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Round Two i3 Grants: Let's Scale & Innovate 

Hours after the deadline for round two Investing in Innovation (i3) grant applications, it’s a good time to reflect on what’s gone right, so far, with the federal government’s program to spur education innovation, and what could be different in this next go-round.

A study released last week by Bellwether Education Partners highlighted several early accomplishments of the $650 million round one grant program: more national attention on the need for education innovation, emphasis on scaling programs that are proven to work, incentives for partnerships between public educators and private funders, and allocation of federal resources towards defined strategic priorities.

Ironically though, given the program’s moniker, “innovation” itself didn’t make the list. Study authors point out that the i3 funding criteria, sensible though they were, likely eliminated out-of-the-box, early-stage applicants who hadn’t yet built a strong evidence base for their ideas. And requiring applicants to secure matching funds from private philanthropists, a smart way to increase investment leverage, further steered the selection committee towards grantees with existing ties to large private funders – the “usual suspects” like Teach for America and KIPP. The Gates Foundation’s U.S. program president, Allan Golston, voiced concern about this bias in a recent report, noting that i3 requirements made “philanthropies de facto gatekeepers for applicants.”

Yet while it’s true that many round one winners are household names, and that the i3 program has yet to produce innovation on par with, say, the smartphone, it would be rash to dismiss the role of this still-developing federal initiative for driving education improvements. The program’s initial emphasis on scaling what works was perhaps less misdirected than it was mislabeled. It might not seem revolutionary to ensure that more students have access to highly effective teachers and principals – two things known definitively to boost academic achievement – but investments to scale work in this area have a high likelihood of paying off. And as noted in Education Week, scaling itself is no easy task, requiring creativity and innovation of a different sort that shouldn’t be discounted.

That’s not to say there shouldn’t also be a place for true, throw-out-the-textbook innovation in the i3 grants program – particularly given the dearth of other support for needed research and development in the education field. Whether round two grantees will include more unexpected, “innovative” players is now a decision in the judges’ hands, and I hope the answer is yes. What’s clear is the urgent need to ensure both scaling and innovation to drive needed reforms. Hopefully the i3 program can evolve to support both well.

Amber Johnson Binkley

Former Associate Director