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Imagine a world where scientists at medical schools, research labs, or the National Institutes of Health achieved breakthroughs in medicine, but none of those innovations ever made it to your doctor’s office. That’s not so different from the reality we tolerate today in education. In universities and research centers across the country, scientists and educators are developing new understandings of how children learn, and what it takes to make more of them succeed. But unlike in health and medicine, education has very limited funding or infrastructure for conducting basic science and translating research into resources for classrooms.
Recent months have thrust some of the education sector’s resource strains into the national spotlight. Across the country, budget constraints in several states have highlighted the difficulty of educating today’s students in crumbling schools, and with decades-old instructional materials. Meanwhile, many educators are struggling to support students through the increasing pressures of poverty, a changing economy, and a demand for higher-level skills. Yet despite these challenges, the education sector spends less than a tenth of the average percentage on research and development across other U.S. industries.
The cost of that disconnect between research and practice is huge for teachers, and even more so for kids. As recent trends in national test scores show, despite increased effort by educators, the current rate of improvement is too slow to meaningfully put more students on paths to success after high school. The truth is that we need to dramatically accelerate learning, and to do that, we need to understand it more deeply in order to design teaching environments and support systems that can deliver much better outcomes.
That’s why today, our two organizations, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are announcing a joint effort to break down the wall between research and practice and create a better, more transparent path for new ideas to reach schools and teachers. We’re opening a Request for Information (RFI) about work that can help increase student success in three of the most critically important areas for student achievement in both school and life:
- Nonfiction writing
- Executive function (the skill set concerning memory, self-control, attention, and flexible thinking)
Strength in these areas matters in every student’s trajectory, but especially for those facing early childhood trauma, poverty, dislocation, specific learning challenges, or under-resourced schools.
In those three areas, today’s educational practices are falling far short of helping students overcome the challenges they face and ultimately excel. The RFI represents an invitation to researchers and practitioners to deepen public understanding of where the most important, ambitious, and innovative work is being done in a variety of disciplines so that those insights can be channeled quickly and effectively back into the classroom. This input from the field will help us understand how to support future research and development programs.
The reason our two philanthropies have decided to join hands in this effort is simple: We believe the scope and importance of this work exceeds what any single organization can or should undertake alone. There’s so much unrealized potential to accelerate student learning, and we hope many others will be inspired to collaborate toward this same goal alongside us.
The purpose of the initiative is not to mandate anything. It’s to learn from the work that’s currently happening in classrooms, universities, entrepreneurial efforts, and research centers throughout the country. We hope to see a wide range of approaches and ideas; technology is not a primary focus, but we recognize the role it can play in affordable access to high-quality education for all. No personally identifiable student data will be collected in this RFI.
In the months ahead, we’ll share what we learn about the crucial work being done in the three named areas, along with ideas for how to accelerate progress, breakthroughs, and scale. We believe these findings can guide potential grant making as well as bolster the entire field through a better understanding of breakthroughs now taking place in and out of traditional education. We’re excited to find ways to increase collaboration and lift those breakthroughs out of isolation so that everyone can benefit.
Jim Shelton is president for education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Bob Hughes is director of K–12 Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To learn more about the Request for Information, please visit here or here.