dollars just doesn't buy you much quality these days. Take our nation's
education system for example: the Dept. of Education estimates that between
federal, state and local governments we spend nearly $1.13 trillion annually on
56 million kids spread across 14,000 school districts, 99,000 public schools
and 34,000 private schools.
It is hard to believe that as
massive and disorganized as this system is we could have ever imagined creating
a high-performing educational system. So to cut through this complex
bureaucracy, the Obama administration is actually proposing to co-opt reform
ideas from none other than the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
DARPA, founded by President Eisenhower in 1958, has no labs, no working
scientists or engineers, just independent-minded program officers that
disseminate funds to a variety of high-risk, high-reward research projects.
This is a shift in the right
direction: away from money
to smarts. We have literally beaten the money option to death - today we are spending nearly twice as much per
student per year (in constant dollars) than we did three decades ago, and with
little progress to show for it. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the point
clearly enough: "Other high-performing nations have passed us by during the
last two decades."
The Obama administration has
already played the DARPA card before, creating ARPA-E in 2009 to identify and fund game-changing
ideas in the energy sector. In just two
short years, some of the nation's $151 million investment is beginning to pay
off with radical new battery technology, ultra-low-cost manufacturing of solar
panels, and even the effective use of compressed air for energy storage. These
are not the kinds of ideas you get from big government.
So now with the U.S. consistently
way below the international average on math proficiency and hovering at the
average in science, the Obama administration has proposed creating ARPA-ED, a
new agency within the Dept. of Education that will fund the development of
education technologies and promote their use in the classroom.
Will an agency modeled on one
intended to improve our national security actually work in the politically charged world of
education? Rigorous science has sadly never held the same power and influence within educational circles that it has
enjoyed in the traditional DARPA community.
With the prospect of creating
ARPA-ED, we are likely to experience a major clash of cultures. We have been
all too polite when it comes to addressing the rapid decline of the American
education system. There is too much at stake right now to shy away from the
kind of radical re-thinking needed to effectively educate our children.
Of course many will decry the
notion that substantive change in schools is tantamount to a social experiment
on our children - something parents have historically feared. But let's be
honest, our current system is its own experiment gone awry, one that has failed
us as a nation.
Will ARPA-ED invent entirely
new ways of learning, new ways of packaging vast amounts of information and,
ultimately, new ways of thinking? If it gets funded by congress, time will
tell. But just remember that few in the elite chess world thought a computer
could beat one of the greats of all time, and in 1997 we put that myth to bed.
And Watson just showed the world that silicon and software could out-think the
best "Jeopardy" had to offer. I can't imagine third grade will be any tougher.
C. Orsak is Dean of the SMU Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at email@example.com.