July 25, 2011; Source: Education Week | Every NPQ Newswire reader probably remembers the ballyhoo about the Investing in Innovation (i3) program announced by the Department of Education as one of the earliest innovation-focused initiatives of the new Obama Administration.  Readers may not know as much about which nonprofits got the big grants out of DOE’s $650 million funding distributed through three categories of awards:

  • Four “Scale-up” grants for innovations with “strong” evidence:  KIPP’s Effective Leadership Development Model ($50 million); Ohio State’s Reading Recovery program ($45.6 million); Success for All Foundation ($49.3 million); Teach for America ($50 million);
  • Fifteen “Validation” grants for innovations with “moderate” evidence: for example, $28.3 million for scaling up the New Orleans Charter Restart Model; $20.8 million for the New Teacher Project; and $21.7 million for the Children Literacy Initiative’s Model Classroom Innovation
  • Thirty “Development” grants for projects with “reasonable” levels of evidence:  including, among others, $5 million for the American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation, $5 million for the New York City Board of Education’s School of One program, $4.9 million for the Boston Plan for Excellence’s Teacher Residency initiative, and $5 million for Miami-Dade County’s Florida Master Teacher Initiative

An assessment of the first year of the i3 program, meant to find and scale up innovation, concluded that the program actually found, for the most part, the “usual suspects.”  In other words, the Department sorted through the 1,700 applicants to pick applicants that had been around long enough and had enough funding to warrant a seat at the i3 table, but not necessarily to uncover new and exciting innovations.  In fact, the report concluded that “by far the most significant innovation” of i3 was i3’s requirement of an evidence framework, which the evaluators described as “a giant leap forward.”  In other words, the innovativeness of i3 was i3 itself and its longer term impact of “juicing up the innovation ecosystem.” 

One observer suggested that i3 didn’t generate innovation because it really wasn’t set up for that, it was set up for spending $650 million in tax dollars.  Another wag, an anonymous i3 applicant, suggested that pursuant to the program structure, “Neither the iPhone or iPad teams at Apple would have been able to meet this standard to get the funds to initiate these projects.”  The report said that some foundation funders were disappointed at the lack of innovativeness, especially among the development grantees where one might have expected to find truly innovative ideas because of the less rigorous evidentiary research requirements.  One funder was quoted as saying, “Out of the development grants, I would be amazed if these grantees really develop into game-changers.”

Hopefully, the innovation ecosystem is really “juiced”, because for this year’s i3 grant pool, a much smaller $150 million nationally, the Department of Education has already heard from 1,400 potential applicants.  –Rick Cohen