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Success for All Again Scores Big, And Loses, in i3 Contest

For two years in a row, Baltimore-based school turnaround organization Success for All has earned the top score in the scale-up category of the federal Investing in Innovation contest, only to be passed over, U.S. Department of Education records confirm.

There was no question that in 2012 Success for All got the top score, and didn't get an award, because the Education Department put that information online. But in the 2013 contest, the Education Department refused to disclose who got the top scale-up score.

Only after I filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request did the Education Department confirm that Success for All got the top score of 77.83 this time around. (Kudos to the FOIA folks at the Education Department for getting me the information in what had to be a near-record-setting three weeks. The federal government is often notoriously slow in responding to FOIAs.)

It's worth reiterating that Education Department officials were not obligated to make awards in each of the three i3 categories, but they certainly did advertise for applications for each of them. 

So why should it matter that Success for All got the top score in the scale-up category, then got passed over two years in a row?

Well, for a couple of reasons, mainly having to do with the signals it sends to other future applicants.

• First, there's the fact that Education Department officials apparently don't want to give money to an organization that received the top score  two years in a row, fair and square, in the very important category that's supposed to find and scale-up education-improvement ideas with the strongest record of past success. There might be a good reason for this, namely that Success for All has already won a couple of i3 grants, including one large scale-up grant. It may also be that its score, though the highest, wasn't good enough to get funded. (The winning grants in the separate validation and development categories all had scores above 80.) Because there's discretion involved in this contest, it seems important to know not just who won grant money, but who didn't win. Except the department hasn't been overly transparent about this since a FOIA was needed to get officials to reveal the scale-up scores.

• Second, it appears Success For All is not only very good at grant-writing, but also has a strong evidence base that is impressive to outside judges. That will probably make it tough for any other organization to post the top score in the scale-up category if Success for All keeps competing, as it is likely to do. 

• And third, two years of no awards may well discourage folks from applying in the scale-up category. Is that the goal? After all, i3 is slated to get money from the new federal spending bills, so another competition seems certain.

Success For All, for its part, is grateful for the money it has already gotten from i3, said its founder Robert E. Slavin. (It's gotten at least $53 million from two i3 grants.) However, he said, "The fact that it keeps being the same organization that receives the highest scores is perhaps politically awkward, but for children and for evidence-based reform, supporting scalable, effective programs, whatever their source, seems important."

In other words, if the contest is really about kids, and scaling up strong, evidence-based programs, it shouldn't matter who the winner is.

For its part, the department said in November that scale-up proposals haven't been scoring as highly, and that was expected given how few strong, evidence-based programs there are. Federal officials said they want to grow that evidence base by funding smaller validation and development projects.

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