Ed Dept Outlines Priorities for Stimulus-Funded Innovation Grants

Blog Post
Oct. 6, 2009

On Tuesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton released proposed priorities and selection criteria for the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), a $650 million pot of funds intended to support the development and expansion of innovative models to improve student achievement and narrow achievement gaps.

For those of us interested in creating a high-quality continuum of education programs from the earliest years up through third grade, there is a lot to like in the proposed priority list. But first, some background and broader details from today’s announcement:

i3 was created this spring under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Because the program provides a unique opportunity for the Department to invest in the development and scaling up of innovative practices, and because the ARRA legislation left a lot of details to be filled in about how the program will work, many in the education community have been eagerly awaiting further information about how the Secretary intends to implement it.

In August, Department staff indicated that i3 grants will be made in multiple “tiers,” depending on how much evidence of effectiveness there is for a particular innovation. Today’s announcement confirms this and provides further information about these three categories. The department will accept applications for:

  • Scale-up grants, to support innovations with the strongest evidence of effectiveness in scaling up to have national, regional, or statewide impact. These will be the largest i3 grants. Although the Department’s official notice to the Federal Register does not specify the award amounts, a powerpoint presentation by Department staff indicated Scale-Up Grants could be for as much as $50 million each.
  • Validation grants, to support innovations with moderate evidence of effectiveness so that innovators can conduct further evaluation to validate effectiveness and to scale up at the state or regional level. These grants will be smaller than Scale-Up Grants, but larger than Development Grants. Awards could be for as much as $30 million each.
  • Development grants, to support the development and implementation of new, high-potential, relatively untested practices whose efficacy should be systematically studied. Although these innovations need not have been evaluated, the Department indicated that they should be based on research indicating that their approach is promising. These grants will be the smallest grants, up to perhaps $5 million each.


The Secretary intends to make one or more awards in each category, provided there are enough applicants of sufficient quality.

Duncan also outlined four absolute priorities and four competitive priorities for the award of i3 grants in each of the three tiers. Absolute priorities are requirements that grant applicants absolutely must meet in order to receive funding. Applicants do not have to meet competitive priorities, but those who do so receive additional points or other advantage in the selection process.

The four absolute priorities outlined by the Department are aligned with the four assurances required of states under the ARRA. The four absolute priorities include:

  • Innovations that support effective teachers and school leaders, such as models that recruit, develop, place, reward, and retain effective teachers and leaders, or remove those who are ineffective, in order to increase the number of effective teachers and school leaders
  • Innovations that improve the use of data, by encouraging and facilitating evaluation, analysis, and use of data by educators, families, and other stakeholders to improve student learning outcomes
  • Innovations that complement the implementation of high standards and high-quality assessments, such as innovations that enable high-need students to succeed in academically rigorous courses and programs; innovations that increase development and use of formative, interim, and performance-based assessments aligned with rigorous academic standards; and tools that translate standards and assessment information into effective classroom practices
  • Innovations that turn around persistently low-performing schools, including both 1) whole-school reforms that comprehensively intervene in or replace persistently low-performing schools and 2) interventions targeting specific reform needs in low-performing schools, such as extended learning time or approaches that address non-academic barriers to student success

The four competitive priorities include:

  • Innovations for improving early learning outcomes, including innovations that improve school readiness and those that improve alignment, collaboration, and transitions between 0-3 programs, preschools, kindergarten, and grades kindergarten through third grade
  • Innovations that support college access and success, including innovations that improve students’ college preparedness, expectations, and understanding of financial aid and college application process
  • Innovations to address the unique learning needs of students with disabilities and English-language learners
  • Innovations that serve schools in rural districts


    Early Ed Watch is particularly pleased to see innovations that address early learning included in the four competitive priorities for i3 grants. As we’ve written previously, the early childhood field has in many ways been more innovative that the K-12 education system, so it’s good to see the federal government seeking to invest in studying and scaling up those innovations. Many supporters of quality early childhood programs were troubled that the Secretary’s proposed criteria for Race to the Top included early learning only as an “invitational” priority (meaning that while the Department invites RTT applications that address early childhood, states that are implementing early childhood reforms or making early learning gains don’t get a leg up in the competition for RTT funds) -- and many of the comments the Department received reflect this concern. The fact that early learning is included as a competitive priority for i3 suggests the Department has gotten the message here.

    We’re equally pleased that the proposed criteria describe early learning as being from birth through 3rd grade, and that innovations that strengthen alignment along the PreK-3rd continuum are specifically mentioned. Numerous school districts and charter schools across the country—some of which we’ve profiled on this blog — are working to create aligned systems of PreK-3rd early education. Evaluating, scaling up, and helping to replicate those efforts could significantly improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. School districts and nonprofits that are implementing innovative approaches to improving early childhood programs or strengthening PreK-3rd alignment should take a closer look at the i3 grant program as potential source for funding to further develop and validate their efforts and bring them to scale.

    Under ARRA, local educational agencies (LEAs, which are typically school districts), and nonprofits operating in partnership with one or more LEAs, or a consortium of schools, are eligible for i3 grants. School districts applying for these funds need to have met “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for the past two years or have significantly increased achievement for all subgroups of students, and also need to have made significant improvements in other areas. Nonprofits must have a track record of helping school districts do the same, but, under the Secretary’s proposal, would be allowed to partner with districts or schools that fall short of this criteria to help them improve.

    Recipients of i3 funds must agree to participate in a rigorous independent evaluation of their effectiveness, and the Department is also proposing a requirement for grantees to participate in “Communities of Practice," which are essentially forums for the collective problem solving and sharing of lessons learned and best practices among i3 grantees.

    The Secretary is also proposing a requirement that all i3 grantees obtain matching funds, from private sector or philanthropic sources, equal to 20 percent of the federal grant award they receive.

    These proposed priorities, requirements, and selection criteria will be published in the Federal Register, and interested parties will have 30 days to offer comments on them. The Department is particularly seeking comments that might better inform the definitions and criteria it will use to gauge the evidence as to the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of applicants’ models and proposed projects. It is also seeking comments to help it ensure that innovations that comprehensively address the needs of students or that have cumulative effects over time are properly considered in the selection process -- something that will probably be important for early childhood innovations, and where it would probably be beneficial for early education researchers and advocacy groups to provide information and comment to the Department.