Cracks in school innovation fund might present problems

Federal officials say schools may find difficulty providing evidence of successful programs when applying to the Investing in Innovation Fund.
Some say schools might have trouble providing evidence of successful programs when applying for i3 funding.

Just days before the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released applications for the $650 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund on March 8, education technology researchers and developers expressed some concerns about the i3 program’s procedures and requirements.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) set aside $650 million in the i3 fund for three levels of competitive grants that expand the implementation of, and investment in, innovative and evidence-based practices, programs, and strategies in schools.

ED officials say these solutions should significantly improve K-12 achievement and close achievement gaps, lower dropout rates, increase high school graduation rates, and improve teacher and school leader effectiveness.

James Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for ED’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, acknowledged that the innovation pipeline is fractured and there are obstacles making it difficult to get from the research and development phase to taking a product or idea to scale.

Specifically, Shelton said he is worried that applicants might have problems providing evidence that is necessary for the grants at the larger award levels.

“When it comes to technology, the [program] framework isn’t robust enough to keep up with the changing technology market,” he said March 4 during the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) Ed Tech Government Forum.

Individual school districts or groups of school districts can apply for i3 grants. The grants will be awarded in three categories:

  • Scale Up Grants will be awarded to programs and practices with the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of students, while providing a strong base of evidence that the program has a significant effect on improving student achievement.
  • Validation Grants will be awarded to existing, promising programs that have solid evidence of their impact and are ready to improve their evidence base while expanding in their own and other communities.
  • Development Grants will be given to support new and high-potential practices whose impact should be studied further.

Unlike other federal grant programs where evidence is a selection criterion, in the i3 program evidence is a formal eligibility requirement. The i3 regulations also include specific definitions for what constitutes strong evidence, moderate evidence, and a reasonable hypothesis, and the program will award three types of grants based on these three levels of evidence.

Development Grants will require a reasonable hypothesis and will be aimed at helping develop fresh ideas, Validation Grants will require moderate evidence and will be aimed at validating and spreading promising programs to a regional scale, and Scale Up Grants will require strong evidence and will be aimed at bringing proven programs to a national scale. ED expects to make Development Grants of up to $5 million each, Validation Grants of up to $30 million each, Scale Up Grants of up to $50 million each.

Jim Kohlmoos, president of the Knowledge Alliance, said that he thought the i3 Fund was revolutionary.

“It’s not another little program that’s being set off to the side. It’s trying to build a bridge between knowledge, research, enterprise, development, and improvement—and that’s never been done in federal education,” he said. “There’s an acknowledgment that there are different levels of evidence.”

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