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Clarifying the Evidence Bar for the i3 Competition

Here's a bit of advice for anyone looking to apply for a "development" grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant program.

You may remember that, of the three evidence tiers outlined in the i3 program, the development grants require the lowest level of scientific proof. Those grants, worth up to $5 million each, can be used to underwrite proposals based on "reasonable research-based findings or theories."

But that might be a tougher hurdle to cross than you'd think. To see why, check out this excerpt from a set of FAQs the department issued to clarify its final rules for the competition:

Question: If an applicant proposes for a Development grant a project that has not previously been tested even on a limited basis, and there are no available studies of any similar innovations, will the application fail to meet i3's standard of evidence for a Development grant?
Answer: To be eligible for a Development grant, the proposed practice, strategy, or program, or one similar to it, must have been attempted previously, albeit on a limited scale or in a limited setting, and yielded promising results warranting further study. Consequently, even if the proposed project has a rationale based on research findings or reasonable hypotheses, including related research or theories in education and other sectors, it would not qualify for a Development grant if it has not been previously tested.
That's harder to do than just cobbling together a new program based on general research-based knowledge of what works in education. Jim Kohlmoos of the Knowledge Alliance, the Washington group that represents many of the research organizations hoping to apply for i3 funds, calls that interpretation "unfortunate."

"It basically discourages the possibilities of ideation and rapid prototyping which I believe are essential in the early stages of the innovation process, " he said in an e-mail message.

Having written about complaints regarding the lack of research in the department's Race to the Top competition, I'm not yet convinced that the strict adherence to a model with at least some research evidence behind it is such a bad idea. One could argue, though, that there will be enough of that going on with the larger "validation" and "scale up" grants that are also being distributed under the i3 program&mdash:both of which require higher levels of research evidence. Those grants are worth as much as $30 million and $50 million, respectively.

Let's hear what you think.

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