top of page

NCADE FAQ

This FAQ responds to questions frequently asked about the National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE) which would be authorized by the New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act. This is a bipartisan bill that was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2023 and will soon be introduced in the U.S. Senate.

 

What makes NCADE different from the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program and other R&D programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education, including the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)?

  • NCADE would invest in high-potential, high-impact ideas to drive innovative solutions to education’s most complex and challenging problems. 

 

  • It has a unique focus from other Centers at IES given its focus on the development side of R&D. All of the existing Centers at IES are dedicated primarily to education research but NCADE would ensure much-needed attention to developing new approaches to teaching and learning. Building on the existing basic research that IES is most known for, NCADE would facilitate R&D that engages in rapid testing and iterative development of tools and solutions, and makes adjustments and pivots, as needed. This embraces Advanced Research Project Agencies’ (ARPA) ethos of taking risks and learning continuously – and allows for more nimble, responsive R&D than the traditional research typically seen in education.

  • While the EIR program plays an important role in the education R&D ecosystem, it cannot produce the transformative breakthroughs that would be possible with an ARPA approach.​

  • EIR helps generate, validate, and scale solutions to challenges in education that are steeped in evidence. EIR-funded projects build on nascent innovations and research that have been made possible through other R&D efforts. Even for EIR’s early phase grants, prior evidence is a requirement – so EIR could not support bold, “what…” ideas. 

  • According to the most recent notice for EIR early phase awards, all “applicants must submit prior evidence of effectiveness that demonstrates a rationale.” While this is crucial to expand and scale promising approaches, it limits the development of the most novel ideas. To pave the way for these breakthroughs, the ARPA model requires proposals to have scientific merit but does not require prior evidence of effectiveness. Instead, ARPA projects are monitored carefully for evidence of effectiveness throughout their lifespan. Adjustments or pivots are made – or the project is terminated – if it is not effective.

  • EIR serves an important role in scaling existing evidence-based solutions. Other ARPAs have programs similar to EIR that drive the impact of the ARPA’s funded research developments. For example, ARPA-E has the SCALEUP program to build upon its R&D and support the scaling of breakthrough innovations. The education R&D ecosystem is missing an ARPA or ARPA-like program to develop novel solutions to pressing problems, not a program that can scale solutions with a strong evidence base.

 

What makes NCADE different from existing education R&D programs funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)?

  • The NSF supports education R&D primarily through its Directorate for STEM Education (EDU). EDU’s mission is to “develop a well-informed citizenry and a diverse and capable workforce of scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians and educators.” While its programs are valuable to the education R&D ecosystem and the STEM enterprise, it has a narrower scope than IES. Further, it does not have any program or center engaged in ARPA-like, rapid, informed-risk, high-reward R&D. 

  • EDU’s programs support activities through multi-year awards that:

  • Promote high-quality, innovative, and inclusive STEM education for undergraduate and graduate students.

 

What types of projects could NCADE fund that couldn't be supported by the marketplace? Why should the federal government rather than industry or philanthropy fund these types of projects?

  • NCADE would fund bold, ambitious mid-and long-term projects in education R&D and serve as a bridge between basic research and the private sector. The latter is focused on short-term, profit-driven projects, so it tends to neglect the types of bold, “what if…” projects NCADE could support. 

  • The federal government could support the education sector’s need for cascading innovation. Currently, in education, most innovation happens in the private sector. As a result, the innovations are proprietary, which dramatically limits the amount of cascading research and development. ARPA program officers look for tools and approaches that can be used by many, creating network effects. If NCADE developed an algorithm, for instance, that could effectively screen for dyslexia by listening to students read in mere minutes, multiple organizations could integrate that innovation and dramatically increase access. 

  • The private sector focuses on short-term profitability. This inhibits solving bigger, real challenges that require a sizable up-front investment and perhaps have no immediate market. NCADE would invest in the development of ideas that, at an early stage, might not have the market conditions a for-profit business would require to justify investment.

  • The highly fragmented K-12 market does not lend itself to transformative R&D. There are nearly 14,000 school districts and 100,000 public schools in the U.S. and achieving scalable impact for new products is extremely difficult. The combination of high up-front costs to develop new approaches to teaching and learning and the potential for a slow pace of adoption due to a fragmented market can make it difficult to rationalize investment. For many private companies, it is simply more economically viable to build tools and materials that fall “inside the box” and are guaranteed to do well in the market as it is, as opposed to taking the risks associated with the development of breakthrough solutions. 

  • Transformative innovation is often a mismatch for philanthropic funding. Many smaller nonprofits and social entrepreneurs focused on innovation have to rely on philanthropic capital to support their research and development. Unfortunately, this funding is generally oriented around “market-ready” solutions that can be scaled immediately rather than promising ideas to address big challenges in K-12 education that need to be tested and refined.

 

What is informed-risk, high-reward R&D?

  • Informed-risk, high-reward R&D refers to R&D that pursues bold, innovative ideas that have scientific merit but may not yet have an evidence base. These ideas have the potential to solve big, complex problems. 

  • As it relates to education R&D, the “risk” does not refer to taking risks with students but instead with ideas. Informed-risk, high-reward R&D targets resources to explore a variety of promising but complex ideas and actually de-risk them by learning what works, for whom, and in what conditions.

 

  • Existing education R&D programs are not designed for informed-risk, high-reward R&D because they involve grants, which do not have a mechanism for pivoting or terminating a project if it isn’t working. ARPAs, however, glean insights as the R&D process unfolds, and adjust or end projects, as needed.

  • Review panels for existing education R&D funding opportunities typically reward incremental, low-risk projects, as they want to ensure a high probability of projects working out as planned. This incentive structure does not reward those who want to venture out and try something new. 

  • ARPAs incentivize informed-risk, high-reward projects that tackle the problems no one else is taking on because they are too big or complex. While existing grant programs facilitate incremental progress, ARPAs have program managers who look at the big picture and shape an R&D agenda that coordinates interdisciplinary talent to solve big, complex problems that are not otherwise being addressed in an ambitious or coordinated manner.

 

Given the current political realities, it’s highly unlikely the federal government would fund NCADE with $500M annually. We have heard that ARPAs with small budgets haven’t been successful. Is NCADE worthwhile if the federal government can only make a small investment in it?

  • While ARPAs are typically funded at the level of hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars annually (depending on the agency), there is evidence that smaller investments can lead to groundbreaking innovations. The Experiment Foundation and its affiliate crowdfunding platform, Experiment, are testing this out for programs with budgets totaling $50,000 to $250,000 – at a cost of less than $10,000 per project. According to the foundation’s Executive Director, David Lang, “So far, the program works. We're funding lots of interesting projects. A handful of Experiments have turned into breakthrough innovations, like CalWave, which started as a $9,000 project and is now one of the longest-duration wave energy projects in the world.” 

  • While other ARPAs tend to be funded at significantly higher levels, there would still be value in establishing a relatively small version of NCADE to start, which would simply fund fewer projects than other ARPAs. 

  • The current NCADE-like pilot at IES (called the Accelerate, Transform, and Scale, or ATS, initiative) is putting $30 million into high-impact, high-potential education R&D. The Senate version of the NEED Act will authorize “such sums necessary” for NCADE, allowing for some discretion to size the program as budget permits.

 

Is NCADE needed if IES’ ATS Initiative already exists?

  • ATS was set up to be an NCADE pilot, but it lacks the flexibility of ARPAs in the areas of hiring, peer review, and contracting to foster early stage R&D that:

  • Is driven by highly qualified program managers;

  • Can build agile, interdisciplinary teams with the right expertise to develop meaningful, high-impact solutions;

  • Enables rapid testing and iteration; and

  • Has the ability to learn and pivot or stop within a funded project.

 

  • The impact of ATS would be much broader if IES had the necessary flexibilities and authorities that are essential to the ARPA model.

Does NCADE need to be a new Center within IES?

  • Not necessarily. The current proposal is designed to ensure that it has the structure, flexibility, and talent needed to be true to the ARPA model. However, if a different structure can accomplish the critical tenets below, it is worth discussing further.

  • To ensure that top talent is attracted and hired swiftly for 3-year stints as Program Managers, NCADE’s leadership would need flexible hiring authorities, like at other ARPAs. To enlist the brightest scientific and technological minds, NCADE would need the flexibility to hire outside of the traditional civil service rules. 

  • To employ the critical tenets of the ARPA approach, NCADE would give its Program Managers the autonomy to select, in consultation with the field, projects to fund based on their scientific and technical merit. NCADE project selection would need to operate outside of IES’ standard peer review process. 

  • Finally, like other ARPAs, NCADE would use Other Transaction Authorities to pursue innovative collaborations and engage in quicker, cheaper, and more flexible project design and execution.

ALI-logo-graphic_edited_edited_edited.pn
bottom of page