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Latest Round of i3 Grants Includes Strong Focus on Curriculum

The latest Investing in Innovation grantees, announced last week by the U.S. Department of Education, are proposing an array of curriculum-related strategies to improve student achievement.

As our own Michele McNeil explained, the 25 most recent winners of the so-called i3 grants are divided into "validation" and "development" grants. The seven validation grants are the heftiest awards, for ideas with the strongest evidence base, while the 18 development grants are smaller and aimed at supporting up-and-coming ideas.

In total, the Education Department will award $135 million for the grants, but has not yet specified out how much would be awarded to each individual winner.

The top-scoring contender among the validation grants, Expeditionary Learning, got the thumbs-up for its proposal to create free instructional resources for teachers implementing the Common Core State Standards. The particular emphasis in this project is on helping novice teachers and high-need students.

The grant will allow Expeditionary Learning—a national network of schools—to team up newer teachers with more experienced colleagues in 60 middle schools to work on English/language arts curriculum. It will facilitate adding another 12 curriculum modules to its current collection of 36, each with formative and summative assessments, performance tasks, curriculum maps, and lesson guidance. The modules are available for free on engageny.org, as will be 12 more when they're finished. The grant will also be used to expand Expeditionary Learning's archive of exemplary student work, searchable by academic standard, to include writing.

Spurwick Services Inc., a Maine-based nonprofit, won for its plan to help 9th grade students in low-performing schools by organizing teachers into three-teacher teams with at least one experienced, highly-qualified teacher. Teams would leverage that arrangement to maximize collaboration, shared assessment, planning, and problem-solving

Two of the winners zero in on using technology as a door-opener to learning. Jacksonville State University aims to help middle and high school classrooms in 18 high-need Alabama districts assess and meet their technology needs to facilitate dual enrollment and project-based learning, and help teachers share lesson plans. The Salt Lake City-based Waterford Institute won for its plan to promote a home-based digital curriculum in math, science, and reading for preschoolers.

Academic literacy is a hot topic now, as our own Lesli Maxwell reported in a recent story. In their winning i3 bid, the University of California Regents propose to scale up to the regional level a project in academic literacy to help English-learners in grades 7-12 complete core courses. It would provide sustained professional development for English/language arts teachers and teachers of English-learners, focused on how to "explicitly teach, model, and scaffold guided instruction in the cognitive strategies (or thinking tools) that research indicates experienced readers and writers access when they analyze and interpret complex texts."

And don't panic: STEM learning wasn't overlooked in the validation grants. SRI International got top ratings for its proposal to work with two Florida districts and a university professional development program to validate SunBay Mathematics, a digital math program for middle schools. Also, Teachers College, Columbia University—along with Jobs for the Future and the Middle College National Consortium—will work with schools districts in Connecticut and Michigan to provide high quality professional development for teachers in STEM subjects in dual-enrollment programs.

Among the development grants, the Carroll County district in Georgia won the judges' nod with its "12 For Life" proposal aimed at building students' STEM and career skills and opening new college pathways. In partnership with Southwire, a manufacturer of electric wire and cable, the district opened a manufacturing plant in 2007 that offers paid apprenticeships while students study. It has led many students to dual enrollment and college credit, serving both as "a STEM-focused secondary school program and a student-staffed Southwire satellite plant."

Parent Engagement Another Theme of Winners

Among the other development grants, there is a hefty presence of parent-engagement ideas.

One of the highest-scoring proposals in this group came from Casa de Maryland, a nonprofit based in Hyattsville, Md. Together with the Prince George's County school district and the University of Maryland's college of education, it seeks to help Latino parents with low levels of formal education and English proficiency attain new skills and learn new strategies to better support their children and to navigate the education system.

Another top-scoring proposal came from the Children's Aid Society, which wants to import parent-engagement strategies from a high-poverty school in New York City's Washington Heights to another in the South Bronx. The organization's approach involves setting up parent resource centers in schools staffed by trained parent coordinators who do outreach and communication. The centers will offer adult education and leadership institutes that encourage parents to read to their children at home, and help them with their homework, and work with them to elevate their expectations for their children's lives after high school.

The development grants reach far beyond parents, though, in their hopes to make schools better.

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform proposes to work with 12 high-need schools in Michigan and Kentucky to bolster the ranks of middle-grades principals. New York City's Leadership Academy was a top scorer, too, for its plan to expand its aspiring principals program, which recruits, trains, places, and coaches new building administrators.

California's ConnectEd/ LinkedLearning, which we profiled in 2011, won the judges' approval by proposing to research how its hands-on, career-pathway approach to high school affects cognitive and noncognitive outcomes in students, particularly factors such as motivation and persistence. It wants to know if its approach—what it calls an "infusion of relevance"—produces better results.

Some winning proposals focus on students with disabilities and English-learners. The University of Massachusetts-Boston wants to work on a more inclusive model of learning that better transitions students with autism or intellectual disabilities to college and adult life. The University of California at Los Angeles is training its sights on 700-plus middle and high school students in communities along New York state's Hudson River. They're still learning English, and the university wants to build support for them in their mainstream classrooms with teams of teachers and also community-based teams.

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