'i3' Grant Winners Slowly Building Momentum
Eight months into progam, recipients gain momentum
In rural Tennessee, seven college and career counselors are working in 29 high schools to get students on track for life after graduation. In New Orleans, a nonprofit group has hand picked three charter-management organizations that will take over three of the city’s lowest-performing schools. And in Beaverton, Ore., teachers are partnering with local artists to improve literacy in elementary grades.
The school districts and nonprofits behind those three programs—and the 46 others financed by the federal Investing in Innovation fund—are working to prove that their brand of intervention not only improves student achievement, but also can be duplicated across the country. The i3 winners are eight months into a $650 million experiment by the U.S. Department of Education to encourage partnerships between school districts and the nonprofit sector in a nationwide effort to identify and grow the most promising education ideas.
“We’re not seeing the impact yet in terms of statistical data, but what we are seeing already is the impact on attitudes and the impact of having this infusion of money coming into our system,” said Linda Irwin, the director of school partnerships for the Niswonger Foundation, in Greenville, Tenn., which won a $17.7 million award to better prepare students in 15 districts in the rural northeastern part of the state for college and careers.
The i3 prizes are funded through some $100 billion in education aid from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the economic-stimulus package Congress passed in 2009. The projects, which require some matching funding from the private sector, are on a three-to five-year trajectory and are just getting started. Through the end of March, the winners had spent just $14 million collectively.
But grant monitoring by the Education Department, which is pushing Congress to fund another round of i3, has already begun, said Jefferson Pestronk, a special assistant to James H. Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement.
In November, the first annual performance reports from each grant winner will be due to the department. In addition, winners must file the same quarterly spending reports that all recipients of stimulus funding must file.
Separately, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the department, has signed a $9.5 million contract with Abt Associates Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass., to evaluate the overall i3 program, which includes providing technical and methodological expertise to the outside researchers who will be evaluating the individual programs. Each i3 hopeful also must line up an outside, independent evaluator for its program.
Evidence of effectiveness has been important to the i3 program from the outset. To win a grant, applicants had to show a track record of success, as programs with the strongest evidence of past effectiveness won the largest awards. The definitions of “strong” and “moderate” evidence embedded in the i3 rules may become a part of future Education Department grant competitions.
“It’s striking to me that this is the very first time that evidence has really mattered,” said Robert E. Slavin, the director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. The school improvement organization he co-founded, Success for All, won a $49 million i3 grant. “This is a moment in history in which we have funds that are dedicated to programs with strong evidence of effectiveness.”
For many i3 winners, the grant-funded programs offer specific answers to education problems that have persisted for years.
In rural northeastern Tennessee, the graduation rate is 61 percent and unemployment is 16 percent. Less than 10 percent of adults have a college degree. For the Niswonger Foundation and its 15 partner school districts, the i3 grant is funding a comprehensive plan to change the culture of the region’s students and families and to better equip them for careers and college.
To start, the foundation has spread seven college and career counselors throughout its 29 partner high schools, to work alongside traditional counselors. They’ve developed materials to help parents understand the importance of postsecondary training and navigate federal student financial-aid forms.
To address the rigor of students’ coursework, the grant is funding the addition of an upper-level statistics course and distance-learning foreign-language classes (French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Latin) this fall. The state recently toughened its standards and added foreign-language requirements, leaving rural schools struggling to catch up, Ms. Irwin said. New online Algebra 2 tutorials also are available, and this fall, 12 new online Advanced Placement classes will be available.
In New Orleans, the state-run Recovery School District is still working to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans, which partnered with the school district, is using its $28 million grant to turn around the remaining nine “academically unacceptable” schools (as labeled by the state’s accountability system). New Schools for New Orleans just picked three charter-management organizations—two current operators and one new one—to take over three of those schools this fall.
Also as part of i3, New Schools will duplicate its program in Tennessee, working with a similar nonprofit organization and that state’s Achievement School District, which is Tennessee’s mechanism to turn around struggling schools.
“I don’t think opening charter schools is necessarily innovative. This is the meta-system level you’re building,” said Neerav Kingsland, the chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans. “What we’re doing is coordinating a group of actors. It’s a new way of organizing urban areas to serve the at-risk kids.”
The Beaverton school district, outside Portland, Ore. is struggling to improve reading, writing, and literacy skills for about one-quarter of its 38,500 students, many of whom are designated as low-income, English-language learner, or special education. Writing is a particular problem: Nearly 40 percent of 10th graders fail to meet state standards in the subject.
The district will use a $4 million grant to implement an “Arts for Learning” program in grades 3, 4, and 5 in half its elementary schools. (The half not participating in the program are serving as the “control” schools for purposes of the research evaluation.) The program uses visiting artists and lessons focused on different fine or performing arts to drive home lessons in reading and writing.
Already this school year, one teacher in each grade level is serving as a “lead teacher” who is implementing the program, with the goal of building capacity among the remaining teachers once the project expands this fall.
Still, grantees have encountered challenges.
Success for All has had trouble recruiting schools to embrace a comprehensive reform strategy—or participate in the companion research component—in an era of tight state and local budgets and possible teacher layoffs.
The group has recruited 100 schools to use its model in the fall. At the end of its five-year grant, Success for All plans to have added 1,100 schools to its national network.
“It’s hard to get people thinking about research and school reform when they’re laying off staff and making hard choices,” Mr. Slavin said. “We’re still confident we’ll get to 1,100.”
For the Niswonger Foundation, getting the program up and running in January and February was tough since some of its partner districts missed 26 days of school because of harsh winter weather. In addition, coordinating the needs across 15 far-flung rural school systems and 29 high schools has proved challenging.
“We have such a wide range of schools,” Ms. Irwin said, “we want to make sure we’re meeting everyone’s needs.”
Vol. 30, Issue 27, Pages 26,29