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Transparency Watch: Ed. Dept. Refuses to Disclose Top i3 Scale-Up Applicant

For the second year in a row, the U.S. Department of Education decided not to award any of the largest "scale-up" grants as part of its 2013 Investing in Innovation grant competition. But this time around, it's not saying who the passed-over almost-winner was. And at stake was a grand prize worth up to $20 million.

Scale-up is the largest award category for the i3 contest. This year, the department elected to make awards to the highest-rated applicants in the other two smaller categories: "validation" grants, worth up to $12 million, and "development" grants, worth up to $3 million. (In case you're wondering, the categories are divvied up by breadth of proposal and track record of past success. The largest awards go the biggest ideas that have the strongest evidence base. The smaller awards go to promising, more-experimental ideas.)

Clearly, not awarding a scale-up grant allows the department to spread the money around more. But make no mistake, the grant applicants compete in separate evidence categories. It wasn't like these scale-up applicants "lost;" it was that the department chose not to fund the top ones.

In 2012, the application passed over for a scale-up grant was Success for All, which has gotten at least two i3 grants since the program's inception. (So it's not surprising the department wouldn't want to fund Success for All once again.) Keep in mind that in 2010, when the first awards were made and organizations like KIPP and TFA won, the department caught flack for giving a lot of money to some "usual suspects" whose agendas aligned with the Obama administration's.

How do we know Success for All got the top score in 2012 but didn't get funded? The Education Department told us.  In 2012, the department published online the scores and applications for the top-scoring but unfunded scale-up applications—both of which happened to be from Success for All, whose applications netted scores of 85.17 and 79.50. The department stated it was doing so out of a "commitment to transparency" for applications that scored "approximately 80" points. 

For 2013, the department is refusing to do the same. 

The stated reason: The 2013 top scores were not "approximately 80"—apparently some threshold the department has established before a top-scoring application will be posted online. So what was the 2013 top scoring application? 77.83. Really?! The Education Department is not going to make an application that scored 77.83 public because it is not "approximately 80"?

So what's going on here? Politics K-12's purely speculative guess is that Success for All won yet again in 2013, and the Education Department doesn't want to advertise the fact that the same group keeps getting the top scale-up score and yet receives no award. (The other 2013 scale-up applicants were: Coastal Plains Regional Educational Service Agency, Johns Hopkins University, and Milwaukee Public Schools.)

Even Success for All doesn't know what its score was. (I checked.) And its co-founder, Robert E. Slavin, says it will keep submitting grant proposals anyway in hopes that the department changes its mind, and because middle school reading and elementary math (two of its focus areas) are important.

"My assumption is that [the department's i3 office] feels we have enough grants from them, and that this is why they do not fund our scale-up proposals, which should otherwise qualify (because we have for many years subjected our programs, including middle school reading and elementary math, to the kind of evaluations that i3 scale-up requires)," Slavin said in an email. "For some reason they are not allowed to say this, so they keep saying that they decided to fund no scale-up projects. ... But politically, I can understand their reluctance to put so much into one organization, and we are grateful for what we do have from i3."

So with that in mind, and given how time consuming federal grant applications are, why would anyone apply for a scale-up grant at this point? I asked the department that question, and here's what spokesman Stephen Spector had to say:

In the past two years, we have seen a large volume of high-scoring applications in the Validation and Development categories, but the Scale-up grant applications have not scored as highly. One of the goals of the program has always been to build a meaningful evidence base. We understood that, when we started the program, the evidence requirements for Scale-up would mean that the Department would be funding the scaling of longer-standing programs that had been rigorous about measuring impact. Our hope in creating this program is to increase that body of evidence—via Validation grants, for example, or through other non-i3-funded organizations that now see an expanding funding "market" for evidence-based programs. Given the timing, we anticipate a growing evidence base in the coming years that would well-position a range of high-quality Scale-up applicants for future i3 competitions, and we are eager to support those efforts as funding and appropriations allow.

Some i3 background: Since the Obama administration began the i3 program as a means to find and scale up the most innovative ideas in education, five scale-up grants have been awarded: Teach for America, Success for All, Ohio State University's reading recovery program, and KIPP (all in 2010, with awards of up to $50 million each); and Old Dominion University Research Foundation (in 2011, worth $25 million).


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