI) (Docket ID ED-2023-IES-0011) to guide the agency’s efforts to fund quick-turnaround high-reward, scalable solutions intended to improve education outcomes for all students. 

We are strongly in support of the ongoing efforts to create an ARPA-style program at IES that will invest solutions that have the potential to address long-standing deficits and inequities in the education system. As directed by Congress, the Accelerate, Transform, and Scale (ATS) initiative and Seedlings to Scale (S2S) grant program should prioritize research and development (R&D) activities such as breakthrough technologies, new pedagogical approaches, and innovative learning models.

About New Classrooms:

New Classrooms is a national nonprofit on a mission to personalize education for each and every student to support and advocate for policies that truly enable schools to meet a student’s unique strengths and needs. Our organization is actively engaged in building capacity for schools to make personalized learning a reality through the use of innovative learning models, supporting demand for these models, and advocating for policies that create the space for these approaches to emerge. For more than 100 years, schooling has consisted of one teacher and 30 or so same-aged students all learning the same thing at the same time. Efforts to improve student outcomes, whether based on the adoption of standards, improved teacher quality, the use of assessment and accountability, or other approaches, have left the current educational delivery model largely untouched. 

It is time for new learning models to emerge that break free of the inherent constraints of the traditional educational delivery model. This requires the design and widespread adoption of new learning products and models that thoughtfully integrate the talents of teachers and the power of modern technologies so each and every student can thrive.

(1) Are the focus areas and cross cutting topics described well suited to advanced development R&D?

We strongly support the creation of the new ATS initiative, specifically the S2S grant program, at the Institute of Education Sciences. We support the four focus areas identified for the S2S program, but believe that for student outcomes to truly be at the center of the advanced development R&D undertaken through the grant, other topics should be included which you will find in the sections below. Specifically, IES must ensure that these topics are not only bold but create the space for a fundamental model rethinking of our current education system.

(a) Are these areas already adequately covered by existing funding mechanisms? If not, why not?

Currently, there are no other programs at the federal level that fund the types of projects that S2S is proposing, which we applaud. The majority of grant programs at IES and the U.S. Department of Education (USED) have focused on education research, rather than the development of new approaches to teaching and learning. The limited focus on development that has occurred has prioritized incremental and point solutions intended to fit immediately into the existing education marketplace that don’t lead to strong student outcomes. S2S is instead proposing to fund high-risk, high reward projects that seek to break out of the current model of schooling and deliver on transformative solutions. The emphasis on scaling up these breakthrough solutions is also incredibly important as there is currently a lack of capacity and funding at the state and local levels to design appropriate delivery chains of support.

Additionally, because our model of schooling has not changed for the past 100 years and prioritizes grade-level standards over the individual needs of students, traditional education funding opportunities have been insufficient in pushing the sector towards unlocking new approaches and new education structures to adequately support this work. The existing school model assumes that all students are ready to learn the same thing at the same time. This assumption is particularly evident when grant programs base evaluation of a project on annual, grade-level summative assessments and other traditional means. These products funded by existing federal grants might make a classroom more efficient, but they have not been designed to reimagine teaching and learning structures and systems.

Therefore, we strongly recommend that the S2S program redesign the existing evaluation process to allow for more flexibility to implement and scale these new projects. Current evaluation structures based on the USED tiers of evidence limit the ability to shape program designs that rethink school. Many of the approaches developed by S2S will fall outside the existing paradigm of schooling where existing federal regulations and state requirements might hamper their initial success. This includes freedom from traditional assessment treatments to leave room to meaningfully explore future evidence of success. IES should ensure that evidence and evaluation – particularly in phase one – is centered on a feasibility study, not traditional markers of success in other grant programs if it’s to mimic the ARPA-like approach that we all seek. 

In addition, it is important to not exclude from this grant opportunity solutions that may be past prototype but have not quite reached full development or distribution as proposed on the S2S continuum. These are products that have relied upon funding from philanthropy or other federal funding sources, which is often limited and more restrictive than what is proposed in this new grant opportunity. Additionally, timelines associated with these existing funding sources currently do not allow for what is needed to develop a truly innovative product. Adjustments to a more realistic timeline (as we note below in our response to Question 3) would allow for transformative solutions to get to scale sooner, mitigate risk, and better align with what it takes to truly develop transformative solutions in the K-12 sector. 

(b) Are there other topics that you think would yield more promise for identifying and developing breakthrough solutions? If so, what do you find more compelling about that topic? 

As mentioned in our answer to Question 1(a), most education R&D programs are prefaced on the assumption that all students learn the same thing at the same time through a grade level structure. However, results from state tests and the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) show that an overwhelming amount of students are not proficient in math and reading at their grade level, and more importantly show that students are not learning at the pace needed to become college and career ready by the end of high school.

Therefore, learner variability and undetected skill acquisition amongst all students, not just individual neurodiverse learners, is a topic that merits promise and could unlock answers that fundamentally change how the classroom works for the better. By focusing on pacing and mastery of content, insights about how students not only understand but also retain information could then allow for the development of products that meet each and every student in their zone of proximal development. This would allow for a customizable and personalized approach to teaching that ensures that what a student is learning at a given moment is not too easy, not too hard, but just right for them. This includes developing new approaches that combat unfinished learning and get students back on pace at a much faster rate than continuing to emphasize grade-level standards attainment.

(2) To successfully develop products and ecosystems that make a major impact on learners’ education outcomes, teams will need a variety of supports. IES may require support from private industry in areas such as providing consultation and coaching to teams, convening potential partners for research and scaling.

(a) What would an ideal team look like to maximize the likelihood of success? For example, what role would researchers, education agencies (at the state or local level), and private companies play in the team? 

We strongly believe that there must be a variety of actors included in the team to yield successful student outcomes and that flexibility is allowed to ensure that a team is able to adapt to its needs throughout the grant process. It is critical that a core team is established to lead on product development and has expertise in all the following topics: learning outcomes, school operations, technology, artificial intelligence, product design, student engagement and UI/UX. This core group should also have capacity to manage its own internal operations, such as finance and compliance. From there, as the product reaches later phases of development, the core team may need to add expertise in areas such as research, cognitive psychology, specialized technology (e.g. engineering, QA, data architecture, expanded UI/UX and data security). Allowing for flexibility for a team to adapt and add collaborators – rather than mandating rigidity at the time of application – is essential to ensuring successful product development. Finally, the core team should be able to make considerations on communications and distribution work as well as teacher training and support. 

In order to ensure on-time delivery and implementation, the main product developers mentioned above would need support from a strategic planning organization. This organization would play a technical assistance role to lead the project design and general project management. The product developers and the strategic planning organization would work closely together in both phases one and two.

Implementation is also a crucial part of the equation to ensure that the product will actually serve students in a real-life setting. Therefore, state partners are needed to be active participants for phase three of this grant. (Note: this does not mean that their problem identification and input is not valuable during phase one and two as the product is being developed). Ideally, these state partners are ones that have shown interest in the early adoption of innovative education practices and will work with the strategic planning organization to set the enabling conditions for success for the new product. Group experience and classroom implementation will be particularly important in this phase.

Finally, a researcher will be involved in all phases of the grant. Because the new product seeks to work outside of the traditional education paradigm, it will be essential for this researcher to define a new methodology that does not rely on the traditional age-based assumptions that we spoke to in Question 1. As product development then gets underway and ultimately leads to classroom implementation, the researcher will continuously work (through short-stage research cycles) to adopt, refine, and improve the project.

(b) How can we ensure community engagement and input?

Ensuring community engagement and input is a vital component of ensuring this grant is truly serving learner needs. This means that in earlier phases, grant applicants should utilize strong partnerships with states and school districts that agree to serve as pilot sites to ensure strong/rapid feedback cycles. 

A strategic planning organization that is versed in the concepts of personalized, competency-based approaches should work with state and school partners to set the enabling conditions for success and ensure that the larger community is aware and understands not only the new product but the philosophy behind the product. The strategic planning organization should also help to build and then maintain strong feedback loops from the state/school community to ensure that their voices are heard and used to improve the product. This includes soliciting feedback from not only teachers and students but parents as well.

In later stages, community engagement and input is best integrated in the implementation phase, as solution providers consult directly with school communities to share what they have built and explore how it might align with communities aspirations. Post-adoption, schools must still be able to provide feedback to solution providers, through digital feedback mechanisms that can readily be aggregated and considered. 

(c) What kind of experience does your organization have with supporting ARPA-style R&D efforts, especially those related to the education sciences? What case studies can you share from your experience? 

New Classrooms is a national nonprofit that aims to personalize education for each and every student. Our organization is actively engaged in building capacity and supporting demand for innovative learning models, an approach to learning that looks beyond the age-based classroom to emphasize mastery in a subject through personalized learning. We have operated as a small R&D shop for twelve years and have always been focused on making truly transformative, student-centered, impacts in education. 

Our work in schools around the country has primarily focused on math education in grades 3-Algebra I. The teaching and learning of math is unique to other subjects in the way it builds over time and requires predecessor skills to be learned and retained in order to be ready for the next set of skills. Because of that cumulative difference, we continue to argue that math education federal grant designs need to be oriented in a way that encourages an overall model rethinking – particularly outside of our current grade-level system – to allow for students to be taught in a more beneficial and productive way. While our expertise in building models and solutions is currently applied to math, all subjects will have their own set of circumstances, so it is imperative that this grant allows for a fundamental shift in approach.

We have found over the years that the K-12 sector is not built to organically enable a paradigm shift to student-centered learning. School operators generally do not have the design capacity to alone fundamentally reimagine learning, particularly if that involves sophisticated uses of technology. Nor do individual teachers, who simply cannot be expected to design the classroom of tomorrow while also managing the classroom of today. Additionally, with the current lack of an ARPA for education at the federal level, many social entrepreneurs have to rely on philanthropic capital to support R&D, outreach, and general operations. Even then, philanthropic funding is limited, difficult to sustain throughout a model development cycle, and generally oriented around industrial-paradigm solutions that can be scaled immediately. The combination of a high up-front cost to develop a new learning model and the potential for a slow pace of adoption can make it difficult to rationalize investment. It is simply more economically viable to build solutions for the market as it is, as opposed to taking the risks associated with the development of breakthrough solutions.

Therefore, we strongly believe innovative approaches to teaching and learning cannot emerge at a scalable level in this country without a strong public investment and technical support from the federal government. That is why the S2S grant program is a positive step in the right direction to help school communities reimagine education and personalize the learning journey for their students.

A separate lesson we have learned through our R&D work is the importance of policy in testing new solutions and ensuring successful implementation of an innovative product. It is particularly critical that evaluation mechanisms and implementation conditions of an innovative ARPA-style grant opportunity are fully aligned with the intent of the intervention. We would like to provide you with two case studies – Margolis (2019) and Ready (2019) – that highlights a real tension in math education between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state assessment systems based on short-term measures of grade-level academic proficiency. America’s K–12 schools tend to resist efforts to redesign the classroom due to underlying forces, including inflexible accountability policies, bureaucratic inertia, and out of touch procurement processes. While we applaud the intent of S2S to develop new innovative solutions, IES must also collaborate with the U.S. Department of Education and Congress to ensure that space is created for true innovation in assessment and accountability policies and remove procurement barriers at the state and local level to give these new models a chance to deliver for America’s kids.

(3) With a focus on developing quick-turn around, high-reward and scalable solutions, what would you propose are the core activities and/or benchmarks for success for a project in each of the phases? What examples can you provide around past successes in social science domains or specifically related to education R&D?

While we support the intention of rapidly developing solutions for what our students need, our century-old system requires a fundamental rethinking that will also take time and effort. Expecting a solution to be designed, prototyped, implemented, and evaluated all within a year is very aggressive. It would likely require a mid-year implementation of an untested solution, which would concern most schools given their accountabilities and the cadences of the school year. Summer school is an ideal time to test new solutions, but most summer school programs run for three to six weeks and much of which will be spent ironing out the kinks. Therefore, impact measurement will be unreliable and largely performative. As IES builds out the grant phases, we strongly recommend thinking strategically about realistic timelines that can deliver on student outcomes and how the measures of success are defined.

Proposed success factors for getting to Phase 1:

  • Core team with key capabilities listed above in our response to Question 2(a).
  • A demonstrated vision that is bold and consistent with the science of learning

Activities in Phase 1:

  • Build prototype
  • Provide evidence that can be operationalized in at least one school (not necessarily in the school year)
  • Assemble team of experts/advisors to support future phases
  • Provide compelling plan for Phase 2

Activities in Phase 2:

  • Develop Minimum Viable Product
  • Demonstrate it has been operationalized across multiple schools during the school year
  • Provide initial evidence of promising impact
  • Make use of additional experts/advisors
  • Provide compelling plan for Phase 3

Activities in Phase 3:

  • Build scalable solution
  • Build capacity for supporting growth
  • Demonstrate efficacy through quasi-experimental or RCT

Our organization has been focused on education R&D for the last twelve years. Some of our most important learnings can be found here.

Note that this article focuses largely on the demand-side. In terms of our R&D work, we have found that: 

  • The K-12 sector is bereft of bold solutions that challenge the ways schools have operated for more than a century
  • Developing solutions that challenge this paradigm requires a) a bold vision that b) can be operationalized within a school. These are the two biggest hurdles.
  • Once these ingredients are in place, it is then appropriate and necessary to rigorously measure academic impact.

We hope these lessons are helpful as you consider the core activities for each phase and create benchmarks for success.

(4) Could you provide any estimates of the costs, assets, and contributions required for a team to successfully complete each phase?

Based on our work developing an innovative learning model, we suggest at the minimum following grant phase amounts to allow for success in increasing the supply side of new products that can transform the K-12 sector:

  • Phase 1: Incubation Average Annual Grant: $4 million
  • Phase 2: Iteration Average Annual Grant: $5 million
  • Phase 3: Scalability Average Annual Grant: $4 million

Additionally, funding needs to be provided to help the early adopters of these new products and ensure that adequate demand is sustained for the products developed through the S2S grant program. As an example, this could include a one-time planning grant of $30k for the strategic planning organization to use with adopting schools followed by annual grants of $25k to the participating schools to support continued model adoption. To read more about these cost estimates, we have written about the financial model needed to scale innovative learning models in our most recent publication titled Out of the Box.

(5) As a part of this effort, IES may seek support in establishing a technical working group (TWG) to inform the activities that will guide research teams for the S2S competition. If we were to establish a TWG related to the S2S competition, what kind of expertise would you propose is essential to a TWG in this area? Are there specific organizations or individuals that you suggest be included in the TWG? 

We strongly support IES in establishing a technical working group to inform the activities of the S2S competition and ensure that the core research teams receive the support they need for success. However, it is important that the members that make up a TWG are aligned to the mission of S2S that differs from existing education research grants. We would propose organizations/individuals that have been specifically involved in driving bold innovation both inside and outside the K-12 sector. Therefore, while this is not an exhaustive list, we recommend the following individuals in the K-12 education sector: