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WHY THE FEDERAL INVESTMENT IN EDUCATION R&D MUST INCREASE 

Updated July 1, 2024

Introduction & Summary 

 

Budgets reflect values, and when it comes to education research and development (R&D), the values of Congress are clear in its funding decisions. The nation’s leaders place almost no value on developing new research or innovative tools that will help students and teachers.  

 

In the first analysis of its kind, the team at the Alliance for Learning Innovation estimates that the federal government’s investment in education R&D is around $28 per student (1). This amounts to only 21.8 percent of federal per student funding. 

“The federal government’s investment in education R&D is around $28 per student. This amounts to only 1.8 percent of federal per student funding.”

 

This happens at a time when American students’ NAEP and PISA scores are declining, after stagnating for years. The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the nation’s achievement gaps as well as left ugly scars on the well-being of teachers and students. The rate at which students are chronically absent has nearly doubled since before the pandemic. Perhaps worst of all, students are not being prepared for the dynamic, tech-forward jobs of the future. According to a 2023 poll, 61 percent of Americans and 37 percent of teachers say schools are not equipping students to succeed in the jobs of the future.

 

Education innovation can respond to all of these challenges with new, evidence-based approaches to instruction, student and family engagement, and workforce preparation. What’s more, with recent advancements in artificial intelligence like ChatGPT, the possibilities for new approaches to teaching and learning are wider than ever. In short, it’s time to reevaluate the federal investment in R&D to fuel education innovation.

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Funding Analysis 


In Fiscal Year 2022, Congress directed $2.55 billion to education R&D, which translates to $28 per public school student, according to an analysis done by the research team at the Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI) and reviewed by experts in school finance. (The analysis looked at Fiscal/Academic Year 2022 to reflect the most recently available public school enrollment data. More on methodology in the Appendix.)

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Given that an average of $1,569 is spent by the federal government per public school student each year (in addition to the $13,022 per pupil provided by state and local sources), $28 per student is surprisingly low. Federal education R&D dollars make up a mere 1.8 percent of total federal per pupil funding.

 

As a point of comparison, districts typically spend more on textbooks, $56 per student, than the federal government invests in developing new tools and approaches that will help students learn.

 

Federal spending on education R&D is particularly scant when compared to other sectors (2). Let’s take agriculture, for example. In Fiscal Year 2022, the federal government spent $3.75 billion on R&D in this sector, which amounts to $1,102 per American farmer and $11 per U.S. resident, a beneficiary of this investment (3). Contrast these amounts with the $28 per public school student investment, and consider that the federal education R&D investment equates to $4 per U.S. resident, arguably better off when American students are well-educated and prepared to become productive and responsible adults, equipped for the jobs of the future. It raises the question: Don’t U.S. classrooms deserve as much innovation funding as U.S. crops? 


The results are even more striking when compared to defense (4). Congress provided $78.64 billion to defense R&D in Fiscal Year 2022. That’s $37,852 per American service member, who is most directly impacted by defense innovations – and $236 per U.S. resident, who is conceivably kept safer through investments in defense R&D. Spending on defense R&D is necessary to protect our country, but will the next generation of service members be able to deploy these innovations effectively without an investment in education innovations that build their knowledge and skills?

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Congress also should support specific programs that develop education R&D. For instance, Congress should establish and fund a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE). A new DARPA-like center for informed-risk, high-reward R&D would be a smart and significant investment to develop new tools and approaches in education. Congress could make NCADE possible by passing the bipartisan New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act, or including an NCADE authorization in an updated version of the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), which is long overdue for an update. 

 

Meanwhile, support within the Biden-Harris Administration for IES’ NCADE-like pilot, which funded the new version of Transformative Research in the Education Sciences grants, remains strong; the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2025 calls for $52.7M to expand it. It’s up to Congress to fulfill this request.

 

Of course, greater federal investment in education R&D should be matched by researchers and developers with a better track record of generating scalable solutions. There are many bright spots across the country, including some that ALI has profiled, that are demonstrating a high return on the federal investment. With more funds to identify, test, and scale evidence-based solutions, the field must play its part in deploying the dollars wisely. 

 

Finally, since a precise accounting of what the federal government spends on education R&D does not exist, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget should conduct a crosscut analysis and publish data about education R&D investments across federal agencies. 

What’s Possible with Increased Funding for Education R&D

 

Investments in education R&D are a smart, high-leverage use of the nation’s limited resources. With every evidence-based innovation produced as a result of education R&D, there are ripple effects felt in classrooms across the U.S. 

Investments in education R&D are a smart, high-leverage use of the nation’s limited resources. With every evidence-based innovation produced as a result of education R&D, there are ripple effects felt in classrooms across the U.S. 

 

Take the Institute of Education Sciences’ (IES) recently announced Transformative Research in the Education Sciences grant awardees, for example. With Fiscal Year 2023 dollars directed to “support a new funding opportunity for quick turnaround, high-reward scalable solutions intended to significantly improve outcomes for students,” IES put a DARPA-like spin on a previous version of this program, emphasizing that truly transformative proposals would be “characterized by bold, innovative thinking, interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration, and have the potential to lead to high reward solutions.” 

 

IES funded three cutting-edge projects. Each one is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence – particularly large language models (LLMs) – to personalize learning. One is using LLMs to create a mobile platform for college students that offers interactive, customizable learning prompts and provides immediate feedback on what they’re learning. Another is creating a chatbot to help low-income middle school students get up to speed in math during after-school hours. The other uses generative AI to help college instructors customize assessments and provide personalized feedback to students. Each of these experiments has the potential to make a significant impact on student learning – not just for those directly involved in the project, but if scaled, for students across the U.S.

 

Yet, only three grant proposals were funded. Imagine what could be possible if IES had a whole new center and adequate funding, not just a one-off program, dedicated to the type of informed-risk, high-reward R&D supported by DARPA, ARPA-H, and other Advanced Research Project Agencies. 

 

Recommendations

 

Given the analysis above, the Alliance for Learning Innovation recommends that Congress dramatically increase its funding for education R&D. Federal support for the education R&D ecosystem should be growing significantly, rather than shifting marginally, to meet today’s challenges in teaching, learning, and workforce preparation.

Federal support for the education R&D ecosystem should be growing significantly, rather than shifting marginally, to meet today’s challenges in teaching, learning, and workforce preparation.

 

The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2025 calls for modest increases to education R&D. At the very least, Congress should fulfill these requests. 

 

The Biden-Harris Administration is requesting $815.455 million for IES, the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) research arm ($22.39 million over Fiscal Year 2024 enacted); $269 million for the Education Department’s Education and Innovation Research (EIR) program ($10 million more than Fiscal Year 2024 enacted); and $1.3 billion for NSF’s STEM Education (EDU) Directorate ($128 million more than Fiscal Year 2024 enacted). 

Conclusion

 

When it comes to education R&D, does an annual federal investment of $28 per student suffice? Hardly. R&D is the oxygen needed to produce evidence-based innovations.

 

At a time when education challenges seem insurmountable, the federal government risks suffocating innovative solutions by not adequately funding education R&D. A dearth of innovation in education means more of the status quo: continued decreases in test scores, high rates of chronic absenteeism, and an underprepared workforce.

A dearth of innovation in education means more of the status quo: continued decreases in test scores, high rates of chronic absenteeism, and an underprepared workforce.

 

If Congress values the quality of education our students receive and the readiness of our workforce to meet modern-day challenges head-on, it must fund and breathe life into education innovation.​

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Appendix: Methodology

 

The amount the federal government spends on education R&D per K-12 public school student in the U.S. ($28) was calculated by dividing an estimate of federal education R&D dollars ($1.37 billion) by the total number of public school students in 2021-2022 (49.40 million), the most recent year in which U.S. public school student enrollment data is available. (5)

 

The education R&D total represents the sum of ED’s reported Fiscal Year 2021-22 spending on education R&D ($363.66 million) and the Fiscal Year 2022 amount Congress provided the NSF’s EDU Directorate ($1.01 billion). A precise accounting of federal spending on education R&D across agencies does not exist.

 

To calculate the amount the federal government spends per pupil ($1,569), the total amounts of Fiscal Year 2022 discretionary spending by the Education Department, including IES ($76.42 billion) and NSF’s EDU Directorate ($1.01 billion) were added together, and then divided by the total number of public school students in 2021-2022 (49.40 million). 

 

Why did this analysis only look at federal education R&D funding, even though most education funding comes from state and local levels? First, there is a lack of publicly available data on education R&D funding coming from state and local sources. Second, available evidence, including anecdotal accounts from state and district education leaders, indicates that state and local R&D funding pales in comparison to federal R&D funding. An analysis of publicly available 2023-2024 budget data from the five largest school districts reveals that only one, Chicago Public Schools, has a dedicated line item for research (6) and none have dedicated funding for development. When state and local education agencies do invest in R&D, it is largely for the purposes of evaluation, accountability, and compliance rather than to unlock and apply new teaching and learning insights and innovations.

 

The Alliance for Learning Innovation team consulted with Marguerite Roza, research professor and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, and Jessica Swanson, an independent consultant and former Senior Fellow at the Edunomics Lab, on this analysis. However, the analysis here is the sole responsibility of the author and the Alliance for Learning Innovation.

 

About the Author

Sara Schapiro leads the Alliance for Learning Innovation.

When this analysis was first released on June 17, 2024, it stated that the federal investment in education R&D is $40 per student, or 2.6 percent of federal per student funding. Later, ALI received additional data that allowed it to calculate a more accurate estimate of the per-pupil federal investment in education R&D. This updated version of the analysis reflects the new data.

Endnotes

  1. The original analysis, released on June 17, 2024, stated that the federal investment in education R&D is $40 per student, or 2.6 percent of federal per student funding. Later, ALI received additional data that allowed it to calculate a more accurate estimate of the per-pupil federal investment in education R&D, and it has updated the analysis accordingly.

  2. The cross-sector comparisons are not precisely apples to apples. The authors sought to make the comparisons as fair as possible by using individuals as the unit of analysis. However, it can be argued that an investment in a student is not precisely equivalent to an investment in a farmer or service member.

  3. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, every $1 of public investment in agriculture R&D produces $20 in benefits to the U.S. economy.

  4. It should be noted that defense funding comes solely from the federal government whereas education funding comes from a mix of federal, state, and local funding streams. However, given that education R&D is primarily funded by the federal government, the federal defense-education R&D comparison is worth considering.​

  5. Since ED funds R&D from birth to adult education and only a portion of NSF EDU dollars go directly to education R&D, the amount of R&D funding that impacts K-12 students is actually lower. Without publicly reported figures for ED’s and NSF’s K-12 education R&D investments, this analysis relies on available data and is likely an overestimate.

  6. Chicago Public Schools’ 2023 budget included $1.12 million for School Quality Measure and Research.

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