Matt Biddulph

Today, most of the education world is focusing on how No Child Left Behind might change with the reauthorization of ESEA — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But as the Senate Education committee prepares to mark up ESEA, another under-the-radar amendment is also being considered — one that has historical ties to the Department of Defense.

It’s called ARPA-Ed, and it stands for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education, a program President Obama proposed at the beginning of the year. If the name sounds a lot like DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that’s intentional. DARPA was established in the 1950s as a response to the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik spacecraft and was meant to protect the United States’ technological supremacy. Although it’s a Defense Department agency, DARPA research isn’t tied to specific military missions. But it has been responsible for a number of technological innovations with sweeping implications, including, ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet.

The creation of ARPA-Ed aims to tap into this history and to signal that the country urgently needs to invest in technological research to maintain its educational edge, or be at risk of falling behind.

The legacy of Sputnik and DARPA have been invoked by President Obama many times this year as he’s talked about the importance of technology and education. He talked about Sputnik specifically in his State of the Union address at the beginning of the year:

“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.”

As part of Obama’s 2012 budget, $90 million was earmarked for the creation of ARPA-Ed. But until the proposal of the EASA amendment by Colorado Senator Michael Bennet today, there hasn’t been any movement toward making this agency a reality.

The Department of Education says that ARPA-Ed would fund both private and public research by industry, universities, and other organizations that feed such projects as personalized digital tutors, adaptive learning platforms, and game-based learning (PDF). The administration contends that an agency like ARPA-Ed would help correct the under-investment in education technology and would in turn spur innovation in the sector, which it contends has lagged far behind others in terms of its productivity and its performance.

ARPA-Ed isn’t the only push that the Obama Administration has made into supporting education technology. It recently announced the Digital Promise, a new non-profit designed “to spur breakthrough technologies that can help transform the way teachers teach and students learn.”

What makes ARPA-Ed different then? Is this just another redundant federal agency? That’s what many opponents to the proposal are arguing, saying that it’s a duplication of funding and of effort, and Bennet’s proposed amendment is likely to face some fierce opposition as funding and philosophical battles heat up over the reauthorization of EASA.

But proponents of ARPA-Ed claim that it is different from other current efforts, in part, because its focus isn’t on teaching and learning with technology. ARPA-Ed is focused on how technology impacts learning, not teaching. (In other words, this isn’t about teaching teachers or supporting teachers to use technology more effectively in their classrooms.)

One thing is certain about ARPA-Ed: It’s part of the Obama Administration’s continuing invocation of Sputnik-era rhetoric to make the case for better educational programs. “Space Race” — “Race to the Top.” “DARPA” — “ARPA-Ed.” Are these metaphors from the 1950s and 1960s the right ones? Can the successes of the military’s R&D program be duplicated in ed-tech? And is that a model we even want to emulate?

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