Throwing Some Needed Cold Water on i3

For nearly a year now, school districts across the nation have been eagerly anticipating a piece of the Investing in Innovation grant program.  The promise of $650 million to continue innovative approaches to school improvement is too big a lure for many to pass up.  While districts and non-profits worried about how they could get their applications done, where they would find the staff time, and what to promote, they were not going to forgo the opportunity.

Final proposals were due this month, and by US Department of Education count, nearly 1,700 applications were submitted.  These applications range from the large (those seeking $50 million) to the small (those seeking $5 million or less for their plans).  They include proposals from urban, rural, and suburban school districts, consortias of school districts, colleges and universities, not-for-profits, and blends of all of the above.

Every one of them optimistic of their chances to get a piece of the $650 million i3 pie.  And that optimism was only heightened when the final i3 RFP and regs were released earlier this year, and ED talked about plans to award up to 300 grants (up to 100 in each of the three categories) before the end of the coming fiscal year.

That expectation (up to) 300 grants had Eduflack scratching his head a little at the time.  Expecting that most applicants would seek the maximum dollar amount for their category, By my meager math, I could only see 40 or so winners.  Think about it.  Development grants allow a max of $5 million, validation grants a max of $30 million per, and scale up grants a max of $50 million per.  If you awarded just eight grants in each of those three categories, you had already exceeded the $650 million available.  Account for a few winners asking for less than the max, or a few more development awards and a few less scale ups, and you might push 40 up to 50.  But 300 grants was never a possibility, at least not under Phase One of i3 (assuming, as most do, that EdSec Duncan will get Congress to offer up new funds for new rounds of i3).  You’d need billions ot hit that mark, unless applicants were just asking for a fraction of the available money.

This reality was confirmed earlier this week by none other than the good EdSec himself.  According to the usually reliable Eduwonk, Duncan revealed, at a Wednesday meeting that he expects 70 total i3 awards to come this fall.  So nearly 1,700 enter the i3 steel cage, with 70 or so emerging as victors.

Surprisingly, this declaration hasn’t been widely reported.  But it throws a real splash of cold water on the whole i3 process.  Even expecting 300 winners, the odds for most applicants was pretty low.  Winnow that down to 70, and many districts would have been better off buying scratch tickets or hosting a car wash to fund some of their “innovative” plans.

It appears that ED is building the i3 path based on the same blueprint it used for Phase One Race to the Top.  The goal is to award funds to those with the highest chance of success.  One IDs just a fraction of the 1,700 applicants, gives them the seed money, and watches it blossom.  Let those 70 or so winners show how i3 can be sucessfully used, how to measure ROI, and how to actually boost student achievement.  Reward some of those rural districts who feel left out of the Race.  Encourage partnerships.  And, most importantly, require all those enjoying i3 to both demonstrate real research findings to date and provide even stronger research moving forward. 

We’ll show you the money if you can show us the data, if you will.

16 thoughts on “Throwing Some Needed Cold Water on i3

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