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i3 Round 2: A Quick Look At Key Changes

The Department of Education chose to release the new i3 competition notice of applications on Friday, so I'm just getting around to looking at them today. A few big changes from last year worth noting:

Smaller maximum awards: Given the smaller overall pot of funds ($150 million this year, compared to $650 million last year), this is not surprising. The maximum award for scale-up grants is $25 million; for validation $15 million; for development $3 million. In addition to the previous limitation that a grantee could not receive more than two awards in a single year, the Department has added a limitation that a single grantee cannot receive more than one new scale-up or validation grant in a 2-year period. Grantees cannot receive more than $55 million in new i3 funds in a single year.

Changes in Absolute Priorities: The Department is not soliciting applications this year for the absolute priority "Innovations that Improve the Use of Data," which was absolute priority #2 in last year's application. Instead, this year there is a new absolute priority #2, "Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education." The other 3 absolute priorities from last year's competition--Supporting Effective Teachers and Principals, Complementing the Use of High-Quality Standards and Assessments, and Turning Around Persistently Low-Performing Schools--remain the same. There is also a new absolute preference priority for "Improving Achievement and High School Graduation Rates (Rural Local Education Agencies)." This new absolute priority appears to replace last year's competitive priority for rural LEAs, and applicants under this priority are encouraged to also address at least one other absolute priority.

Changes in Competitive Priorities: The Department is maintaining last year's competitive preference priorities for "Innovations that Improve Early Learning Outcomes," "Innovations that Promote College Access and Success," and "Innovations that Address the Unique Learning Needs of Students with Disabilities and Limited English Proficient Students." It also added two new competitive preference priorities, for "Improving Productivity" and "Technology." As mentioned above, there is no longer a competitive priority for rural LEAs, due to the creation of a new absolute priority addressing them. Applicants are also precluded from receiving competitive preference points in more than 2 priorities.

Changes in treatment of evidence in the application: One of the most significant changes involves how research evidence of effectiveness will be treated in the i3 grant application.

Research has always been a critical piece of i3: Applicants for the largest, scale-up, grants must produce "strong" evidence, from experimental or other various rigorous designed trials with external and internal validity, that their innovation/model is effective. Applicants for the smaller validation grants must meet a slightly less rigorous but still very demanding standard for "moderate" evidence. Applicants for development grants, the smallest grants, must provide an evidence base to support their approach, but do not need to meet the same thresholds as for the other grants. These evidence requirements are actually eligibility requirements for the grant--you fail to meet the evidence requirement for the grant you applied to, you're out of the competition, no matter how well you score on other grant criteria. In the 2010 competition, grantees also received points from peer reviewers based on the evidence they presented in their applications. That's changing this year.

The 2011 application eliminates the section of the application in which applicants were previously required to present their evidence. Applicants will still need to demonstrate that they meet the evidence threshold for the grant for which they applied, but they will present that evidence an appendix to the application, where it will be reviewed by reviewers from the Institute of Education Sciences to determine whether the applicant meets the evidence threshold--but will not be assigned any points towards the competition. Applicants do need to describe, in the first section of the application, their likely impacts if funded and link to evidence supporting those impacts, so evidence will still play a role in the application points, but likely a smaller one than in the past.

This change may prevent a problem that emerged in the first round of application cycles, in which peer reviewers sometimes gave high or full points to applicants whose evidence base was in fact quite weak. But it will be interesting to see how this change actually plays out in practice. And the issues with peer reviewers' ratings were hardly limited to the evidence section of the application, so it will be interesting to see what steps the Department takes to address that more globally this time around.

There are some other changes in the notice, but these are the ones that jumped out at me.

The other thing that jumps out at me is that there seems to be a lot less buzz around i3 this time out than I recall from last year. Maybe that's because the competition is so much smaller this year, maybe it's because folks have much more realistic assessments of their chances of winning the second time around, and maybe I'm just not seeing it because I'm not writing an application this year (I wrote two applications last year and helped support other Bellwether team members on a few others). But it's interesting--and it will be interesting to see how the number and quality of applicants this year compare to last year, particularly those addressing the new competitive preference priorities in technology and productivity.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead's Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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