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How Obama's Education Grants Hinder True Innovation

A funny thing happened on the way to education innovation, a new report reveals.


Around the time a thirst for change ushered Barack Obama into the White House, the education world was seized by a sudden realization that the structure of schooling had barely evolved in a century.


In response, the Obama administration carved $650 million out of the 2009 stimulus package to create the Investing in Innovation Fund, known as i3, to induce districts and nonprofit groups to develop or scale up new approaches to boosting student achievement. Reflecting the administration’s dual passions for newness and transparency, the U.S. Department of Education held a competition for the funds and posted all of the entrants online. Just shy of 1,700 districts and nonprofit groups threw themselves into the ring.

But a funny thing happened on the way to innovation. When the first multimillion-dollar grants were awarded last year, they went to some of the country’s most established education nonprofits—to allow them to keep doing pretty much what they had been doing. For example, the two largest prizes, $50 million each, went to the KIPP Foundation (one of the most established charter school networks) and Teach for America to expand their famously well-oiled human capital machines. Smaller “development” grants of $3 million to $5 million each helped school districts bulk up their arts programming or data analysis.

What wasn’t funded? Many programs that were truly innovative, according to a report released last month by Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit group that pushes for school improvements to aid low-income students.

Eligibility rules shut out entrepreneurial startups, and evaluation criteria privileged established organizations, the report argues. For-profit groups were barred from entry, and applicants had to provide reams of proof that their projects were feasible and would boost student achievement. But evidence of success is not a hallmark of a plucky new group that’s trying a brand-new approach to the age-old problems that schools face.

The Bellwether report concludes that i3 fell short because its two central tenets, “innovation” and “scale,” actually worked against each other: True innovation starts small, so most reforms that are ready to be scaled up are by definition no longer innovative. “Requiring a ‘proven track record’ may have shut out applicants that could have delivered more truly break-the-mold innovations,” the report says.

One winner widely considered to offer a true change was School of One, a two-year-old program run by New York City’s Department of Education. Launched during a summer pilot and adopted by several middle schools last year, School of One features computer-generated personal learning plans for each student in a class, tailored to the student’s skills and weaknesses and accompanied by tasks to address them. With its technology- and data-driven backbone and its home in oversized classrooms, the program has been called “the Hollywood version of innovation.”

Other than School of One, few of i3’s winning projects focused on reshaping classroom instruction in ways that would likely be detectable to students. But changing the student experience wasn’t really i3’s goal, according to Julie Petersen, one of the authors of the Bellwether report. Instead, i3 was all about tweaking systems and structures. Bellwether’s argument is that the competition should have been more open-minded about who would do the tweaking.

The Bellwether report arrived too late to influence a second, slimmed-down round of i3 grants that was announced in June. The new round will hand out $150 million in even smaller portions than last year, with science education and rural schools as new priorities but without substantively different eligibility rules or evaluation guidelines.

The bright side is that, even as it gears up to repeat its mistakes, i3 is contributing to an ethos of innovation that is fueling smaller-scale, scrappier projects, Petersen says. Although the competition’s losers haven’t reported increased interest as a result of their i3 entries, the federal attention is helping to create a climate where businesses, nonprofits, and government are working toward a unified goal.

“The sectors are playing together in a way that they haven’t been in quite a while,” she says.

Smaller-scale competitions run by foundations such as the NewSchools Venture Fund—where Petersen and her Bellwether co-author, Kim Smith, both used to work—offer a different way of developing innovations in teaching and learning. Private entrepreneurs are increasingly excited about developing education tools, Petersen said, likening the current feeling to that of the early 2000s, when education entrepreneurs created new technology and learning programs, then sold them to districts and schools.

A key improvement since then, she said, is that with the common standards and tougher tests now encouraged by the federal government, entrepreneurs will easily find enough buyers for their products to keep them in business.

At least, Petersen says, “It’s not going to be a school-by-school, district-by-district, bang-my-head-against-a-wall process.”

Photo (cc) by Flickr user The White House

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