Obama Proposes Education Technology Agency Modeled After DARPA

The Obama Administration has proposed a new agency within the Department of Education that will fund the development of new education technologies and promote their use in the classroom.

In an updated version of its 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, the White House announced today that the president's 2012 budget request will call for the creation of Advanced Research Projects Agency-Education (ARPA-ED). The name is a deliberate takeoff on the Sputnik-era DARPA within the Department of Defense that funded what became the Internet and the much newer Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) that hopes to lead the country into a clean-energy future.

ARPA-ED will seek to correct what an Administration official calls the country's massive "underinvestment" in educational technologies that could improve student learning. "We know that information and communications technologies are having a transformative impact on other sectors. But that's not the case in K-12 education." The official cited studies showing that less than 0.1% of the $600 billion spent each year on elementary and secondary school education goes for research on how students learn. "There are a number of good ideas and promising early results about the use of education technology that have led the Administration to be interested in doing more in this area," the official noted. (See a special issue of Science from 2 January 2009 on education and technology.)

The goal of ARPA-ED, according to the official, will be to "advance the state of the art and increase demand" for successful technologies that teachers and students can use, such as a digital tutor that can bring students and experts together to enhance learning. Federal agencies now fund only a relative handful of projects in this area, the official added, and most local districts don't have the money to purchase those found to be effective.

Details of the proposal, including its projected cost, wouldn't be released until the entire 2012 budget request is submitted to Congress on 14 February. Even so, the general idea is certain to inflame congressional Republicans trying to pare down the size of the federal government, especially its education programs. They will likely argue that government intervention is unnecessary in a market where a robust commercial sector already exists. They also believe that local and state education officials, not Washington, should decide what technologies belong in the classroom.