Get smart fast, vol. 14

Photo illustration generated by DALL-E 3.

Proposed education R&D efforts often have a fatal flaw: They take the existing system for granted. There has to be a better way.

Addressing the near-universal, post-COVID view that K–12 education must evolve, innovation investments to date mostly have been directed toward improvements within the current design of education. Yet the design of the conventional system is fundamentally misaligned with the needs and values of most learners, families, communities, and society. To find fulfillment and purpose, and to meaningfully contribute their gifts to society, our young people need to develop agency, need learning that’s relevant and contextualized for the real world, and need to experience that learning within supportive communities. A host of recent research confirms that parents seek learning that helps their children develop practical skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving to prepare them for life and careers. As such, we have an urgent opportunity to realign public education system designs with those values and to serve our society’s rapidly evolving needs.

Why it matters: There’s lots of talk in Washington about creating a new DARPA for education that can usher in a new era of federally backed education R&D. There isn’t enough talk about what made the original DARPA successful: An open-ended search for transformational technologies that didn’t make any assumptions about how they would be used. Few transformational innovations are likely to survive contact with the existing K-12 education system.

Key Findings

New evidence from LA suggests expanding choice and competition inside a school district can lead to better results.

An unintended potential side effect of generative AI: “Just as having access to a wealth of information using one’s smartphone can induce the illusion of being knowledgeable, a tool that can easily generate texts could result in convincing users of being good writers.”

Black, Hispanic and low-income students are often under-represented in dual enrollment programs that help high school students earn early college credit.

Numbers to Know

6.16: Current student-to-staff ratio in US public schools (the lowest since the Great Recession).

19.5: Current average ACT score, out of 36 (the lowest in three decades).

71%: Share of US households with children 5 in which all available parents work.

$9,193: Average cost of childcare for Americans in 2022.

The Last Word

“People keep hoping that our technologies are the Swiss Army knives or steamrollers that they can do everything. Instead, our best technologies are very particularly shaped ratchet heads and the landscape of education is millions of bolts.”

– MIT professor and author Justin Reich, reflecting on the failures Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to transform public education.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)