A new report on preliminary lessons from the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation, or i3, program suggests that it has successfully promoted school-improvement strategies based on research findings but made only marginal progress in sparking innovation.
Now in its second year, the i3 program provided $650-million in its first year for grants to nonprofits and schools for innovative and proven approaches to improving student achievement.
The report, released this week by Bellwether Education Partners, is based on a survey and interviews with experts, program applicants, and philanthropists.
It says that i3 has heightened the importance of evidence—measuring results to prove that a program is working—particularly among foundations and other organizations that provided money to grant winners. It has also brought increased visibility and support to the grantees.
But this improvement came at a cost. Applicants that were not selected are worried that their reputation has suffered and they could lose private money—and coming close did not appear to help. An exposition sponsored by the Aspen Institute in January to showcase applicants that received high scores produced few new private grants for the organizations that did not win any federal aid.
Moreover, although it successfully emphasized evidence, the i3 program may have stifled proposals that were innovative. Grant winners tended to be organizations with extensive track records in education, including well-known nonprofits like Teach for America and the KIPP Foundation—derided by some as “the usual suspects.”
Meanwhile, for-profit organizations were barred from participating, which probably reduced the number of high-quality applications featuring innovative technology, the report said. The program’s larger grants required expensive experimental and quasi-experimental studies to measure results that few new or small organizations could afford.
Other innovations received mixed reviews. The Foundation Registry, a Web site launched in 2010 to bring foundations together to share information and pool money for grant winners, drew praise from several participating foundations. One foundation executive said it prompted conversations about how to improve efficiencies through common applications and reporting forms.
It was less popular with grantees, who generally did not credit it with attracting money for their projects. Another Department of Education Web site intended to bring together donors and educational innovators, called the Open Innovation Portal, was criticized on similar grounds.
Despite the negatives, the report praises i3 for the increased attention it has brought to innovation in education and for its emphasis on awarding money based on research about what works. The final judgment may lie in the degree to which these lessons are extended to other, much larger programs that distribute grants according to a formula.