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New Investing in Innovation Grant Winners Focus on Faculty, Validation

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On Tuesday, members of the Obama Administration found out they will still have a job come January. On Thursday, the administration's Department of Education wasted no time taking advantage of that reprieve, awarding nearly $150 million to 20 school districts and nonprofit organizations in the third round of Investing in Innovation (i3) grants.

My colleague Michele McNeil wrote a good summary of the i3 news over at Politics K-12. You can find a list of the highest rated applicants on the department's website. (The applicants still must raise matching funds in order to receive the i3 award, something all of the previous competitions' winners were able to do.) I decided to look more closely into where the i3 money will end up, to get a better sense of what the department is looking to fund.

As you can see in the chart below, in 2012 more money is going toward building effective teachers and principals than any of the six priorities ED lays out for i3 grants (this year, the department added a priority, "Parent and Family"). In 2011, more money went toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education than any other priority, due mostly to a $25 million "scale-up" grant awarded to the Old Dominion University Research Foundation to use technology to expand a math instruction model for low-performing schools.


(Source: U.S. Department of Education. Chart by Jason Tomassini)

Investing in Innovation grants are awarded to the highest-rated applicants based on the department's scoring system, so it's unlikely the department could simply choose to fund one priority over another. But the department does make decisions on what kind of grants to fund within that scoring system. For instance, ED did choose not to award a scale-up grant, meaning it spurned applicants within that category that rated highly (the department will not yet disclose which scale-up applicants scored the highest, but plan to disclose the scores at some point). And the department will award considerably more dollars in validation grants in 2012 than in 2011, possibly by choice, or possibly because there were more highly rated validation applicants than development applicants. The scoring system only changed slightly between 2011 and 2012, with an increased emphasis on the "significance" of the project as opposed to its design.


(Source: U.S. Department of Education. Chart by Jason Tomassini)

Either way, validation grants are awarded to programs that have already shown promising results; the funding is used to determine if the programs can pass more rigorous study and, thus, spread more widely. Development grants are awarded to organizations looking to test new programs and see if they work; as such the dollar amounts are smaller than validation grants. In a document distributed by ED, the lack of a scale-up grant is explained:

[B]ecause of our interest in maintaining a diverse portfolio of i3 grantees, as well as the number and quality of applications submitted under each type of i3 grant, the Department selected a greater number of Validation and Development highest-rated applications in lieu of selecting a Scale-up application this year. Because of the size of a Scale-up award, selection of a Scale-up application would have reduced the number of Validation and Development applications that could be funded.

The preference for validation grants, which by nature are not as risky, seems to dispute the claim of "portfolio diversity." Since i3's inception, critics have said the winners are not as gamechanging as advertised.

"i3 winners are really not that innovative," Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, told me recently. "The i3 dynamic asks some of the more reform-minded funders to fund efforts that are less innovative." That explains, Hess said, why i3 grant winners, especially the initial round of winners in 2010, had trouble raising the matching funds required to unlock the federal grants, as I wrote about last month.

The department reduced the amount of matching funds required for each type of grant winner following problems in 2010. Development grant winners must raise 15 percent of their grant in matching funds, while validation grant winners must raise 10 percent, as opposed to 20 percent across the board in 2010. The department also added a pre-application process to give winners more lead time to reach out to the private sector. This year's winners have until Dec. 7 to raise matching funds.

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