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What Can We Learn From the Investing in Innovation Program Five Years Out?

Back in 2010, the Obama administration poured $650 million into a brand program, Investing in Innovation, aimed at finding and funding interesting ideas in education—figuring out what works, what doesn't, and helping effective programs grow.

Nearly five years later, the administration has doled out about $1 billion to over 100 projects, all of which beat out thousands of applicants for the federal funds. And each program promised to carefully examine whether the strategies they were testing out actually moved the needle on student outcomes.

So did these programs work? We'll find out soon, at least about the first cohort of 49 grantees. Their evaluations, done independently, are beginning to surface, and more are expected to trickle out in coming months. (Deep dive into the results from Teach for America's $50 million i3 grant here.)

John King, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, told folks at an i3 conference in Washington, D.C., that he's hoping the program will have a long, long legacy, especially when it comes to helping school districts, states, and foundations figure out where their own money can have the most impact.

And, he said, the i3 investment will have been worthwhile—even for grantees that tested approaches that didn't yield the results they were hoping for. 

"The evidence about what works will hopefully drive investment decisions in school districts every day. ... [That's a] huge contribution that will be made by folks in this room," he told i3 grantees at a conference on Wednesday. "There will also be a huge contribution [in] the evidence of what didn't work. One of the stories we will have to tell is that there is still value in testing an innovation that didn't work. ... Part of this program isn't just about investing in success, it's about learning going forward."

It's unclear whether the i3 program will stick around after the Obama administration leaves town in early 2017. Congress slashed its funding from $140 million to $120 million in its most recent budget.

And the House of Representatives GOP bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act doesn't include i3. The bipartisan Senate bill has lots of language around evidence, and included an amendment creating a program that could build on i3's work. But, even if that program makes it into the final NCLB update, it's an open question whether the resources will be there to fund new grantees. 

But even if the program, in some form, doesn't end up sticking around, the administration and grantees are aiming to spend the next year or so sharing information about what the program has uncovered, King said. So stay tuned. 

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