An effective research agenda moves beyond merely identifying correlations of what works on average to articulate and test theories about how and why certain educational interventions work in different circumstances for different students. To do this, the government will need to:

Focus on the individual, not the average

  • Encourage research that pushes our understanding beyond the average student and instead works to discover predictably effective paths for each student.
  • Take advantage of technology-enabled structural shifts to study what works for specific students in specific circumstances.
  • Fund efforts that make data collection more seamless and less arduous on districts in order to allow schools and researchers to collect better, more real-time data on what is actually happening in schools.
  • Support research that progresses past initial randomized controlled trials, or RCTs, and promotes alternative methods for unearthing what drives student outcomes in different circumstances.

Push toward causal understanding

  • Focus on the development of theories that explain why certain approaches do or do not work in certain circumstances. For example, do certain interventions work best for certain student populations at a certain point in their learning trajectory? Do particular software tools work better for practicing hard skills, whereas others excel at training students to persist through challenges?
  • Encourage research that digs in on anomalies—instances where the prevailing research cannot explain a certain result—to surface new explanations and refine our understanding of what drives individual learning.
  • Serve as a hub for collecting and studying these anomalies.

Continue to fund research, not development

  • Focus on the research in research and development (R&D) in order to shed light on what works for what students in what circumstances—and allow the education industry to develop tools in accordance with those findings.
  • Beware of conflating needs for actual market demand. Policymakers and funders often perceive needs in the system that do not translate into areas where schools will spend money. As a result, the government could fund the development of tools that might not see the light of day in actual classrooms.

Coordinate the research cycle toward completion

  • Maximize the use of scarce research funds by creating criteria for the types of questions facing education that will further the efforts to personalize learning. To do this, fund core questions that support educators on the ground by shedding light on what works, for which students, in what circumstances.
  • Deploy research spending to usher in a new, more complete cycle of research; although RCTs are important, they are neither the king nor the final step of the research process.
Life of the research cycle


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.

  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher