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How can US schools reinvent themselves? Look at TechBoston, Obama says.

President Obama calls for high-tech education solutions while visiting TechBoston, a Boston secondary school lauded for its high graduation rate.

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“We need to recognize that the true path to reform has to involve partnerships between teachers and school administrators and communities,” Obama said. “And we’ll need a national education policy that tries to figure out how do we replicate success stories like TechBoston all across the country.”

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Obama also mentioned the $90 million contest he proposed in his 2012 budget. He hopes it will spur research and development in educational technology, he said, adding that it should “help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, and educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game.”

Named the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED) the fund would be modeled after DARPA (the Defense Andvanced Research Projects Agency), the military program – launched in response to Sputnik – that developed many important technologies.

This emphasis on technology is relatively new in education. Typically, only about 0.2 percent of K-12 funding goes to research and development (R&D), according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan – far less than in virtually any other industry.

“We believe the potential in the education space is pretty amazing,” he said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “The IT revolution that has transformed so many sectors simply hasn’t done the same in education.”

Secretary Duncan cited some digital tutors that have been able to help students advance two grade levels within a year and courses that improve the more students use them as examples.

Some advocates of educational technology applaud the new initiative – to a point. Michael Horn, the executive director of education at the Innosight Institute, says he’s “guardedly optimistic.”

“This could go a long way toward answering some questions and developing critical technologies that deliver results,” he says. Still, Mr. Horn worries that if the fund isn’t accompanied by incentives for states and districts to adopt whatever comes out of this effort, then “it’s a bit like pushing a rope – we will have learned things, but it won’t change the practices.”

Horn also wishes that ARPA-ED didn’t define its objectives so narrowly as technology, but could also look more broadly into funding other kinds of research, like how the brain works, and then letting companies figure out how to best use that information to help students learn.

“This is a bit too much on the D, not enough on the R [of R&D],” Horn says.

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