On Tuesday, The Department of Education (ED) released proposed priorities and selection criteria for the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), a new $650 million pot of funds created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to support the development and expansion of innovative models to improve student achievement and narrow achievement gaps.
Today's announcement confirms that i3 grants would be made in multiple "tiers" based on the presence of evidence of effectiveness for a particular innovation:
- Scale-up grants will support innovations with the strongest evidence of effectiveness in scaling up to national, regional, or statewide implementation. These will be the largest i3 grants at as much as $50 million.
- Validation grants will support innovations with moderate evidence of effectiveness to conduct further evaluation. Awards could be as much as $30 million.
- Development grants will support the development and implementation of new, high-potential, relatively untested practices. These innovations should be supported by research indicating that their approach is promising. These grants will be the smallest grants, up to perhaps $5 million.
The Department 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:
- 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.
- 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 strategies that enable high-need students to succeed in academically rigorous courses and programs, increase development and use of formative, interim, and performance-based assessments aligned with rigorous academic standards, and translate standards and assessment information into effective classroom practices.
- Innovations that turn around persistently low-performing schools, including both whole-school reforms that comprehensively intervene in or replace persistently low-performing schools and interventions targeting specific reform needs in low-performing schools.
The four competitive priorities include:
- Innovations for improving early learning outcomes, including innovations that improve school readiness, and alignment, collaboration, and transitions between 0-3 programs, preschools, kindergarten, and grades kindergarten through third.
- Innovations that support college access and success, including innovations that increase college readiness, expectations, and understanding of financial aid and college application process.
- Innovations that address the unique learning needs of students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
- Innovations that serve schools in rural LEAs.
The notice released Tuesday also proposes eligibility requirements for i3 grantees. Under ARRA, local educational agencies (LEAs) and nonprofits operating in partnership with one or more LEAs or consortia of schools are eligible to apply for i3 grants. The Secretary proposes requiring all applicants to use the funds to serve high-need students.
The Secretary also proposes requiring that all i3 grantees obtain matching funds-equivalent to 20 percent of the federal grant award-from private sector or philanthropic sources. The Secretary could reduce the amount of the required match on a case-by-case basis.
The ARRA language requires i3 applicants to have demonstrated academic success through either adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act or significant increases in achievement for all subgroups of students. It's pretty clear how this applies to LEA applicants, but not what it means for nonprofits. Today's announcement clarifies that nonprofit applicants can satisfy these requirements by demonstrating that they have previously helped school districts achieve these goals. Additionally, the proposed requirements allow effective nonprofits to partner with low-performing schools and districts to help them improve student learning and other outcomes. The Secretary is also proposing a requirement that nonprofits provide the names of LEAs and/or schools with which they propose to partner.
Recipients of i3 funds must agree to participate in a rigorous independent evaluation of their effectiveness. ED is also proposing a requirement for grantees to participate in "Communities of Practice"-essentially forums for the collective problem solving and sharing of lessons learned and best practices among i3 grantees. Venture philanthropists who invest in social entrepreneurship-including in education-have found positive outcomes from building networks of grantees and providing opportunities for them to learn from each other. It's good to see ED seeking to emulate that role with i3-essentially the federal government's venture philanthropy effort in education.
Interested parties will have 30 days to offer comments on these proposed priorities, requirements, and selection criteria. ED is particularly seeking comments that better define the criteria it will use to judge the evidence of effectiveness of applicants' models and proposed projects. The i3 program must find balance between the desire to focus on programs with evidence of effectiveness, and the desire to support development and implementation of innovative models, which often have not been fully tested. Hopefully, ED will use the comment period to develop a thoughtful approach to get that balance right.