For enterprising youth-serving agencies with a track record of partnering with schools to improve student achievement in a measurable way, now is the time to start thinking “i3.”
That’s the abbreviated name of the U.S. Department of Education’s massive new “Investing in Innovation Fund.” The departments expects to award $650 million in grants under the program by Sept. 30, 2010.
The purpose of the program is to provide money to replicate, or take to scale, existing programs that have proved successful but previously haven’t had the funds to grow large.
The largest grants under the fund will go to established organizations with “strong evidence” of implementing educational initiatives and programs shown to have helped students do better in school. For those organizations, the Department of Education is looking at funding initiatives that potentially could affect as many as 1 million students and expects 100 or so applications for these grants.
But even a smaller non-profit youth-serving agency partnered with, say, a small cluster of schools as opposed to an entire school district, may still be able to get in on the i3 action.
However, no matter how much of a track record you have or lack, don’t think of i3 as a potentially permanent source of income for your program. It’s not. I3 money is Recovery Act money – and the Department of Education is only looking for programs that could sustain themselves without relying on federal i3 funding it hopes to award next year.
Why make the grants if programs are already supposed to be self-sufficient?
“I think what they’re hoping is if you can scale up a good leadership program and make it broader, that over time school districts will spend their own money on it and other institutions will support it,” said Martin Blank, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) based in Washington, D.C.
If you’re thinking about applying for one of the grants, hold that thought.
Instead of getting your applications together – a process that will likely take 60 to 120 hours – over the next few weeks it will be critical to tell the Department of Education what you think about the i3 grants criteria thus far, whether the criteria are too stringent or complex or whether you think the criteria somehow unfairly preclude your organization from consideration for the grants.
Blank, the IEL president, urges youth-serving agencies to be aggressive and swift about vocalizing their concerns to the Department of Education.
“It’s incumbent on everyone to write to the department,” Blank said. “The more people talk about the role that youth-serving organizations have to play in what they’re doing in schools, the more it gets into the DNA of the department and what they need to do.”
Blank says the IEL plans to write to the department itself. His beef is that the criteria don’t give as much recognition to youth-serving organizations as he would like. It’s not enough, for instance, just to invite “nonprofits” who partner with schools to apply for the grants.
“What’s missing is the need to think more comprehensively than programatically,” Blank said. “They continue to overlook the assets that community-based organizations, health and civic organizations have to contribute.”
The term “nonprofit” just doesn’t do those organizations justice, Blank said.
“Nonprofit is a big term,” he said. “Teach for America is a nonprofit. New Leaders for New Schools is a nonprofit. There are lots of big nonprofits that are not community-based organizations that work with at-risk youths.”
Blank said it’s also important for youth-serving agencies to speak up about the criteria regarding what kind of proof is needed to get into the competition.
Scale-up, validate and develop
“I think that the question is going to be, across the board: What are realistic and reasonable standards of evidence to justify that a project is potentially scaleable, or eligible for validation or development?” He was referring to the three categories in which the i3 grants will be awarded: “Scale-up” grants, “validation” grants and “development” grants.
Though exact funding amounts for these three categories of i3 haven’t yet been set, the scale-up grants will be the largest, followed by the validation and then the development grants, respectively.
As the amount of grant money goes down, so does the level of proof required to show that the programs the grants will fund actually work.
Here are some additional details:
“Scale-up Grants” are for programs and practices with the potential to reach large numbers of students and must have a “strong base of evidence” that their program has had a “significant effect” on improving student achievement.
“Validation Grants” will be awarded to “existing, promising programs” that only have “good evidence of their impact” and are ready to improve their evidence base while growing and expanding their programs.
“Development Grants,” are smaller grants designed to support “new and high-potential practices whose impact should be studied further.”
Regardless of the grant sought or proof required, programs must have a track record of accomplishing one of four “absolute priorities.”
1) To increase the number and percentage of effective teachers and school leaders, or to at least help reduce disparities in the distribution of effective teachers and school leaders.
2) To use student achievement data in order to inform decision-making and help educators get better at what they do.
3) Help states get more students to meet “college- and career-readiness standards and assessments.” For instance, that could entail getting more students into Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses; dual enrollment programs or early college high schools; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or so-called STEM courses.
4) “Turn around persistently low-performing schools through either whole-school reform or targeted approaches to reform.”
There are also four “competitive” priorities that could give applicants an edge. Those priorities are programs that serve or address:
*Early learning, that is, programs that support quality education programs for children from birth through third grade, the idea being that it’s better to provide a quality education up front than it is to remediate later on in a student’s academic life.
*College access, that is, programs geared toward helping students get the information and academic support they need to get in and out of college.
*Students with disabilities or limited English proficiency; and
After it has reviewed public comments on the criteria, the Department of Education plans to publish a formal application in early 2010. Proposals will be due early next spring.