Innovation Education: Study Questions Whether ‘i3’ Found Innovation
For the first time, the Investing in Innovation grants went to programs that showed evidence of past success, but the rigorous standards also produced a list of winners full of the “usual suspects,” a study finds.
The U.S. Department of Education’s $650 million experiment to find and scale up innovative education ideas was a mixed success—for the first time, money was awarded to programs that showed evidence of past success, but those rigorous standards also produced a list of winners full of the “usual suspects,” a new report finds.
The report released today by Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting firm, hammered away at a crucial question: Was the Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation program successful in finding truly innovative ideas that will improve K-12 education?
“Is it immediately obvious that they found breakthrough innovation? No, but that wasn’t necessarily their purpose,” said Kim Smith, a co-founder and CEO of Bellwether, which is working with support from the Rockefeller Foundation on research about innovation. The report is the culmination of interviews with dozens of i3 applicants, winners, and philanthropists, plus a review of public documents about the program.
“I think the department accomplished some really important things. It motivated a lot of action in the field. [The Department] is really juicing up the innovation ecosystem, and it’s going to take a little while to start to make progress.”
As the Aug. 2 deadline nears for a second, smaller round of Investing in Innovation, or i3, grants, the report acknowledges that in many ways, the competition itself was innovative, especially for a federal education department that is more accustomed to handing out grants via formula than through a competitive process.
Last year, nearly 1,700 applicants vied for $650 million in prize money, which was funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress. Forty-nine winners were chosen, with awards split into three tiers ranging from nearly $5 million to $50 million. The biggest awards went to the proposals with the strongest research base.
Although this year’s i3 round will award only $150 million, interest does not appear to have waned. Nearly 1,400 would-be applicants told the Education Department they plan to apply.
In today’s i3 report, the researchers give the department credit for encouraging partnerships between the philanthropic sector and K-12 public education by requiring winners to secure matching dollars and establishing an online registry where foundations and education entrepreneurs could find each other.
And, researchers said, the department took a bold and significant step in requiring varying levels of evidence for each type of innovation grant, acknowledging that some ideas and innovations might be worthy of government investment but have far less research to back them up. This evidence framework was “a giant leap forward” and “by far the most significant innovation that i3 brought to the table,” the researchers said.
But this rigorous evidence framework came at a cost, since it favored ideas that had been around long enough, and had enough financial backing, to make evaluations possible. The result, the researchers said, was a “pool of applicants and grantees made up of existing organizations that had already addressed K-12 schooling in some way.”
The winners included such well-known entities as Teach For America, the Knowledge is Power Program, and the Reading Recovery program through Ohio State University.
The report quotes one unnamed i3 applicant who said: “Neither the iPhone or iPad teams at Apple would have been able to meet this standard to get the funds to initiate these projects.”
Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, agrees, but he doesn’t necessarily fault the department.
“It did not find innovative programs because it was not set up to find them,” Mr. Hess said. “They chose to write rules which required established evidence of effectiveness. That’s perfectly reasonable. You’re giving away $650 million in tax dollars.”
- “Nearly 1,400 Plan to Apply for Latest Round of ‘i3’,” (Politics K-12 Blog) July 20, 2011.
- “Rules Set for Fresh Round of ‘i3’ Grants,” June 3, 2011.
- “49 Applicants Win i3 Grants,” August 4, 2010.
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