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Published in Print: March 23, 2016, as Explainer: Getting to Know i3
Updated: March 28, 2016

Investing in Innovation: An Introduction to i3

A teacher keys in student data during a meeting of educators at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine. Noble High School is testing its Building Assets-Reducing Risks (BARR) program with i3 funding.
A teacher keys in student data during a meeting of educators at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine. Noble High School is testing its Building Assets-Reducing Risks (BARR) program with i3 funding.
—Sarah Rice for Education Week
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The federal Investing in Innovation program, or i3, test-drives and scales up promising ideas in education. Here’s an introduction to the program.

What is Investing in Innovation?

The Investing in Innovation, or i3, program was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the financial stimulus. The program was intended to help test-drive, investigate, and scale up promising ideas in school districts working with their nonprofit partners. To date, i3 has received more than $1.3 billion in federal funding for 157 projects. After the initial investment of nearly $650 million, the program has received smaller sums each year and dropped to about $120 million for fiscal 2016. Recipients ranged from well-known players, such as Teach For America and KIPP, to small school districts, such as Virginia's Albemarle County schools.

What are the grants?

There are three basic types of grants that vary in size based on how much evidence a program has to back up its approach. Some grantees—such as the Building Assets-Reducing Risks program—have changed tiers in multiple grants.

From year to year, the U.S. Department of Education also prioritized different special areas for grants, including science, technology, engineering, and math education; and teacher effectiveness.

Development: The smallest—and at 105 to date, the most prevalent—grants test promising practices with minimal formal research evidence. Single grants have ranged from about $2 million in recent years to about $5 million when i3 was first created. These grants require the lowest level of evidence, and may even include a strong correlational study.

Validation: These are the midrange grants, to further investigate programs backed by a moderate level of evidence. In the early rounds of i3, single grants could be as large as $30 million, but more recently, they've hovered around $12 million. To qualify, a program has to have at least one experimental or quasi-experimental study that meets the federal What Works Clearinghouse standards—although it could have had a small sample size, compared groups that were not entirely equivalent, or for some other reason could not be able to be generalized to other schools or students—or have high-quality correlational research that controlled for selection bias and other factors. So far, there have been 43 validation grants.

Scale Up: The largest and most rigorous grants are intended to help proven programs expand quickly. As in the other grant levels, the biggest scale-up grants—as large as $50 million—came early, when the i3 program was flush with cash. Since then, scale-up awards have shrunk, with the most recent round of grants averaging $20 million. To qualify for a scale-up grant, a program has to have the highest level of research evidence, including multiple experimental or quasi-experimental studies, or one large, multisite randomized controlled trial study, that meets federal What Works Clearinghouse standards. That evidence level has proven to be a high bar: There have been only nine scale-up grantees so far.

What were the initial goals of i3?

Investing in Innovation was initially designed to "create an innovation pipeline" in K-12 education, said Jim Shelton, a former deputy secretary in the Obama administration and an architect of i3. That's something other sectors—like technology—take for granted. The Education Department required grantees to match the grant with contributions from private sources.

Another "not so subtle goal," Shelton says: to fill the What Works Clearinghouse, a federal treasure trove of strategies backed by strong evidence of effectiveness.

For the Obama administration, i3 was one of the first of a group of six federal programs designed to experiment with ways to bring more evidence into social programs. Variations on the i3 evidence model are also part of the Education Department's First in the World grants to improve higher education. "Innovation looks different in different sectors and evidence looks different," said Nadya Chinoy Dabby, the assistant deputy secretary for the Education Department's office of innovation and improvement.

How has i3 changed under the Every Student Succeeds Act?

i3 is the only one of the big competitive education grants that the Obama administration launched during the stimulus to be mostly sustained in ESSA, the latest edition of the federal government's centerpiece education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Signed into law late last year, ESSA includes a "successor" to i3 called the Education Innovation and Research program.

EIR is similar to i3 in that it includes three different types of grants for proposals with successively more evidence to back them up. There are some new twists, however. For instance, under i3, school districts could partner only with nonprofit groups, but EIR will allow schools to collaborate with for-profit businesses. And under EIR, states—not just districts—will be eligible to receive the grants, said congressional aides who worked on creating the program. EIR places a greater emphasis on the research priorities of the field in setting priorities for grants, as opposed to i3's annual changing priorities. There's also a greater focus on "development" and other early-stage grants. EIR also puts more of a premium on programs proceeding through the grant phases—as BARR and North Carolina New Schools/Breakthrough Learning have in i3—although that's not required.

i3 Grants at a Glance

Grants awarded to date: 157

Initial money awarded: Nearly $650 million

Total federal money awarded: More than $1.3 billion

Total private matching contributions: More than $200 million

Source: U.S. Department of Education

What are i3's greatest successes?

i3—or the basic idea of a program aimed at exploring evidence-based practices and driving innovation—is probably one of the most politically popular of the Obama administration's K-12 initiatives. Interest in the program was high from the get-go, with nearly 1,700 applications for the first round of grants and more than 4,000 applications total.

"We've built an infrastructure that supports educators innovating, and educators are instinctively innovative and want to solve challenges. … This program at its core is about helping people learn about their work," said the Education Department's Chinoy Dabby.

The initiative also ignited a burst of private and philanthropic interest in direct partnerships with districts. A dozen large national education philanthropies developed a registry of funding opportunities worth more than a half billion dollars to help applicants find matching money, and private venture capitalists met with runners-up to the first i3 winners. In its fiscal 2016 budget request, the Education Department said the evaluations of all its validation and scale-up grants and a majority of its development grants were on track to meet What Works Clearinghouse standards, "so that the largest investments are based on the highest level of rigor regarding efficacy."

The final evaluations of the first cohort of i3 programs have started to roll out. And the Education Department expects to release a cross-cutting analysis of the findings across all the completed i3 grants by the end of 2016.

"It's really important for us as a sector to be comfortable about taking on risks," Chinoy Dabby said. On average, venture capitalists expect about 1 in 4 investments to produce significant results, she said, and, "by our counts, we are scheduled to far exceed that benchmark."

In the end, survival may be the program's most important success. While two other programs that were developed through the stimulus—the School Improvement Grant program and Race to the Top—have gone by the wayside, i3 has endured, and a version of the program has been enshrined in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

What have been the program's biggest challenges?

In the first year, the Federal Education department required grantees to get a 20 percent private sector match for their federal grants, but many winners were scrambling right up until the deadline to secure those funds.

And scoring anomalies in the program have been questioned; different peer reviewers can have very different rating systems, particularly if they are examining proposals from different topic areas.

What's more, prospective applicants didn't always have a firm grasp of the evidence levels needed to apply. The department did a lot of outreach—including a series of webinars—and ultimately did a preliminary review of grants.

What have been some of the criticisms of i3?

When the first round of grantees was rolled out, some in the education community questioned whether i3 had actually found "innovation," since some of the biggest recipients—including the Knowledge Is Power Program charter network and Teach For America—had been around for a decade or more.

But Chinoy Dabby and Shelton said the department wanted to help the most-effective programs have a bigger impact. Programs got "a lot of money for a lot of evidence, that was the whole point," Shelton said in an interview.

Some districts have complained that the application takes a lot of time and a skilled grant writer to complete. That's particularly tough on rural applicants, advocates have said. And it's unclear if the department's efforts to alleviate this problem helped matters. At least when i3 first launched, it gave a competitive edge to rural projects. But a 2011 report from the Rural Trust, an advocacy group, noted that many of the organizations that won weren't, in their view, authentically rural, even though they served rural districts.

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When i3 was first rolled out, the department accepted applications addressing a range of areas—from teacher quality to special education. But in subsequent years, the department sought to put its own emphasis on different iterations of the program, asking for applications that addressed college-readiness, for instance, or STEM education.

That made scoring easier, since peer reviewers were looking at applications along a similar theme, but it also spurred pushback from some quarters, said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for education research groups. "There was this feeling that the administration started getting too heavy-handed with the priorities," she said.

What could be i3's impact going forward?

Knowledge gained from i3 could have a new life, now that ESSA is the law of the land. The new law shies away from federally dictated models for improving schools that are struggling—either with a certain group of kids, such as students in special education—or the student population as a whole. But states, districts, and schools must employ "evidence-based" strategies to fix persistent problems. Shelton, for one, wants to see states and districts consider using their federal funds for strategies that have a proven track record thanks to i3.

A version of i3's tiered-evidence framework also became the formal definition of evidence for programs under ESSA as a whole, and certain types of programs, such as those intended to improve teacher effectiveness or turn around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

Vol. 35, Issue 25, Pages 12,16

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Clarification: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for Nadya Chinoy Dabby. She is the assistant deputy secretary for the office of innovation and improvement. In addition, an earlier version of this story left out identifying information for Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance.

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