Investing in Proven Innovation

The hits keep coming from the good folks down on Maryland Avenue.  Today, the U.S. Department of Education officially released its Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant RFP.  For all of those districts looking to get a piece of nearly $650 million in i3 dollars, the clock starts … NOW.  Full details on the grant process can be found here.  

Many will recall that ED circulated a draft i3 RFP for public comment back in the fall.  Today’s announcement very closely mirrors that which we say months ago.  We are still looking at three categories of grants — development, validation, and scale-up.  Development grants still come in with a max of $5 million per; validation with a max of $30 million per, and scale up with a max of $50 million per.
School district applicants still need to provide a 20 percent matching contribution from private sources (including those college/university partners).  Bonus points remain for early childhood focus, college access and success focus, ELL focus, and rural schools focus (with rural schools worth two extra points and the others worth just one).
Most importantly, the evidence requirements remain the same as they have always been.  What does this mean?  In this case, innovation not only means the introduction of something new or different; it also means that you have to prove that that new or different approach is proven effective.  The feds are seeking very real research to drive this innovation, even in the development grants.
Before the end of the month, our friends with the federal government will hold three information sessions for prospective applicants — in Baltimore, Denver, and Atlanta.  Those districts looking to apply for i3 should file a notice of intent within 20 days of the RFP being posted on the Federal Register (still hasn’t gone up, as of 11 a.m. today) and applications are due within 60 days of Federal Register posting.  ED is now saying they will award i3 grants in two phases.
Today’s official grant notice also offers some guidance on how many grants can be awarded.  But in the words immortalized by Barbie (the Doll) back in the late 1990s, “math is hard!”  For months now, Eduflack has been telling interested LEAs that we are likely only looking at 30 total winners.  With a $650 million pool (now down to $643 million), you are looking at eight or nine winners in each of the three categories, assuming districts get close to the max.  So $400 million for scale up (eight grants), $200 million for validation (10 grants), and $40-50 million or so for development grants (10 grants).  Then the pot has run dry.
But ED seems to have a different view of things.  Average grant awards are estimated at $3 million for development, $17.5 million for validation, and $30 million for scale up.  (This despite the realization that virtually every state that applied for Race to the Top funds exceeded the budget range that was assigned to their state).  Based on those ranges, ED estimates up to five scale up winners, and up to 100 winners each in both development and validation.  Obviously, the budget doesn’t allow anything close to that.  
Five scale up winners at $30 million knocks the total pool down to less than $500 million remaining.  A hundred validation grants at $17.5 million per would put us at $1.75 billion, more than three times the remaining pool.  And those up to 100 development grants at $3 million per adds another $300 million.  So if we top out on the estimates (realizing they are all generous ranges) ED is saying i3 could be up to nearly $2.2 billion.  I’m all for stretching the dollar, but that seems to be a little more than the $643 million currently available.
Why is this so important?  LEAs need to realize that competition for these grants is going to be significantly difficult and cutthroat.  With RttT, we had a sense for how many states would and can win.  Virtually every state applies, and based on the funding ranges, we can expect close to 20 states to win.  If we don’t spend the full RttT pool, then we will have fewer winners.
But with i3, we have the possibility of thousands of school districts and consortia applying for a piece of this money.   Some districts have been hard at work on their projects for years, and a scale up grant seems like a slam dunk (Eduflack has long said Chicago Public Schools and its Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, would be a slam dunk for i3).  Other districts have been focusing on their applications for months, even before the draft regulations came out.  Still others have been looking to partner with other districts, local universities, or nationally recognized non-profits, to strengthen their applications.  And then you have some who think that “innovation” in the title means it is supposed to fund technology programs.  Regardless, all want a piece of this.
So instead of 25 or 40 percent of states winning a RttT grant, we are looking at the possibility that far fewer than 5 percent of i3 applicants will get a taste of that federal nectar.  That means applications must be well written, on point, and based on research like few grant proposals have ever been based before (and unlike RttT, i3 applications can’t be more than 35-50 pages, depending on type).  Competition is going to be fierce.  The strength of both the research and the impact will be king.
And what does Eduflack expect to see?  First, many districts will be dusting off ye olde research protocols to ensure their proposed models match that offered by IES these past five or so years.  Second, rural schools are going to fair pretty well here, both because of the extra points and because of the realization that RttT doesn’t provide rurals the attention they may need.  And at the end of the day, we still should expect no more than 35 total winners.  Five scale up winners each coming in close the $50 million cap, 10 or so validation winners coming closer to the $30 million cap than the $17.5 million ED estimate, and another 10-12 development winners, most of which need more than the $3 million in expected seed money.
Good research and documentation is hard, and it doesn’t come cheap.  For months, we’ve been hearing that RttT is all about quality, not quantity.  The same needs to be true for i3.  The focus should be on providing a select group of school districts with the money to truly ramp up and further test a specific intervention that is boosting student performance and closing the achievement gap.  If we want these funds to have a real, true, and lasting impact, we need to spend wisely on the lowest-hanging fruit, investing in those ideas that have the greatest possible return on investment and using those results to inspire other districts to follow suit. 
    

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