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  • Writer's pictureSara Schapiro

What IES’ New Transformative Grant Awards Reveal About The NCADE Pilot




The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recently launched the Accelerate, Transform, and Scale (ATS) Initiative, thanks to Fiscal Year 2023 funding and a directive from Congress to “to support a new funding opportunity for quick turnaround, high-reward scalable solutions intended to significantly improve outcomes for students.” The Alliance for Learning Innovation recognizes the immense potential this funding opportunity has to catalyze groundbreaking innovations in the field of education. 


ATS is widely regarded as the pilot of a possible National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE). Inspired by advanced research projects agencies, this new IES initiative is aimed at “investing in bold, innovative ideas that come from interdisciplinary, diverse teams that have the potential to make dramatic advances towards solving seemingly intractable problems and challenges in the education field.” 


Earlier this year, when IES announced awardees of the 2024 Transformative Research in the Education Sciences Grants Program, ATS gave its first indication of the types of informed-risk, high-reward projects it will fund. After reviewing the Transformative project descriptions and interviewing awardees, ALI surfaced a few themes that indicate how IES is approaching the NCADE pilot.


ALI’s analysis reveals that IES is deploying NCADE pilot funds to:


Explore the use of generative AI and its potential to solve complex issues in the education field. Each awardee proposed a project that leverages large language models (LLMs) in different ways. This is no surprise, as LLMs were specifically called out in the Request for Applications (RFA). In their projects, awardees are both utilizing and exploring the efficacy and wider impact of LLMs. One project, Talking Math, is investigating if LLMs can create high-quality math problems that enhance middle schoolers’ learning and engagement. Through the Active Learning at Scale project, the team is evaluating if LLMs can be used to increase understanding of predictors of educational success. The Scenario-Based Assessment project team is creating a generative AI-enhanced authoring tool for customizable assessments and ultimately working to democratize access to tools like it. 


Build connections between research, industry, and education partners. The RFA required applications to include cross-sector collaboration between researchers, product developers, and educators. Awardees saw this as a unique opportunity to partner with universities, school districts, nonprofits, and learning platforms to build out their programs and test them with students. This requirement forced awardees to forge new partnerships across the sector. One awardee mentioned the need to engage with school districts early in the R&D process, as working with schools is a common challenge when translating research into real-world tools to benefit students. 


Support quick-turnaround, iterative R&D. The Transformative RFA was designed to allow for rapid testing. One awardee shared that because randomized controlled trials were not required they will instead conduct unit pre- and post-tests to evaluate their program’s impact. This affords additional opportunities for iteration and experimentation. Another team will use A/B testing to learn, iterate, and improve its innovation. 


Results from these projects could provide evidence that federal investments in quick turnaround education R&D are worthwhile. By taking advantage of opportunities afforded by generative AI, facilitating partnerships among key stakeholders, and speeding up the R&D process, ATS can make a difference for students and communities. 


ALI looks forward to the forthcoming RFA for the From Seedlings to Scale (S2S) component of ATS, which will focus on developing tools and scaling. IES’ vision for S2S is a three-phase program that supports transformative ideas, from the seedling to the scaling stages. S2S could offer additional proof that federal investments in education R&D will yield positive outcomes for students. 

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