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The Next Iteration of i3: From Symphony to Jazz?

As the federal Education Department ponders how to shape future Investing in Innovation competitions, researchers and practitioners from across the field are weighing in on how the program should evolve.

The most interesting suggestion to me so far has come from Douglas Lynch, the vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and co-creator of the school's education business plan competition, who argued for a more "improvisational" approach to innovation research.

The $650 million i3 competition, funded through the federal stimulus program, awarded grants in its first round to 49 school districts and nonprofits to evaluate and scale up potentially promising education interventions. The Education Department specifically focused on applicants with evidence of effectiveness, in part to ensure the hotly debated stimulus programs would have a solid research base.

Yet, Lynch suggested in future rounds the department can reasonably branch out with at least some edgier projects. "There might be a lot more beauty and variance among the losers than among the winners," Lynch told me in a conversation before a venture capital conference that the Education Department and the Aspen Institute held for i3 applicants in Washington. The first round of grants generally "weren't small, radically different experiments," he said. "We need to have some things that are small, risky —things that are most likely to not work, but if they do work they will be game changers."

Educational innovation, he said, requires an understanding of the complex, constantly shifting interplay of instructional practices, local policy and politics, and individual student performance. School improvement often involves different systems and interventions operating simultaneously, and "There's this culture that you shouldn't be improvising any of that; you should all be on point," he said. Yet he believes the innovation system should be more fluid.

"It's more akin to a jazz group than a symphony," Mr. Lynch explained. "What the research community has done is to hone the quality of individual musicians. But now the problem isn't with the quality of individual musicians, but how those musicians improvise together around a particular theme. And I don't think legislating that is going to work."

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